To Ask or Not to Ask

Tough times may be good times

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Feb 1, 2009
February 2009 Cover

Your company has been seeing declining sales for several quarters; you’ve already made salary cuts and are considering additional cuts and possibly layoffs. You wonder what employees might be thinking right now, but are a little afraid to ask. Is this the right time to conduct a survey?

While some HR professionalssuggest that introducing an employee survey during difficult times is not a good idea, others disagree. Marc Effron, vice president of talent management for beauty products manufacturer Avon Products in New York, says Avon started its engagement survey about three years ago, immediately after a major turnaround effort. "It was probably one of the most difficult times in our company’s history," he says. Yet Effron suspects that the survey sent a positive message, serving as "a good demonstration that we care about employee opinions."

Think about "the positive impact that an employee survey can have," says Ilene Gochman, HR consultancyWatson Wyatt’s organization effectiveness practice leader. An adverse environment is "precisely the time you want to know what’s on the minds of employees, because those that are staying are the ones you want to engage."

Joseph Cabral, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Long Island, N.Y., says North Shore has been surveying its 38,000 employees annually for the past three years, but it recently went to a quarterly survey to provide more real-time and actionable results and to allow comparisons across worksites and departments.

"During these uncertain times, employees are a little more on edge, but if we’re effective in our communication and we’re clear and we’re honest and we’re doing all of the right things, it really helps the employees feel comfortable and it builds trust," he says.

History Helps

"If you have an ongoing survey process and the next interval comes at a down time, I absolutely would continue," advises Karen Horn, senior vice president of internal communication, corporate communication, at Seattle-based bank Washington Mutual Inc. But tough times may not be a good time to probe for employees’ thoughts and feelings for the first time, she contends: For organizations that have not done surveys in the past, such surveys can be challenging and even misleading. "If you don’t have a temperature to compare to, you don’t know what normal is." And, Horn adds, in organizations that have poor track records of following up and being responsive to employee feedback, conducting surveys during tough times would be ill-advised. "I absolutely wouldn’t do it."

At Rich Products Corp., a global frozen food manufacturer with headquarters in Buffalo, N.Y., director of talent management Karen Pfeifer, SPHR, says conducting employee engagement surveys "is part of our DNA." Rich Products does a biennial engagement survey and "pulse-point surveys" in between. The process began in 2005 and has become entrenched. It is built into leaders’ performance assessments and used as a metric of organizational effectiveness.

"We never question whether to do it at a certain point," says Pfeifer. "Good times or bad times, it’s going to continue—and our associates know that."

Consistent surveys and meaningful use of the information count, says Allan McKission, vice president of HR for Manpower Inc., the Milwaukee-based staffing and recruiting company. "You can’t do this as a knee-jerk reaction, thinking ‘times are tough and people are worried,’ " he says. "It has to be part of your overall human resource strategy."

Over time, trends emerge. For example, "You’d be able to see [what] the impact of the economy might be on your regular scores," advises Angela Sinickas, owner of Sinickas Communications Inc., a corporate communications consultant in Laguna Woods, Calif.

She notes that results may be unexpected: "People in a downturn might actually be more committed to staying in their current jobs." On the other hand, she says, confidence in leadership might go down. Either way, the data are valuable.

"We use these tools to help us stay connected—a survey is not an event, it’s part of a process," stresses Pfeifer. And these efforts make a difference: "We’ve done correlation studies, and where we had high engagement we had better business results; where we had low engagement we didn’t have results that were as good," she says.

No Time Like the Present

Even for organizations with no histories of regular surveys, Avon’s Effron remains convinced that initiating surveys during a low point can be an advantage in that they establish a base line for improvement. How surveys are introduced to employees becomes critical. "When we introduced our survey, we really reinforced that we wanted to listen to our associates and there was probably no more important time to listen than when we were going through a difficult turnaround."

Introduction of a survey needs to be a thoughtful and strategic process, says McKission. "I equate developing HR processes to developing new products," he says. "There’s a new product development theory about the ‘fuzzy front end’—you get some input and ideas, you have a concept, you have a design, then you develop it and then you deliver it. So I think about HR as the fuzzy front end—spend a lot of time thinking about what you want to do and why."

Senior leaders must stand behind the surveys. "It needs to be aligned to the business so you can improve engagement and employee retention," McKission adds.

Senior managers, of course, may not always be on board and may have legitimate concerns about introducing a survey during difficult times.

"If the leadership team says, ‘We don’t want to do it now,’ make a note of it and go back in three months and say, ‘We’d like to recommend doing a survey now that the situation has changed,’ " suggests McKission.

McKission acknowledges that HR professionals often have sales jobs to do with line managers and operations. He says HR professionals need to be good relationship people and explain the benefits.

Effron says HR professionals at Avon dealt directly and logically with the minimal pushback from managers. "For leaders who said, ‘Why now?’ our response was, ‘We’re going to be introducing regular measures, and we’re going to hold leaders accountable for improving these measures. Would you like us to measure when people are feeling good about the company or when they’re not feeling good about the company?’ It was amazing how quickly that convinced them that this was a good thing," says Effron.

Make Surveys Meaningful

Without exception, HR professionals and communication experts note a big problem with employee surveys when results are either not shared or not shared effectively.

So why aren’t they? In many cases, it is simply an oversight. The results come in, other priorities intervene, and follow-up is overlooked. In some cases, though, leaders may be reluctant to share results they are unable to address.

"It’s critical that, from the very early stages of survey design, the only questions that are asked are those that you’re prepared to act on," says Jim Martin, chairman and chief executive officer of Inquisite, a provider of survey software and services. To do otherwise almost guarantees animosity among employees and dramatically lowers the response rate of future surveys, he says.

"If you’re not going to do anything with the results, don’t bother asking the question," agrees Cabral. "People will just be more disgruntled." For instance, at North Shore, parking—or lack thereof—is a sensitive issue. The hospital has no immediate plans to build a parking garage. "So, we’re not going to ask about parking," Cabral says.

Building accountability into the process, as Rich Products has done, can help legitimize the surveys and ensure that the results are taken seriously—and followed up on.

At Avon, 30,000 associates around the world are surveyed annually and all vice presidents and general managers have goals tied to their performance management plans for increasing scores, says Effron. "There’s real teeth in our program, and we’ve seen very nice increases year over year," he says.

Feedback and accountability are critical, explains Martin. Organizations that successfully engage employees, he says, develop a process and a rhythm for gathering, analyzing and taking action on the information they receive.

Dave Koesters, SPHR, HR manager at vehicle parts manufacturer Mancor Indiana in Yorktown, Ind., and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Employee Relations Special Expertise Panel, says, "It’s all about involving people and getting their support and input and making them part of the solution."

Focus on Improvement

Effron recommends that officials focus more on measuring levels of improvement than raw scores. "We don’t hold leaders accountable for being at a particular score; we hold them accountable for increasing whatever their score is," he says.

Tim Wright of Wright Results Inc., an employee engagement and management consultant in Austin, Texas, agrees, explaining, "A successful organization uses survey results to generate continuing increases in employee engagement, no matter how high the scores."

The author is a business journalist with HR consulting experience and director of corporate communications at Luther Midelfort-Mayo Health System in Eau Claire, Wis. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).

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