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What Worked and What Didn't with Employee Survey Programs

Examples of companies that had success with surveys.

September 18, 2003
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Related Topics: Motivating Employees, HR & Business Administration
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Integrating a survey with organizational transformation
    An international high-technology firm with operations in more than 60countries positioned the survey process as an integral element of itsorganizational transformation. Survey branding was integrated with the company’songoing change initiatives and made use of distinctive art and tag linesassociated with this process. The survey results were summarized to provideindex scores for each of the company’s corporate values. Response rates werehigher than targeted, and survey results were used to refine and support changeinitiatives.

The survey census day
    A retail banking organization had been conducting employee surveys for morethan 10 years, but response rates had sharply declined. An extensive process forpre-survey communication was developed and included posters, Q&A documents,and regular countdown messages through team briefings and company newsletters. A"survey census" day was scheduled to provide a focal point, but thedata-collection window extended over two and a half weeks. The bank achieved asignificant increase in the survey response rate and had one of the highestrates observed for retail banking.

The survey champion network
    A major retailer conducted a company-wide survey that was administered by thecentral HR function. Questionnaires were shipped to stores and deposited,unannounced, in employee break rooms. Return rates were predictably low. For thenext survey, a champion network was created, with representation from employeesand middle management. Regular meetings were held to organize administration andprovide mutual support. An employee representative was appointed for each storeto assist in administration and to encourage employees to respond. The returnrates were greater than expected and increased by 15 percentage points over theprevious year.

Improving the fit with culture
    An organization with manufacturing operations in the United States and Europeconducted its first company-wide survey using a standard "cultural audit."However, employees complained that the instrument didn’t seem to "fit" thecompany or adequately address the issues of greatest concern. Participationrates were low. A new survey was designed using input from employee focus groupsthat better reflected the culture of the company. The new survey achieved asignificantly higher response rate, and the survey follow-up actions wereuniversally viewed as more effective.

Demonstrating senior management commitment
    A corporate bank had established a company-wide objective to improve employeemorale and to become an "employer of choice." Despite an extendeddata-collection window, survey response rates were disappointing and anecdotalevidence indicated that employees had become skeptical about the follow-upprocess.

For its next survey, the bank limited the number of issues for follow-upaction and assigned an executive sponsor to each area. These areas werecommunicated to employees along with the name and photograph of the executivesponsor. For the subsequent survey, return rates increased significantly andemployees indicated that they were more confident that follow-up actions wouldbe taken.

The dangers of a false deadline
    A U.S. manufacturing company with international operations wanted to presentsurvey results at a senior management conference that was scheduled in twomonths’ time. That allowed just eight weeks to design, translate, andadminister the survey in more than 30 countries. Local management had littleinvolvement in developing the survey process and was instructed to "make surethe questionnaires are administered and returned on time."

For many countries, the timing was impractical, with data collectionscheduled during periods of peak sales activity or plant-maintenance shutdowns.Somewhat draconian methods were introduced to induce participation, but themajority of employees did not respond. Few actions were taken in response tosurvey results. In a subsequent survey, planning was begun eight months prior toadministration and a survey-coordinator network was established. Roles andresponsibilities were agreed on, and follow-up expectations were communicated tomanagers. Response rates improved.

An appeal to charity
   A UK retail bank wished to increase survey response rates and offered acharitable donation for each completed questionnaire. Simultaneously with thiscompany-wide survey, a second survey was conducted with a sample of employees--butwith no promise of a charitable donation. The response rates were identical forboth surveys. The company continued to support charities, but concluded thatoffering a charitable donation as an incentive did not affect response rates.

Linking survey results to bonus
    An insurance company linked bonuses for employees and managers to balancedscorecard objectives, one of which was "people satisfaction," as measured inthe employee survey. In other words, bonuses were based, in part, on howfavorably employees responded to the survey questions. Return rates wereacceptable but low. Written responses to open-ended questions indicated thatemployees felt pressured to report high levels of morale. The bonus linkage wasdropped from subsequent surveys, and much to the surprise of management, returnrates and satisfaction levels increased.

Timing is everything
    An international accounting firm believed that two weeks was a sufficientamount of time for data collection. They also believed that response rates wouldbe unaffected by fluctuations in the business cycle. Data collection wasscheduled to immediately follow the income tax filing deadline. After two weeksof administration, the response rate was abysmally low, and data collection hadto be extended for an additional four weeks. Subsequent surveys were scheduledto avoid the tax season.

Starting a dialogue
    A specialty chemical company with operations in more than 30 countries wasdisappointed with the level of participation in its first company-wide survey.Management was convinced that future response rates could be improved by takingaction on the current survey results and by monitoring the effectiveness offollow-up. Each company location was required to prepare regular reports onfollow-up actions.

    Adopting the title of the survey, these reports became known as "Dialogue"reports. The Dialogue reports were communicated to regional management andbecame a regular part of the briefing packs that were routinely prepared forvisits by the company’s executive team. As hoped, the response ratessignificantly increased for subsequent surveys.

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