When Surveying, Treat Employees Like Customers

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR March 12, 2012

Organizations should apply the same level of attention and accountability to employee surveys as they put toward customer surveys, suggested Dick Finnegan, CEO of C-Suite Analytics and author of The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement & Retention (Society for Human Resource Management, 2012).

Yet instead of driving the survey process from the top and holding individual supervisors accountable for retention results—like they do for other business results—CEOs are more likely to say “HR: go fix it” when engagement survey results are lower than desired.

And that’s why the employee survey process is a “broken model,” said Finnegan during a Society for Human Resource Management webcast held Feb. 23, 2012. Instead of driving retention efforts through top-down, executive-driven processes—as is common for sales, service, quality and safety efforts—employee retention is often driven “from the side” with programs like surveys, employee appreciation weeks and newsletters.

But he said organizations will be able to increase employee engagement and retention—ostensibly the goal of such surveys—by only a small amount if they focus solely on HR programs.

The missing link, Finnegan said, is supervisors. “You just won’t get up the hill if supervisors don’t supervise effectively,” he said.

Finnegan referenced a New York Times article, published March 12, 2011, which summarized Google’s research into the supervisory qualities its employees value most. “What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings; who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers; and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers,” the article said.

That’s not to say that employee engagement efforts driven by HR are unimportant, however. Finnegan summarized the ideal balance this way:

  • Good programs + good supervisors = engagement and retention.
  • Good programs + poor supervisors = disengagement and turnover.

“You have to have both to win,” he said. “If you have to have just one, however, you are better off having good supervisors.”

Webinar participants were asked how frequently they conduct employee attitude or engagement surveys. Of the approximately 400 people who responded to the poll question, just 7 percent said they survey employees more than once a year. In such an environment, managers will have to wait an entire year to find out if their efforts impact engagement.

More troubling is the response to a second poll question, which revealed that “nothing really happens,” according to 64 percent of respondents, if a particular manager has consistently low employee survey results.

Twenty-seven percent of respondents said a note might be made on a supervisor’s performance appraisal. Less than one in 10 said the manager would be held accountable for their results.

“This is lip service,” Finnegan said, particularly because there’s an obvious link between poor supervision and low employee engagement.

Finnegan suggested that organizations:

  • Keep surveys short, conduct them frequently and look at data as benchmarks, not solutions. “Sometimes we get so granular with questions that we think we can identify solutions,” he said. “But we can’t because we are guessing.” He recommended limiting surveys to about 10 questions, each covering one topic.
  • Find real solutions by conducting “stay interviews.” Because most employee surveys are anonymous, employers have no way to differentiate the feedback provided by high and low performers. That’s why he suggested that supervisors conduct stay interviews with individual employees—or at least with high performers—to ask what actions the employer can take to strengthen the employee’s engagement and to increase the likelihood they’ll stay with the company.
  • Ask employees to identify, on a scale of 1 to 10, how likely they are to refer their friends to the company as a great place to work. But the key to asking that question, Finnegan said, is the ability to compute a “net promoter” score by subtracting the number of negative responses from the number of positive ones.
  • Have a designated HR professional act as quality manager for survey action plans. The HR person should be prepared to work with low-scoring managers to improve their results.
  • Hold supervisors accountable for achieving expected survey results. Finnegan suggested that organizations survey employees two to four times per year and that more-frequent surveys be the norm for low-scoring supervisors.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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