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Ten Commonly Asked Questions on Employee Surveys

David Chaudron, PhD

Why should I survey my employees?

Often, there is either information coming from the grapevine that something is amiss in the organization, or that identified problems have reached a point where management must do something.

Other reasons include that listening to employees is part of the companies values, or that increasing size and complexity has caused a loss of the "family feel" the organization used to have. Part of the loss maybe due to the mergers and acquisitions the company has partaken in over the years.

You may have concerns about losing key people and want to determine the problems in your culture and climate that might cause them to leave. Finally, your organization has not done one before, and you wish to find out whats on employees minds.

What is the best schedule for a survey?

The easiest way to schedule a survey is to work backwards. For example, if budgets are due in November, goal definitions in October, and strategic plans in September, you might schedule survey recommendations to come in August, and start planning the survey effort in May.

What kind of questions should we ask?

Questions fall into five broad categories: questions about the organization, such as pay, vision, clarity of mission, perception of senior management, cross-functional teamwork and the like; questions about a team, such as cooperation, meeting management, dealing with conflict; management style, such as communication abilities, encouraging teamwork, and listening skills; job-related, such as authority, job clarity and equipment needs; and finally, specific evaluative questions, such as benefits, use of databases, and health plans. The above is just a small list of the kinds of questions that can be asked. Working closely with your consultant is the best way to narrow down and define what questions are best for you.

What methods should we use to ask our questions?

There are five methods: scaled questions, open-ended questions, focus groups, observation and reviewing archival records. These do not have to be used all at once, but sequentially. It's usually best to start with scaled and open-ended questions, and then use focus groups and observations to clarify the issues identified with the scaled items.

What about asking pay questions?

This is the most commonly asked question of us. First of all, the purpose of a survey should be to identify what issues exist and to address them: It doesn't mean that everyone will demand a pay raise, nor should management automatically give one when that is a concern.

It has been our experience that pay is rarely an issue: Usually there are higher-priority concerns on people's minds. Another point to keep in mind is that if pay is an issue, it needs to be addressed.

What kind of 'scale' should we use? (Do not use agree-disagree!)

There is no 'one size fits all' answer to this, but for certain, do not use 'agree-disagree' scales. Agree-disagree scales (those with strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree values for example) suffer from several logical and interpretational problems. In addition, employees with lower socio-economic status tend to be confused more easily by this kind of scale.

Which scale is best for your circumstances depends on the answers to the questions asked above.

How do I deal with anonymity and confidentiality issues?

One of the great concerns of employees is that the bad news they tell you comes from them. The fear of retribution is a strong one and need to be allayed as much as possible. A strong statement by management concerning keeping anonymity helps. Having a neutral party collecting the data helps as well. Should open-ended questions be asked, this neutral party can summarize this kind of data, not allowing management to see the word-by-word textual comments.

How should we "break out" the data?

This question is closely related to the last one. If you ask too many detailed questions, it may create the reality or perception of easily identified who answered what. There is a fine balance between wanting to determine where the problems are and identify who might state them.

What should we do with the issues and concerns that employees raise?

What concerns employees have should be summarized and communicated back to employees. This communication should be done as quickly as possible, within a few weeks of data collection and analysis. In addition, management'€™s response should be communicated at the same time. This doesn't mean that management should say yes to whatever problems arise. It does, however, mean that management should think long and hard about their response. Some actions could be done right away, others may require additional data gathering, some may require long implementation, and some might not be acted on at all.

What can I expect to get from a consultant?

First of all, expect the obvious: quick response, accurate information, surveys and actions tailored to your needs. Second, expect them to work closely with you to determine the best content for your particular problem and concern. Third, you should expect them to help you decide the scope of your needs, including only being a neutral data gatherer of your existing survey, working with you to customize content, globalizing your content to reflect multiple cultures and languages, facilitating management offsites to digest the data, gathering additional information in focus groups, or advising management in their implementation plan.