The Art of Employee Surveys

The Art of Employee Surveys

By Bill Fonvielle

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus is often credited with saying “no one can step twice into the same river.” In other words, change is the one constant we can be sure of. It is not the same river and they are not the same person. Both, for better or worse, have changed. His words ring true for most things in life, in love and in business. Everything, in fact, except Employee Surveys.

After many years pursuing knowledge through strenuous research grounded in reality, we began to wonder why such impressive progress in areas such as market research, information technology, data mining & management, and behaviour modelling has had little to no impact on the way employees are surveyed. Sure, there have been a few cosmetic changes. Nobody, for instance, scores surveys by hand anymore, and they’re often fielded and indeed posted online. But despite that, much of the bulk remains essentially unchanged from what it was two decades ago.

Imagine for a second that any other commonplace process in business had been so stagnant. Now consider the significant investment of time and money required to administer such a review, and you wouldn’t be misguided to wonder just what return you should expect of such an outdated practice. Alarmingly, many executives aren’t even taught how to use the subsequent data to facilitate better Employee Engagement, nor are they told what specific behaviour has influenced their score. Isn’t the entire point to discover underlying issues that affect organisational culture?

The Problem with Employee Surveys

A typical Employee Survey is a series of generic statements to which respondents indicate some degree of agreement or disagreement, usually with an overriding theme like employee loyalty, organisational culture and climate. The results are presented as a percentage of those who agree or disagree, often compared to a normative database of employees in other companies.

So, what’s wrong with this scenario? By far the most common complaint we hear from managers is that the data uncovered by such surveys is just not very useful in practice. The numbers are difficult to interpret, some questions seem irrelevant while more pressing concerns are omitted completely, and the comparisons with other organisations or a theoretical model are worthless. Rarely, if ever, do the findings ever result in any meaningful structural improvement. Worse still, response rates decrease dramatically in the following years as employees grow increasingly jaded.

It got us thinking: surely there must be a better way to improve Employee Engagement. Using the same tools we created for use in the Customer Research space, we set out to develop a reliable and accurate method of employee-centric surveying, one which crucially avoided the most common pitfalls plaguing the standard Employee Survey options out there. Our objectives were simple; the provision of useful information by focusing solely on the things that matter to employees at all levels, and to establish a meaningful and relevant reference point with which to evaluate results.

How to Measure Employee Engagement

The questions found in standard Employee Surveys are frequently selected by senior management from a generic list that represents some theory of an ideal organization as defined by the surveying firm. This creates an unwelcome disparity in that senior figures are often out of touch with the reality of their employees’ expectations, and the survey company itself possesses only a limited understanding of the intricacies within your industry. This goes some way to explaining why the results of such surveys seldom provide any useful insight into a company’s shortcomings. They are simply, and rather predictably, failing to address the real concerns of your staff.

Conversely, an employee-centric approach seeks to discover the most important issues directly from the affected employees themselves before any survey is even designed. This ensures that the content is always optimised and specific to the company in question. Moreover, the simple act of including employees in the development of such a survey instills a sense of participation, lends credibility to the process and, consequently, tends to benefit from a far higher response rate.

Some research firms ask employees to nominate issues for inclusion. This is generally achieved by some combination of focus groups and sit-down interviews. The focus groups employ the Nominal Group Technique (NGT), which is designed to encourage subjects to generate their own list in response to being posed a single question. Rather than asking employees about issues or problem areas, they merely ask their expectations of an ideal employer within the confines of the industry. As such, replies are not restricted by the specifics of the question.

Surveys should be based on the theme of employee commitment, which is a far better measure than employee loyalty or employee satisfaction. As a general rule, the four faces of commitment are:

  1. Financial commitment: Are employees committed to reducing waste and generating results?
  2. Customer commitment: Are employees focused on providing superior service?
  3. Company commitment: Are employees committed to the long-term?
  4. Career commitment: Are employees committed to learning, growing and developing?

Advanced statistical techniques such as multiple regression can then be incorporated to see precisely to what degree the performance of the company and its managers drives each individual aspect of employee commitment. As you can see, it’s a far more exhaustive measure of Employee Engagement than a vague notion of ‘loyalty’ or ‘satisfaction,’ whatever those mean in real terms.

What is a Relevant Benchmark?

Without a frame of reference, it’s impossible to detect how good or bad a particular result is. Let’s say 65% of respondents to a given survey provide a favourable response to the question posed. Is that good, bad or indifferent? The basis for making a judgment is in comparison with an external standard, hence the popularity of normative databases; reinforced by the fact that many researchers conveniently promote them. The reason for this is because they are relatively easy to create and maintain, and proprietary databases can offer a point of competitive differentiation. Managers request them owing to their competitive nature and like to gauge their performance with competitors.

Unfortunately, normative databases are problematic at best. Because they are not ‘apples to apples,’ these comparisons are too often irrelevant, with companies under varying circumstances and operating in a very different market than 10 or even 20 years ago. The fact that a score may be above or below an arbitrary ‘norm’ means very little given the database is not representative of a given industry in its current climate.

This invariably leads to poor decision making, as managers seek to ‘chase the numbers;’ a problem further exasperated by the fact that said numbers are open to interpretation. If a score is just slightly below the norm, does that mean a business is functioning relatively well and requires no action, or does it mean urgent improvement is necessary? Either conclusion could be easily justified, but neither is concrete. Furthermore, does such interpretation result in a business unwittingly aiming for mediocrity or striving for excellence? Does any of that even matter if the proposed targets are not aligned with your employees?

For normative databases to even threaten usefulness, they require standardised questionnaires. Any deviation from those standards render the comparisons even less valid. If such flexibility is compromised, it is unlikely to be a direct response to the company’s circumstances and cannot pinpoint critical target areas specifically anyway. To avoid these problems, it is recommended that you avoid the use of an external standard altogether. In fact, we exclusively utilise an internal standard generated early in the survey development process by asking the same three-point question of each employee expectation:

  • What would be the performance expected of an ideal employer?
  • What is the minimum level of performance acceptable to the employee?
  • How well does the company perform?

There is a small price to be paid with this kind of survey. Since every expectation is scored three times, the questionnaire is much longer than its counterparts would otherwise be. However, the usability of such information in practice is well worth the compromise. The ability to measure the gap between expected performance and perceived performance allows the setting of precise, measurable goals. The ideal and minimum acceptable scores function as an upper and lower limit, providing that all-important benchmark specific to the company in question.

Performance scores that fall somewhere between the limits are what we call the Zone of Tolerance (ZoT). Such scores indicate performance acceptable to the employees and do not require improvement. Scores that fall below the ZoT are cause for immediate concern, while scores above the ZoT suggest that employee expectations are being exceeded. Moving the frame of reference from an uncertain comparison with other companies to a reliable comparison with employee expectations facilitates realistic goal-setting that actually addresses relevant priorities and targets. It answers the question of whether a given score is good or not in a way that is far easier for management to understand.

No matter which approach you opt for, the gold standard for any employee survey is whether tangible, positive change follows. If you wish to discover how Promising Outcomes can help you achieve this, contact us below for more information.

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