A question of success

by 14 Oct 2010

There are several different types of staff surveys, and employers must ensure they are utilising them properly to shed light on what employees are really thinking, says Tom Washington

Today’s stringent business environment means every decision must be backed up by facts, and without solid data around employee engagement and behaviour, employers are left unsighted. Staff surveys - getting inside the mind of employees - is crucial to the success of any organisation’s people strategies.

There are various types of staff surveys that can be utilised for several different end products, and successful organisations use employee information as a call to action rather than an assessment.

Tim Powell, managing director of Hewitt Associates in Australia and New Zealand, says staff surveys are great for finding out what is really important to employees. “They help HR establish the employee value proposition and present a business case to the board about where resources need to be invested. It’s not the data you find but what you do with it,” he says.

Nowadays, employers can whip together a staff survey relatively easily and quickly. By using resources such as Survey Monkey, a set of questions can be hastily put together and sent out to staff.

But whoever compiles the questions - commonly the HR team - must take time to ensure the questions are not only relevant but designed to produce the right kind of data. If the quality of information that arises from the survey is poor, there is no point in doing it in the first place.

First and foremost, getting staff to complete the survey is paramount. Compulsory completion may not be the answer, as employees who feel forced to complete a survey may see it as just another task to get through in their busy day, and simply rush through it.

The disclosure control policy that organisations use is also paramount. Some employers use permission-based disclosure controls, whereby employees are given complete control over who sees their feedback. According to Lenore Lambert, director and co-founderat the Interview Group, the bigger problem is that employers are giving too much confidentiality and anonymity to employees. “With exit interviews, 75 per cent of the time staff are happy for anyone to see their individual report so employers missing out on great insights,” she explains.

Engagement surveys

Employee engagement surveys are arguably the most common kind of survey. Normally undertaken annually, these include questions designed to pinpoint the issues that staff feel most positive or negatively about.

Auction website eBay focuses on employee net promoter scores (eNPS) as a driver for business performance and growth. Its HR director, Richard Atkinson, says that ensuring attention on employee engagement remains a focus for managers, and eNPS is a key input in determining senior leaders’ bonuses.

“eNPS allows us to understand the percentage of employees who are actively engaged, working with passion and connected to the organisation, those that are not engaged, essentially checked out, and those that are actively disengaged, acting out their unhappiness and undermining the organisation and their colleagues.”

eBay gathers a mixture of quantitative data around a significant number of specific questions, focused on a one to ten rating scale. It also captures qualitative inputs through freeform fields. With this data eBay is able to identify areas of strength and those that it can look to develop and improve.

“I work to the old adage ‘if you don’t measure it, you won’t manage it.’ This is true of employee engagement as much as any other facet of business. Where we have seen significant increases in employee engagement, as in the Australian business, this has been closely followed by significant increases in key business and customer metrics.”

Powell and Atkinson both agree that this data is a starting point for further exploration to find deeper insights. “The data can direct attention to where we need to focus; it does not always tell you what actions you need to take. A further drill down with focus groups or other feedback mechanisms is also essential,” says Atkinson.

Exit and on-boarding interviews

As with engagement surveys, exit and on-boarding interviews are a hugely valuable tool to find out how staff are viewing their employer.

Lambert says that exit interviews may be common practise, but are rarely delivering the value they could at many employers. On-boarding interviews, too, are becoming a rapidly taken-up process. “It’s a no brainer to check in with a new employee and see how they’re getting on,” says Lambert.

Indeed, research from Hewitt in July showed that 34 per cent of organisations help employees through the on-boarding process to minimise the dip in engagement most organisations see in the first year of employment. Almost three quarters conduct exit surveys to understand why employees are leaving and proactively identify potential hot spots.

Lambert says that lasting memories from the 2003 downturn means employers know how hard it is to get and retain talent. “Employers are realising they can’t get too complacent and need to try and use all of the tools at their disposal to compete in the employment market,” she says.

“The core business reason for these interviews boils down to one thing: getting a handle on the true drivers of staff turnover, reducing it and reducing the associated costs.”

‘True’ drivers can be described as those that if addressed, they will cause staff turnover to go down. According to Lambert, few organisations are putting enough rigour into discovering this information from their exit interviews.

For example, many employers will see remuneration given as a top reason for staff leaving. A knee-jerk reaction for some is to promptly spend thousands of dollars on employing a remuneration and benefit consultant, change their pay structure and give pay rises. Following this, staff turnover will go down for a few months and then resume where it was before.

“Most organisations still mix up the issues that annoy people with those that actually cause them to resign. You’ve got to separate them out,” explains Lambert.

“On top that, you can pinpoint the one thing that has the biggest impact. With limited time and resources at HR level, employers have got to choose one area that will give them the biggest bang for their buck. The only way you can do that is to ask people to rate the impact of each of their reasons for leaving. Virtually nobody we know of does that.”

Finally, the biggest challenge for HR is ensuring that the post-survey actions they take are visible, while at the same time ensuring that these become business as usual to ensure lasting benefit.