Employee Surveys When Morale Is Low: Bad Idea?

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Nov 10, 2008
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HR professionals might be hesitant to measure employee attitudes during business slumps, reorganizations, downsizings or outsourcing efforts because they assume that employees will simply say how disgruntled they are. But e​xperts say such times might provide an ideal opportunity to check in.

The act of asking for input can send a positive message. And it can be dangerous to surmise the issues or attitudes that are prevalent in the workplace. Better to find out and focus energies where they can most make a positive impact, experts say.

“In my experience, management’s guesses as to what employees will say are often wrong,” says Chris Stiehl, president of StiehlWorks, a consulting firm in San Diego. “Employees typically do not want more pay, more vacations and more days off, which is what management suspects,” she says. “Employees typically want more support and better tools to perform well at work. They want to be trusted. They want management that not only says employees are important, but that act like it.”

Bad times are the perfect occasion to get feedback from employees, says Scott Gingold, CEO of Powerfeedback, a market research firm in Easton, Pa. Of course, not everybody is on board with the idea of surveying employees at any time. “There is still an attitude out there, still some people who feel their employees should consider themselves lucky to just have a job,” he says. And when companies are faced with budget cuts, he says, one of the first things to go are expenses like market research, which is often considered a luxury.

Reasons Not To Survey

Barb Poole is CEO of Employaid, an online career resources community for employees. With more than 25 years of HR experience with major corporations, Poole says she is at “ground zero” in terms of what is going on with Wall Street firms and the collapse of the banking industry.

In the midst of major corporate changes she says, “there is a tendency for people to be fearful—they don’t know what is going to happen to them next, and they’re very reticent about talking to anybody about their jobs for fear they’re going to lose them.

“Companies engaged in these enormous layoffs are pushing people out the door, literally, with boxes in their hands,” she continues. Conducting a survey at a time like this can be very difficult, she says, and might not be well advised. There must be an atmosphere of trust. If not, the survey might do more harm than good. Moreover, the results are unlikely to reflect the true environment, she says.

Consultants Jamie and Maren Showkeir, authors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008), agree.

Although employee surveys can be useful tools, they say, underlying assumptions about their use create a serious and counterproductive disconnect between those who answer surveys and those who assess and use the data. Instead of surveys, they recommend engaging employees directly in conversations that allow everyone to participate actively in resolving real business issues.

If You Must Know

Still, sometimes surveys do make sense. As Gingold says: “Intuition alone is not enough to bet the ranch on. Surveys take the guesswork out of smart business decisions.”

Surveys can provide important insights when an organization has already established a climate of open communication and trust with employees, says Marshall Paepke, SPHR, senior vice president/chief human resources officer for Mountain America Credit Union in Salt Lake City. “We’re a believer of surveying employees in good times and bad,” says Paepke. “If you’re not consistent as an employer and you only want to hear the good news, then you’re setting an expectation for employees of ‘let us know what’s going well, but we really don’t want to hear what’s not going well’,” he says.

Mountain America has conducted surveys in various forms for 17 years and uses the results to provide benchmarks and measures of their successesand failures. Information about both is shared with managers and employees, says Paepke.

Consistency and follow-through are important, though sometimes lacking. “When the results come back, if management does not act on sharing the results or creating programs that will deliver change if it’s so warranted, what we’ll find is that things will be far worse than before the survey was administered,” says Poole. “People view the lack of action almost as a backlash in terms of how they regard management. I’ve seen this happen time and time again,” she says.

Paepke agrees. “We have to provide open and honest feedback about the things we can and cannot change,” says Paepke. Mountain America provides feedback through a number of channels—a newsletter, the intranet, town hall meetings, through the management team and in one-on-one meetings with senior leaders. “It’s like marketing; they need to hear it more than once,” says Paepke.

Poole says she favors the use of surveys to find out what employee needs are so they can respond to those needs—and during a time and within an environment of trust. But surveys aren’t enough, she says.

“Surveys are just one component of a series of steps that companies must take. Coupled with the survey there needs to be employee assistance programs, town hall-style meetings and other things that will allow employees to see a full range of support on the part of management,” says Poole.

“I just really, really believe that for business to succeed you have to engage your employees,” says Paepke. “You have to engage their hearts, you have to engage their heads and you have to engage their hands. If you can do all three of those things then ultimately, in my belief, you will be an employer of choice,” he says.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).

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