What do employees really think?

by 10 Nov 2007

Gathering meaningful feedback from the whole workforce can be a challenge in small and large organisations alike but usually for differing reasons. Surveys have now evolved into being far more than the staff happiness indicators that they were in the past. Teresa Russell reports

Employee opinion surveys often take the form of an annual or biannual online survey about everything affecting a workforce’s satisfaction from their physical environment through to their psychological wellbeing.

Although this type of survey is still most commonly used, some providers have responded to client demands to develop surveys on more focused topics. These include entry/exit surveys, organisational alignment surveys and company-wide surveys on the performance of a leadership team or a company’s board.

Cheryl Woollard, general manager global human resources for Air International Thermal Systems, introduced a corporate alignment survey into her organisation two years ago, just after she began in her role, repeated it in 2006 and is about to embark on another in the next month.

“The corporate alignment survey asks how well our company strategies are being implemented on a day-to-day, medium-term and long-term basis and reflects how well the whole organisation has bought into the company objectives,” says Woollard.

Air International Thermal Systems is a private company operating in the automotive components industry, designing and manufacturing heating, venting and air-conditioning systems for cars. The company was formed just two years ago when Futuris sold one of its divisions to CCMP. It now employs more than 800 people across 14 locations in China, Australia and North America.

“One of the reasons we introduced the survey was to help establish the culture and behaviours we wanted to see in the organisation. We have some long-term statements about our preferred culture that we believe drives our business. Our company objectives must be well communicated across the organisation and implemented by individual employees. The survey measures clarity, consistency and commitment and gives a line of sight [from individual employees] to the corporate team,” says Woollard.

Ports Corporation of Queensland employs fewer than 50 people and has different motivations and methods for surveying its employees. However, like Air International Thermal Systems, the survey it uses focuses on behaviours that effect business results.

“We did two or three cultural surveys more than six years ago to identify any gaps between the management team’s thoughts and values and those of our employees. It informed us about where we needed to be oriented. But in the last two years we have used 360-degree surveys across the whole company and ask each person to evaluate the CEO and his management team on a range of behaviours that are vital for our business.

Ports Corporation of Queensland is one of six port authorities in that state. It is a government-owned corporation, responsible for leases and license arrangements, security, development and dredging at some of Queensland’s largest (by volume) bulk export ports, usually in places where there wasn’t a large community base when the port was established.

The CEO has a management team of nine that presides over staff based predominantly in Brisbane. “It’s relatively easy to communicate when we are this small,” concedes Paul Blewonski, general manager, corporate strategy.

Choosing a provider

Both Woollard and Blewonski had previous experience working with the providers they chose to run their surveys. Woollard had used InSync Surveys with her previous employer to monitor the organisational health of a well-established company. “I liked the thinking behind the organisational alignment survey and knew about the designer’s work on the subject quite a few years back. The theory sits well with strategic HR and it is now very slick and web-based,” says Woollard.

One of the main drivers for getting an external provider to run staff surveys in Ports Corporation of Queensland came from the CEO. He had designed and run his own ‘hard copy’staff survey three years ago and needed no persuading when it came to justify the cost, because he knew how time consuming it was.

“We had used Onetest before for job placement work and knew about their survey products. I really like the way they use a psychologist to add value to our reports by identifying development needs within our organisation. They do this using their wealth of experience,” says Blewonski.

Results

Air International Thermal Systems used its survey to review the success of its strategy, implementation, plans and policies. “We have a strong organisational communications program. The survey results highlighted the need to make our communication easier for employees to understand. In order to clearly communicate across three cultures, we needed more than words,” says Woollard.

As a result, they now select five employees each quarter who have demonstrated one of their five organisational values. “We write a story about what they have done to demonstrate a value, make a poster and put them on the wall along with their story and the photo. They are presented with a plaque and the poster and receive a thankyou from the CEO,” she says.

Woollard observes that the survey has also been able to inform them about future L&D budget allocations, as employees tell them about their development needs.

Apart from comparing themselves to their own previous results, Woollard likes the way the organisational alignment survey provides external benchmarks across the eight identified dimensions.

The survey has a section for employees to write free text statements. The CEO responds to each and every comment in this section through his blog. His leadership team sets actions and priorities on all issues raised in the survey.

At Ports Corporation of Queensland, all individuals and groups that were the subject of surveys received their own feedback. They could keep it confidential or share it. The CEO was privy to all results. “They were rated on a scale from 1–7 and most fell in the 4–6 range. This feedback is received at the same time that the individual component of the performance bonus is being calculated. There is no absolute direct link, but it does inform the CEO when he is setting that [bonus] figure,” says Blewonski.

As a result of the success of the staff surveys, Onetest has recently completed a formal survey of all seven board members and directors. Under ASX governance guidelines, formal board and director evaluations are considered good practice. It is policy that Queenslandgovernment-owned corporations to do this.

“The board survey does formalise the documentation. It is not the reason you do it, but it is very helpful to have when we are audited,” says Blewonski. The survey results were just being released at the time of publication, so it is too early to evaluate the impact on board performance.

Tips

When selecting a survey type, Woollard says it is important to ensure that the one chosen reflects the way you think about your organisation’s culture and that it aligns with what the company is trying to achieve. “You should understand the theory and the research behind it and make sure it matches up – otherwise you are probably wasting your money,” says Woollard.

She believes it is vital to communicate with employees after the survey, thank them for their participation and make them realise their input has been heard and will be acted on.

Blewonski advises gaining support from the top of the organisation. “Like many initiatives, you need to get support for it or not run it. You should also start with something manageable and get that working first before expanding it,” he counsels.