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Employee Surveys - Good Tool or Corporate Noise? Depends on the Questions and Follow Up...

In my HR career, I've been in organizations that did an employee survey every year, and in organizations that never used the traditional employee survey.  Along the way, I've heard compelling arguments on both sides of the divide.  I've also been in great companies/units that never surveyed employees.

The pro-survey crowd is usually focused on the assumption "we need to ask employees what they thinkEmployee_survey_2 and how they feel".  Hard to argue with that on the surface.  The logic is strong and as American as apple pie, baseball and Toyota Chevrolet.

It's the factions of the pro-survey crowd that do a survey because "it is the right thing to do" that hurt the cause.  Too often the item writing for the survey is lacking, with the focus on breakrooms, parking and perks employees would find valuable if the company could afford them.  Additionally, the employee survey as an "event of the month" without rigorous follow-up and action plans on the manager level, provides an easy target for those who don't see the value.  After all, you have to have the stomach for the journey and be willful and transparent in your follow-up, if you are going to ask employees what they think via a survey.

Jack Welch (formerly of GE and now riffing at BusinessWeek) recently listed four issues he thinks must be included if you decide to do an employee survey.  Among the areas Jack deems critical are the following:

1.  Do employees truly buy into the company mission?

2.  Do managers at the company "walk the walk" related to organizational values?

3.  Do employees feel the company is performing in areas like technology, innovation and other areas that drive customer acquisition, satisfaction and retention?

4.  Does the company create a culture where top performers are rewarded and valued?

That's a pretty good list, even if it doesn't include whether animal crackers are offered in the snack machines.  To hear more, download the podcast to your iPod here.

I'll end this post with this.  Regardless if you are a Fortune 500 or a 20-person startup, surveys can be a good tool,  But don't do a survey until you are positive you are ready to take the time to probe as an organization.  There are things worse than not asking - including letting the data sit on the shelf after you've asked your talent what they think....

Comments

Alan

There are two sides to every coin and you have focused on the Employer side. But there is an Employee side as well.

First, most employees that I've ever sent a survey to do not return the survey. Why? Because they figure it is a waste of time. Those who do return the surveys are usually the ones who give their two cents worth on everything. How to avoid low participation? Incentivize.

Second, most employees don't really know what they want. They mainly think about their workload, their pay and issues outside of work. It's sort of like the political process. There is just too much apathy when it comes to seeking honest feedback about work-related activities from most of your average employees. What to do? Seek out those special employees in your organization that actually care and have the capacity to provide useful feedback on the pulse of the employee population.

Lastly, sending out a survey without a good game plan is a waste of time. Asking employees their overall opinion about your health care program will get you nowhere. You have to have a strategic goal in mind to get a targeted response and then you have to follow up with an action plan that will be both noticed and acknowledged by the employee population.

Surveys are tricky. While some organizations will need to utilize surveys to get a pulse on employee issues, other organizations will be able to draw out useful feedback without using surveys as a tool. The overall strength of your Management Team will most likely dictate whether you need to go out to the employees directly or not.

Kris

Alan -

Good comments. While you led with the fact that I was focused on the employer side, your points were very similar to mine - Don't waste the time if you aren't going to go after full-on - you'll just frustrate people.

Agree with the need to use incentives to get partcipation up. Also agree with qualitative research (asking special employees how they feel on the issues you want to focus a survey on), but in the end qualitative isn't enough. Most orgs want/need the quantitative as well.

Sometimes, especially in smaller units, a good alternative to the full survey is to do town hall meetings, which really have a "steam release" function and are obviously qualitative in nature as well.

Thanks for the comments, keep them coming...

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