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Want to Understand Loyalty? Look First at How You Survey

by Joshua Joseph, Ph.D. and David Group, Ph.D., BNA Research and Performance Metrics

March 03, 2008

Loyalty in the workplace may sound old-fashioned, but look around. Many organizations regularly conduct employee satisfaction surveys, solicit preferences on benefits and career development, and gather other work-related details. These efforts are often part of larger strategic initiatives to retain top performers, boost morale, and identify problems early on. It might seem obvious that success begins with employees’ willingness to share their views and preferences. But organizations often take this willingness for granted and end up missing opportunities to get more from their surveys.

Ask HR managers charged with overseeing employee surveys what they find “most challenging” and you’re likely to hear about technical details such as developing questions, hosting the survey, doing the analysis, and making sense of the results. While technical execution is important, ensuring constructive survey outcomes requires balancing these essential details with key big-picture issues. This article focuses on two such issues—encouraging employee participation in surveys and managing employee expectations about the results.

Why Participation Matters and How to Encourage It

Employee participation in internal company surveys can be a powerful measure of engagement. That’s because simply filling out a survey requires a measure of trust and belief in an employer. Employees who don’t care or don’t trust won’t bother with surveys. You may not always like what they tell you but, all else being equal, higher participation rates suggest higher employee engagement in organizations.

While there is no minimum floor for employee participation, as rates fall, survey results become less reliable. When response rates for internal surveys dip below 40 percent (less than 2 out of 5 eligible employees take part), it becomes increasingly difficult to judge how well respondents’ answers represent the attitudes of all employees. For all these reasons, it’s useful to keep tabs on your own participation trends.

What factors encourage participation? Employees are more likely to participate in workplace surveys when three key conditions are met: (1) they view the survey questions as personally relevant and meaningful; (2) they trust that they will not get in trouble for giving their honest views; and (3) they believe that management will consider their input and act on it, if appropriate.

To help insure relevance, many experts recommend that employers involve workers in the survey development process. For example, management may decide to include select employees on a survey advisory committee. Alternately, management may use other feedback mechanisms, such as making a draft of the survey questionnaire available and soliciting comments prior to finalizing the instrument. Such steps can be taken whether or not the survey is designed by in-house researchers or outside consultants. Either way, the point is not merely to give employees a voice but to also surface important issues and concerns that may not be evident to management.

Guaranteeing that individual employee results will be kept confidential is also essential when surveys collect sensitive information of any kind. Ironically, while electronic data collection methods have made it much easier and cost effective to conduct large-scale employee surveys, these same methods may increase employees’ confidentiality concerns and lower participation. In particular, organizations that monitor employees’ email and Internet use may face greater challenges in trying to convince employees that their surveys responses will actually be kept confidential.

To further insure confidentiality and increase credibility, some organizations hire outside experts to design and administer their surveys as well as tabulate the results. Such surveys are typically hosted on secure sites outside of the organization’s firewall. Though fees for these outside services may add to survey costs, such actions can increase employees’ willingness to participate and raise their confidence that the results will be analyzed professionally and reported objectively.

Additionally, some organizations find that offering two survey options—for example the choice of taking a survey on paper or electronically—further increases participation. In other cases, organizations have particular populations that may actually be better suited to paper-based surveys. For example, paper surveys tend to work better in factory settings where many employees may not be familiar or comfortable using computers.

There are several other issues that influence employee participation. Support from the CEO or executive staff—often evidenced by a letter of introduction to the survey—can lend credibility to a survey initiative. Survey clarity and length are also important. Organizations should be especially cautious about “stuffing” too many questions into a survey. Those whose surveys take longer than 15 or 20 minutes to complete may see both a drop-off in the number of employees willing to participate and a reduction in the quality of answers to questions at the end of a survey. Allowing employees to complete the survey at work “on the clock” can also make a difference.

Reporting the Survey Results

Surveys are like many work projects in that, when employees take time to participate and share their input, they like to know the results. To avoid later confusion or disappointment, management should set clear expectations for when and how the results will be reported back to employees.

Management doesn’t need to disseminate the full report. Employees are typically interested in learning about the highlights and key survey findings. Management can choose to share these in a variety of ways including electronically, in written form, or through a discussion forum. While the management team need not share all the survey details, omitting negative results can sometimes be more damaging than including them. A key consideration is whether the findings that management releases to employees accurately summarize the views expressed in the survey.

Beyond sharing the highlight of the survey with employees, management should be prepared to address and take action on important issues raised by the survey results. Management’s responsiveness reinforces the relevance of survey participation and the perception that executives care about issues that matter to employees.

On the other hand, organizations should avoid surveying employees on issues they are not prepared to address. “Stirring the pot” creates expectations. Surveys are sometimes viewed as passive instruments for gathering information when, in fact, they can often evoke strong emotions and responses simply by having employees reflect on particular issues. If employees perceive that management is unresponsive following a survey, the fallout may hurt morale and will almost surely limit management’s ability to accurately tap employee attitudes through future surveys.

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