Taking the personnel pulse: employee surveys

Employee surveys can be useful in measuring any number of workforce-related issues. However, as Karalyn Brown writes, such surveys are doomed from the start if they are HR’s responsibility alone

Taking the personnel pulse: employee surveys

Employee surveys can be useful in measuring any number of workforce-related issues. However, as Karalyn Brown writes, such surveys are doomed from the start if they are HRs responsibility alone

Does this sound familiar? Slightly disaffected workforce has glossy ‘Staff satisfaction survey’ land in their in-trays. They respond thoughtfully and offer carefully constructed ideas for change. Then they wait … and wait.

When nothing happens they give up. The company has just lost the chance to inspire some disengaged staff. In fact, it’s made the problem worse. Cynics’ suspicions that the company will never change are confirmed. More optimistic employees are disappointed when the organisation asks for their ideas, and then does nothing with them.

Powerful technology has automated the recording, analysing and reporting of data. It’s now physically easy to produce an employee survey and organisations are using them for a variety of reasons.

A report on employee surveys, conducted by the Voice Project, part of the Psychology Department of Macquarie University, found employers run surveys to: understand how their employees feel about their workplace, identify problems, quantify previously immeasurable people issues, give employees an opportunity to communicate, evaluate management effectiveness and track the impact of organisational change.

Whatever the fact finding mission, it’s important to get the basics right. Surveys are expensive. So the survey’s purpose needs to be clearly defined and the information that is gathered needs to be useful. If the data can be linked to a business objective this is even better.

Most importantly, the survey must not be HR’s responsibility alone. Surveys uncover both company wide and department specific issues, so getting the support of all decision makers and line managers is critical for change. The management team must accept, publicise and act on the results and then be visible in taking action. Otherwise the whole exercise is just a ‘nice to know’ but ultimately an expensive waste of time.

Introducing OPSM, The Spastic Centre and Roche Australia

The Spastic Centre, OPSM and Roche Australia have achieved high rates of employee survey return through communication, positioning and being sincere about the survey.

The not for profit Spastic Centre has surveyed 780 staff across 80 sites for the past three and a half years. The surveys assess employees’ engagement, and the importance of these factors to the bottom line, with a 41 per cent response rate. The Spastic Centre’s general manager of human resources, Frank Sedmak, secured his response rate through “a lot of hard work”and “pretty heavy communication”. Senior executive team support was important, as they in turn sold it to their teams through regular meetings. Communication was backed up with posters, emails and advertising in payslips.

Over the past four years, OPSM has tested the satisfaction and engagement of 4,000 staff across 40 sites via paper and online surveys. OPSM’s group general manager of human resources, Chris Georgiou, believes the visible support of the CEO for the survey was integral to their high response rate. “The message from the CEO and the positioning of the survey is very important,” he says. “We made sure the staff understood that it’s part of the cultural change strategy … and that we have an iron clad guarantee to do something with the results.” Georgiou believes voluntary not mandatory participation is important and sees this as a “test of engagement.”

Roche Australia, on the other hand, has conducted three online of their 300 employees over the past 18 months as a ‘barometer check’ of employee engagement – and secured an 80 per cent rate of return. Kirsten O’Doherty, sales and marketing director of Roche Australia, didn’t consider getting staff buy-in difficult as Roche Australia’s employees understand the importance of surveys. “The bottom line for us is how genuine we are in hearing what they are saying. If we did it for the sake of doing it … we’d get a 10 per cent response rate. People see the organisation is interested so why wouldn’t they get involved?”

Making the data work

All three organisations see their surveys as a necessary tool to help drive a business objective. As such, they act upon the results. They run the surveys each year to track the impact of any actions they take and they see visible action as critical for the credibility of their surveys.

When Georgiou started at OPSM, one of his responsibilities was to drive cultural change. He introduced the employee survey as the first step to “capture the mood of staff,” says Georgiou. “We wanted to understand what the issues were in the business and to develop a strategy around it.”

First up, OPSM communicate survey results company wide as a “high level weather map”, drawing attention to the top three issues, areas of strength and any common themes. Individual managers then deliver their own results to their respective units. If there are particular areas of concern the company holds focus groups and formulates action plans. To ensure management takes action OPSM may link results to individual’s key performance indicators and track any improvements through subsequent surveys.

Such visible accountability can be confronting –particularly if survey results are not flattering. Georgiou believes the support of senior management is important. “It’s visible and supported by senior management, so lower level management are under pressure to view it as important.”

Roche Australia uses a climate survey, which is seen as a snapshot in time to assess the “drivers of employee engagement”, O’Doherty says. Similar to OPSM, Roche identify the issues that will make the biggest impact. “We cannot work on everything,”O’Doherty says. “We pick two to three things that are clearly important, ask what we can do to fix them and the next time around we can see [the impact].”

The Spastic Centre’s survey covers leadership, organisational direction and purpose, company ethics, supervision, learning and development as well as reward and recognition. The results index of the survey assesses the importance of factors to employees and the bottom line. The findings are then used to improve highlighted areas.

The results of one survey, for example, found problems with communication and belief in the organisation’s financial performance. “There were lots of good news stories no-one talked about,” Sedmak says. “Management had to become more sales-oriented about selling stuff to employees.” He has also used the data in negotiating awards as well as developing role competencies and employee role matrices. The Spastic Centre also reports their results in management meetings and includes a four page summary in their employee payslips.

For honest feedback tell

Complete frankness comes without fear of being identified. To ensure confidentiality, all three organisations outsource the running of their surveys.

“Having an external supplier makes people feel comfortable,” says O’Doherty. “If people wanted to give frank comments they can do so openly … data is collated and de-identified.”

Another important factor is that the consultancy has integrity. Sedmak found that a few of his employees were “very suspicious” and concerned they could be identified through their age and location. “I reassured them by saying the surveys aren’t coming to me,” he says. “I don’t know [who’s responded] and I’ll never know and the consultant will never tell me.”

OPSM also discovered some employees are sceptical about the safety of online surveys. “Some feel nervous about whether these are truly confidential or can be traced back,” says Georgiou. OPSM gave their employees choice and reassured them by letting them know the survey was linked through “an external provider’s website, not to us. There’s no chance of being identified through tracking of email.”

Securing executive support

Decision maker support was not particularly difficult for all three organisations, as most senior managers saw the inherent value of such information and the benefit to the business.

Georgiou reviews OPSM’s strategic plan and develops the HR plan to support the business objectives. “The survey is introduced in this context – not introduced as a fad,” he says.

One of Sedmak’s objectives when joining the Spastic Centre was to produce an employee survey. “For senior management, [buy-in] was not a problem at all,”he says. Their view was to “cop our medicine, we can then work out plans – it’s an adult approach.”

Consequently, trusting the data and analysis an external supplier produces is important. “There can be some controversial issues,” says Georgiou. “So data integrity is important. If you get the data wrong people who are cynical about the survey will latch on to data integrity … as a reason not to support the survey.”

All three organisations continually emphasise the need to communicate, and to do it as close to the time of the survey as possible and to follow up with visible action. “The key thing is to have follow up … clear communication, warts and all and quickly,” says O’Doherty. “Always get something out within a month, otherwise people think things may be hidden.”

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