Employee Surveys Ask the Right Questions, Probe the Answers For Insight

By Samuel Greengard

Dec. 3, 2004

A company can ask any number of sources to rate how well it’s doing. Customers, shareholders, the business media and Wall Street all have opinions that they’re only too happy to share.

    But whether companies really want an honest opinion from their employees is another question. Eaton Corp., a Cleveland-based industrial manufacturing firm with 55,000 employees worldwide and $8.1 billion in 2003 sales, wants the straight story–and not just about such quick-fix issues as parking or the quality of vending-machine fare.

    Three years ago, the firm developed a global employee survey in 21 languages that gathers information in several areas, including business ethics, values, employee engagement, employee relations, manager effectiveness and strategic vision. The company uses software from Kenexa to facilitate the process.

    “The responses from our employees really do drive action, and they are as much a component of our business as strategic, financial or succession planning,” says Susan Cook, vice president of human resources at Eaton. “It is critical to helping us examine and improve how we operate our businesses. The Eaton Employee Survey is no longer an HR program–it’s an operational tool.”

    Even when the news isn’t positive. Although Eaton has formal or informal recognition programs in place at 90 percent of its locations, some employees taking the firm’s 2003 survey did not agree with the statement, “I receive recognition when I do a good job.”

    As a result, the company is developing a new global recognition and reward program that it will introduce in 2005. The program will use Web-based technology to provide recognition training for supervisors and allow all employees to participate in the recognition process. Utilizing common standards, supervisors will be able, within predetermined authority levels, to provide employees with immediate tangible rewards for a job well done.

    In addition, all employees will be able to provide fellow workers with an immediate expression of thanks when they wish to acknowledge their performance.

    David Snyder, a senior vice president at Aon Consulting in Chicago, says that employee surveys have the power to transform an organization. However, if there’s a mismatch between attitudes and policies, productivity can sputter. “The challenge is to understand where you’re at and what needs to be done to effect change,” he says.

    It’s a quandary that organizations are increasingly attempting to confront. Employee surveys, which have been around in one form or another for the last half-century, have become de rigueur. Finding out what is going on in employees’ heads and fashioning corporate policy and actions appropriately is a core concern.

    “In recent years, there has been an uptick in interest in surveys across all industries,” Snyder says.

    Yet, more isn’t always better. While the Web has made it easier to conduct elaborate surveys, many organizations continue to struggle with the process. In some cases, companies ask the wrong questions or do not put the data to full use. In other instances, they overload workers with questions or misinterpret the meaning of results and take the wrong action–such as introducing a new benefit based solely on popularity rather than what’s best for the organization.

    “There are many points where an organization can fall down in the survey process,” says James Benton, an associate partner for Accenture’s human services performance practice. “It’s essential to put some structure around all the information.”

    A growing number of organizations are now questioning the survey process, and many are attempting to turn it into a science. When used effectively, employee surveys can help identify gaps between organizational goals and actual policies.

    They can help an organization achieve higher retention rates, lower absenteeism, improved productivity, better customer service and better morale. They also can help ensure that management is getting its message across and that workers are receptive.

A matter of values
    The first workplace surveys grew out of the “research era” of the 1940s. At the time, most organizations viewed surveys as little more than opinion polls to provide basic information such as whether employees viewed the employer favorably and found their job satisfying. “For the most part, the information wasn’t used in any effective or targeted way,” says Marc Berwald, president of ClearPicture Corp., a firm in Point Claire, Quebec, that develops and administers surveys for companies.

    Over the years, employee surveys have grown far more sophisticated. They’ve evolved beyond basic tools used to appease employees or predict general outcomes. By asking the right questions it is possible to gain insights into how employees might behave.

    For example, low employee satisfaction levels or mistrust of a company are often a harbinger of poor attendance, high turnover and job actions or strikes.

    “The idea is to connect employee satisfaction with organizational goals,” says Robert Gray, president of Insightlink Communications, a Los Angeles firm that uses market research techniques to conduct workplace surveys.

    Developing effective surveys is certainly on the radar screen at BCE Corporate Services, a holding company in Mississauga, Ontario, for Bell Canada. “The data can drive corporate decision-making and lead to significant changes,” says Siegie Kinitz, a senior consultant for the firm.

    The company has dialed into Web-based global employee surveys since 1998. Once a year, BCE sends out a survey to its 60,000 employees. It uses dimensional demographic analysis, which allows the firm to examine different segments of its workforce in different ways.

    For example, BCE might examine how women over the age of 30 with five or more years of service respond to the question on career mobility. This can produce different results than looking at women with entry-level positions.

The best surveys don’t just identify a problem or a successful initiative, they uncover the reason why employees feel the way they do.

    Devising the current system required “exhaustive focus groups” so that the company could understand key issues for both employee and management, Kinitz says. After several weeks of analysis, BCE formulated 84 questions spanning more than a dozen categories, including autonomy, job challenge, information sharing, confidence in the company’s direction and trust in the company’s leadership.

    Human resources and other departments provided input and helped frame the most important issues. Every year, about 5 percent of the questions change. “It’s important to maintain a core group of questions so that it is possible to have yardsticks and view trend data,” Kinitz says.

    In addition to using global surveys, BCE conducts pulse surveys on a quarterly basis. These measure attitudes about various programs and policies–such as early retirement or how effectively the company is communicating. When combined with external benchmarking data and employee comments, the surveys provide solid information about how to adapt programs and initiatives to fit the organization’s needs.

    For example, a couple of years ago, BCE migrated from company-driven benefits to flexible benefits as a result of strong employee demand.

    Moving to a Web-based surveying system has boosted response rates from 65 percent to 88 percent (the figure currently stands at 85 percent). “The end goal is to improve customer satisfaction and shareholder value,” Kinitz says. “We have seen improvements in scores over time, and that has translated directly into better bottom-line results.”

Questioning common perceptions
    All this starts with asking the right questions, according to Gray. As the old saying goes: garbage in, garbage out.

    “If the questions aren’t framed properly, if they are too vague or too specific, it’s impossible to amass any meaningful data,” he says. The best surveys don’t just identify a problem or a successful initiative, they uncover the reason why employees feel the way they do.

    “Employees might not be happy with their pay, but there could be reasons other than the actual pay level that have caused the problem,” he says. “Perhaps HR has not done a good job of communicating that the organization’s pay levels are competitive.”

    Of course, developing highly targeted questions is only part of the equation. Getting employees to take the surveys and putting the data to use also is a challenge. Although some companies rely on incentives and sweepstakes to spur participation, many organizations find that when a survey is framed the right way and the data is put to good use, the opportunity for employees to share their opinions and influence the future direction of the organization is reward enough.

    Some organizations post response rates among various departments. “It’s a way to stimulate a competitive spirit,” Berwald says.

    Eaton is one company that has scored with surveys. Michael Bush, corporate manager of human resources programs, says the firm achieved a 96.3 percent response rate for its 2003 employee survey–despite the fact that many of its employees did not have access to personal computers. Eaton set up rooms where employees could go on company time to take the survey.

    Examples of statements Eaton poses to employees include: “I rarely think about looking for a new job at another company”; “I would gladly refer a family or friend to Eaton for employment”; and “I feel proud to work for Eaton.”

    With responses to these declarations, the firm began to assemble a clear picture of its strengths and weaknesses. Then, company leaders sat down with employee involvement teams in order to focus on potential changes.

    As a result of the survey, Bush says that several programs have undergone change, including performance management, rewards and recognition, tuition assistance, training and communication.

    In order for a survey to succeed, employees must find the process convenient and feel as though their responses are private.

    “If you’re saying that a survey is important to the business, then you must be willing to make the investment and pay employees for the time it takes to complete the survey,” Accenture’s Benton says. Organizations that lack PCs on every desktop can use kiosks or, like Eaton, set up special rooms. Depending on the organization and the survey, the process can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.

    Many workers report that they feel more secure answering questions on a computer than on paper because it’s impossible for anyone to identify their handwriting. Since Web-based surveys took hold in the late ’90s, participation rates have climbed steadily. A decade ago, a 65 percent participation rate was considered excellent. Today, anything below 75 percent is viewed as mediocre. Berwald says that a few companies manage to hit 99 percent.

    As surveying techniques have become more sophisticated, so has analysis and reporting. In years past, companies too often conducted surveys and then dumped the data in the laps of human resources executives who weren’t prepared to put it to any real use. Today, best- practice organizations are turning to analysts like BCE’s Kinitz who can make sense of the material. They’re also deploying software that produces highly targeted reports.

    At BCE, for example, all middle managers receive a customized report tailored to the specific issues and concerns relevant for doing their job. The company generates more than 3,500 unique reports each year.

    Other organizations are posting results on enterprise portals and customizing results to fit the particular needs of senior executives, middle-level managers, line employees and all the various departments and work groups. That way, employees receive only targeted information that’s relevant to their job. An IT executive, for instance, might benefit from knowing employees’ attitudes about computers and technology, with information about different work groups’ age segments. Human resources, on the other hand, would likely benefit from information about payroll and benefits policies.

    Gray says that a few areas, such as exit surveys, remain largely untapped. Although almost every organization interviews departing workers or sends out a questionnaire, few put the information to any real use.

    Despite the fact that there’s little risk in letting the data sit idle, there are also missed opportunities. It’s far more difficult to adapt policies to deal with factors such as stress, tension and turnover–or understand what motivates a well-paid and respected employee to head for greener pastures.

    When companies get surveys right, they are able to link employee satisfaction and attitudinal data with internal benchmarks and metrics such as greater productivity and economic value. Ultimately, they are able to open the door to new opportunities, Snyder says. “It gives everyone the information and tools to work more effectively.”

Workforce Management, December 2004, pp. 76-78Subscribe Now!

Samuel Greengard is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with