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10 Best Practices for Employee Surveys

January 30, 2003
Employee motivation is vital to business success. Increasingly, itdistinguishes companies that thrive from those that fail to survive. A highlymotivated workforce delivers superior products and services, and this in turnleads to greater customer satisfaction and improved sales performance.

    Given the implications for business success, the measurement of employeemotivation and commitment through the use of employee surveys continues toincrease, from an estimated 50 percent of U.S. organizations in the 1980s(Delaney, Lewin, and Ichniowski, 1988) to more than 70 percent in the 1990s(Paul and Braken, 1995). Survey findings have become a valued managementinformation tool and are often used to identify and prioritize issues foraction, monitor the effectiveness of change initiatives, establish performanceobjectives for managers, and provide metrics for the "people" quadrant ofthe balanced scorecard.

    Because survey results are increasingly being used to guide managementdecisions, it is important to achieve a high level of participation to ensurethat the findings accurately reflect the key concerns of employees. Whenresponse rates are low, the validity of the results will be called intoquestion, and sufficient data may not be available for organizational subgroupsor locations, hindering local action planning and follow-up. Moreover, a lowresponse rate sends an ominous message that the workforce is disengaged andemployees feel they lack a collective voice in communicating their concerns tomanagement. All of this diminishes the return that an organization receives onits considerable investment in the survey research effort.

    Participation in an employee survey is a direct result of how well the surveyprocess is designed and implemented. Simply put, well-orchestrated surveys leadto higher return rates. Following are 10 "best practices" for survey designand implementation and the implications of these best practices for employeeresponse rates. Also included are key questions to ask at each step to ensurethat your organization is adhering to these practices.

  1. Establish clear goals and objectives. In the early planning stage,articulate the overall goals and objectives of the survey and define theanticipated return on investment. These objectives should be developed withmanagement input and clearly communicated to employees in order to demonstratethe importance of the process. Without long-term objectives that are clearlylinked to company performance, the survey may fail to elicit the managementsupport and secure the resources required for success.

Key question: What does the organization hope to achieve and what are theimplications for company performance?

  1. Develop a communication plan. Prepare a comprehensive communication planto support each stage of the survey. The plan should include a schedule ofcommunication "events" as well as a budget and formally assignedresponsibilities. In the absence of a communication plan, employees may notrecognize the importance of the process or see the connection between surveyfindings and subsequent follow-up actions.

Key question: Who should prepare and issue survey-related messages and whenshould these messages be communicated?

  1. Brand the survey process. The survey should be "branded" with a tagline and an identifiable graphic logo. The branding will help to providecontinuity across each stage of the survey and establish the process as anongoing activity, rather than a one-time event. When possible, the survey shouldbe linked to other ongoing change initiatives. Without branding, the survey maybe seen by employees as an unconnected initiative that will have limitedconsequences for the organization.

Key question: What theme does management want to convey through the employeesurvey and how is this integrated with wider company change initiatives?

  1. Allocate sufficient resources. Estimate the resources that will berequired to develop and implement your survey and to support follow-up actions.These resources should be budgeted at the start of the process and be taken intoaccount in business plans. When this is not done, the survey follow-up stagewill lack the support required to be effective and will often meet withresistance from line management. In addition, employees might be convinced toparticipate in one survey, but if they see no tangible evidence of change afterthe survey, they are not likely to make the effort to participate again in thefuture.

Key question: Who will be required to manage and support the survey and whatresources will be required for the process to be successful?

  1. Define roles and responsibilities. Support your survey by creating anetwork of internal survey champions with responsibility for identifying therequirements for their part of the business, managing data collection, andsupporting follow-up actions. Survey champions must be sold on the value of thesurvey and given a clear description of their role requirements so that they canbudget their time accordingly. Similarly, managers who receive survey resultsfor their areas of operation also should be given clear instructions regardingtheir responsibilities for survey follow-up. When this is not done, managementis less likely to communicate survey results to employees or take action inresponse to the findings, and employees are less likely to have faith in thevalue of the survey process.

Key question: What are the specific responsibilities of the survey championsand what are the requirements of managers who receive survey results for theirareas of operation?

  1. Demonstrate management commitment. The research process will have greatercredibility if employees believe that it is endorsed and supported by seniormanagement. Senior management commitment can reassure employees that their viewswill be taken into account and acted on. When management commitment is lacking,employees may view the survey as a public relations exercise designed to projecta "caring" management style rather than a process for identifying and actingon employee concerns.

Key question: Who is the principal sponsor of the employee research and howis this person’s commitment to the process demonstrated?

  1. Ask the right questions the right way. The survey should be designed tomeasure areas that are of concern to management and employees. Even when thequestionnaire includes standardized items, the wording should be modified toreflect the culture of the company. An "off the shelf" instrument that failsto address issues of concern or that fails to reflect the language andterminology of the organization will be seen as lacking in relevance and willfail to engage employees.

Key question: What are the topic areas that should be covered in the surveyand how should these questions be asked?

  1. Collect data the right way at the right time. Consider the data-collectionmethodology that is best suited to your workforce. Traditionally, surveys havebeen administered using printed questionnaires, but the technology is nowreadily available for conducting online surveys that make data collectioneasier, more efficient, and less costly. Ease and convenience translate intohigher response rates.

In addition, unless there is a specific need to coordinate with otherbusiness processes or a budgeting cycle, a survey generally should beadministered at a time when it will pose a minimal disruption to the businessand when a maximum number of employees are available for participation. Times ofpeak business activity or when employees are likely to be on vacation should beavoided. Similarly, data collection generally should not be undertaken duringtimes when management and employee relations are tense--for example, during acontract negotiation, industrial action, or downsizing initiative.

Equally important, survey administration should be scheduled so that thefindings are available in time to be included in business plans. This willposition the survey as a business-planning tool and secure the necessary budgetfor follow-up actions. Poor scheduling for survey administration will invariablyreduce line-management support for data collection and may result in data beingavailable too late to influence budget or other business decisions.

Key question: What is the optimal time of the year to administer the surveyand when will data have to be available for the business-planning process?

  1. Take clear follow-up action. The most effective way to build confidence inthe survey process, and thereby improve participation rates for future surveys,is for the organization to take clear and visible action based on surveyresults. A realistic number of areas should be targeted for follow-up action toallow the organization to concentrate and focus resources on issues that willhave the greatest impact on performance. Failure to take action will createapathy toward the survey, and targeting too many issues will diffuse theeffectiveness of follow-up actions.

Key question: What are the key areas for action and which actions are mostlikely to affect performance?

  1. Review and audit the process. A formal audit process should be planned tomonitor the effectiveness of follow-up actions and to measure progress againstobjectives. Actions that meet with success should be widely communicated andcelebrated. This audit should also include an assessment of the ROI associatedwith follow-up actions in order to determine where investments should beincreased, reduced, or discontinued. Measuring the effectiveness and ROI offollow-up actions will enhance the business relevance of the survey for bothemployees and managers. It sends out the signal that the survey isn’t simply anice thing to do--it’s good for business.

Key question: How effective are the survey follow-up actions and what is theROI for the company?

    Enhancing employee motivation has become a business imperative and isessential to compete effectively in today’s market. The employee survey can beused to develop a strategy for creating a high-motivation work environment andimproving business performance. Achieving a high response rate ensures that thesurvey findings are valid and can be used for local as well as organization-wideaction planning.

    Adopting the best practices outlined above will engage both management andemployees in the survey process and can serve as a catalyst for cultural change,creating an environment in which employees are involved and have a productiveand open dialogue with management.

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