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Employee Surveys: Prepare to Act

“Without action we have nothing,” according to Derrick Barton, chief talent leader and CEO for the Center for Talent Solutions, a Denver-based consulting firm. Speaking during a June 9, 2009, webinar, Barton stressed the importance of taking action on employee attitude survey results.

There are lots of good reasons to conduct an employee attitude survey, he said, such as to generate information that will increase organizational performance. But if there’s just a general interest in “seeing how things are going,” a company probably shouldn’t bother with a survey because it will just “drive people crazy,” he said.

Employees generally welcome the opportunity to answer meaningful questions—without fear of retribution—as long as they are sure that the results will be acted on. But they don’t want their time to be wasted, he said.

An Action-Oriented Instrument

The survey instrument should be designed with action in mind. Before the survey is launched, Barton says, each item should be evaluated using three criteria:

  • Action. For each item ask “if 80 percent of respondents gave a positive (or negative) response to this item, what would we do?” If the answer is “nothing,” he said, the item should be eliminated.
  • Impact. Then ask: “If we increase the favorable response to this item by 50 percent, what will happen?” Again, if the answer is “nothing” the item should be eliminated.
  • Performance. Finally, compare how many people responded a certain way to a certain question with how many people needto respond a certain way in order for the organization to perform at a high level.

Organizations should shift their attention from survey administration to survey intervention, according to Barton. That requires looking at the survey process before, during and after it is administered:

  • Before. Talk about what actions were taken as a result of the last survey and the impact those actions created.
  • During. Let employees know that they will see the data once it’s back and that they should begin to focus on how they will convert the data into information that will cause them to take action or make decisions.
  • After. Capture success stories, then “package it and brand it internally so you can talk about, show off and promote what has been done.”

“If you really want to make a big impact, you have to harness the organization to make a difference based on the survey results,” Barton said. This means that managers, teams and individuals need to commit to what they will do as a result of the results rather than relying on the organization—or the HR department—to fix everything that is wrong.

HR plays a significant role in the attitude survey process, Barton said, but it should push back if it is expected to present the data to individual operating groups. Instead, the manager or an experienced team member should present group results.

Leaders Lead

Barton says leaders should know what they want to get out of a survey—and what they plan to put into it—before the survey process begins. For example, leaders should set the direction the survey will take and demand and expect action based on the results, he said.

To get managers to lead the action phase of the survey process, Barton suggests that they ask themselves several questions about the data:

  • What are the surprises?
  • What information does not surprise you?
  • What are we doing well?
  • What do we as leaders need to change with speed?
  • What questions do we want the organization to talk further about?
  • What issues will be difficult to discuss with the organization?

“They need to get their ducks in a row so they are prepared to address the tough issues,” Barton added. Work teams can use the same questions to analyze their group’s results.

Leaders should not assume that employees will be equally concerned about the same things. That’s why Barton suggests that organizations find a way to identify the most critical needs for each respondent and compare their needs to others in the same work group.

For example, rather than targeting the lowest performing item as the area most in need of change, Barton says, organizations give work groups the opportunity to select what they think they need to work on. “They are more likely to act when they pick something they want to improve,” he said.

Beware of Benchmarks

When analyzing results, Barton said, leaders should resist “benchmark bologna,” which he said is the tendency to look at whether the organization either met or exceeded a benchmark (and thus doesn’t need to worry about that item) or to rationalize a result that is below a particular benchmark based on differences in organizations being compared or other factors. “We see way too many leaders justifying results,” Barton said. “Wrapping hard numbers around engagement levels can cause leaders to take action more than comparing to a benchmark.”

Meanwhile, organizations should resist the urge to rank or compare department results or to compare year-over-year performance trends if either action causes the employer to believe that no action is needed following the survey.

Barton believes in identifying real short- and long-term solutions for managers, teams and individual employees, rather than relying on the results of a simple brainstorming session to drive change.

This means that the ultimate outcome of post-survey discussions cannot be merely the creation of an action plan—a paperwork exercise. It should be evidence that action has been taken.

One participant asked Barton what they should do if leaders resist involvement in the before, during and after stages of the attitude survey process. He suggested calculating how much time it will cost employees to complete the survey, based on their rate of pay, and then asking leaders what return on investment they are seeking.

Inaction Is Common

Nearly half (46 percent) of companies that conducted employee attitude surveys made no change as a result of the feedback, according to the Opinion Research Corporation (ORC) 2008 annual employee research survey.

This is despite evidence suggesting an organization’s responsive action to employee survey feedback impacts employee perceptions in a positive way.

The survey of 1,437 U.S.-based respondents found that at those companies that acted on the results from employee surveys, 84 percent of employees felt that the changes affected them positively.

Three-quarters of ORC’s respondents were aware of changes affecting their work and the reasons behind them, and 62 percent had the opportunity to contribute their views before changes to their job were made. But almost a quarter (23 percent) felt that change was not communicated well.

A similar study of the United Kingdom market revealed stark contrasts in change management on each side of the Atlantic. Only 32 percent of respondents in the U.K. felt that change was managed effectively in their organization, compared with 63 percent in the United States. What’s more, only 43 percent had the opportunity to contribute their views before changes were made to their job, vs. 62 percent in the United States.

“Ineffective management of change within an organization can lead to increased uncertainty in the workforce,” said Terry Reilly, director of the employee engagement practice at ORC US, in a statement. “Offering employees the opportunity to voice their opinions before change is implemented can significantly improve employee engagement, and, in turn, the success of the organization.”

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


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