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Entries in Employee (1)

Monday
Feb082010

Let’s Replace Employee Surveys

Companies spend large sums of money on employee surveys. What do they really learn from them?

Human Resources’ (HR) types frequently argue anonymous surveys give the timid a voice. While it’s important for everyone to have a voice, my sense is the process is fundamentally flawed. Please note upfront lifelong learning and improvement is something we value deeply, it’s the tool we are questioning.

HR spends time pulling together the reporting relationships and making sure there are ‘enough’ staff to assure anonymity. Often, newly minted front line supervisors, where often the most learning can take place, aren’t measured as they have too small a staff. To see the impact of the survey and subsequent improvement planning, surveys take place over a number of years. Since few organizations are static, managers/staff change roles making year over year comparisons difficult.

In my experience, year one establishes a baseline. Clearly everyone has improvement opportunities. Managers getting feedback is an imperative part of the process. And admittedly, it does force discussions. One very senior manager I know was stunned to find all her staff gave her low scores on recognition. Where it was a uniform rating, the veil of anonymity was pierced. The subsequent discussion was valuable, and indeed the manager evolved the behavior. Was a survey needed for this gold nugget?

Generally, the second year tends to have declining overall scores. While there are many hypotheses for this, one resonating for me is an improvement expectation is established with the staff by simply doing the survey. The second year exposes a gap between the improvement potential and the expectation. Managers are often dismayed when the rating hasn’t improved in year two.

Then the staff gets more work. While managers do improvement planning in year one, it tends to be a minimally engaged effort as many managers do the minimum needed. When the improvement isn’t as substantive as the manager expects, the staff must be engaged in an overall improvement process. HR submits this is a good thing…the discussion continues. Many staff members, however, feel they are asked to do additional work on the manager’s behalf, yielding an unintended boomerang effect.

Year three tends to have an improvement over years one and two. HR types suggest this indicates a valid and valuable process, and managers feel they are vindicated. Many staff members submit it is easier to give improved scores than have to do all the planning work. Have things fundamentally improved?

Having experience with two household name firms providing survey vehicles, they each have questions (in the same space) generating a great deal of debate. One asks a question along the lines of, “Do you have a best friend at work?” The controversy tends to come from the word,”best,” staunchly defended by the survey company. Many people look at a “best” friend as someone where long term deep relationships are established with an unwavering support structure. I can still like working at an organization and really like the people I work with…and frankly I’m “ok” if my best friend doesn’t work there.

Another firm uses a question we like better, “Would you recommend your firm to a friend as a place to work?” Both questions get to an affinity of the staff to the company as a whole. We like the work reference question better because it nets out ALL the inputs (the company/department culture, benefits, the cafeteria, parking, managers) to a single litmus test. The answer to this question is key.

Do employee surveys lead to improvement? Of course. Any vehicle giving managers feedback for improvement must provide some value. Do they provide the best return on investment?

While there are many alternatives, well orchestrated 360 feedback can often provide some valuable highly leveragable feedback. The manager selects staff and peers where feedback is valued. We don’t get to choose our managers in most cases. The feedback tends to be unvarnished, and discussions can take place in a more private setting.

Caution: “Analytic-type” managers often take the numbers too literally. They can get obsessed with the standard deviation of every response. A third-party coach can help interpret and focus on the improvement opportunities.

Real-time surveying is another tool. (Think GE-Workout in the digital age.) This requires a large group of people. You pose a question. People “vote”. The aggregate results are shown to all. The manager either responds to the group, or seeks clarity from the group. The group really feels like the manager is listening and engaged. It also shows initiative on the part of the manager, rather than the manager just doing the survey because their manager (or HR) instructed them to do it.

One of my favorite observations comes from working with a new HR generalist. The HR generalist was seen as part of the IT organization, attending all team meetings, etc. We’d have regular 1:1s, often in my office as we were in an area removed from HR and the generalist wanted to be seen. Whenever she left our 1:1, she’d head back to her work area. Inevitably, she would be stopped by staff repeatedly to talk about family, training needs, weekend plans, their latest project, etc. HR was seen as someone genuinely interested in people’s growth and development. While this is a part of the manager’s job, having a non-managerial resource for trusted conversation is invaluable. What a shame many companies have relegated this to an 800 number!

The other managerial vehicle often overlooked is the 1:1. 1:1s are supposed to be about the people, not about the projects. Staff should be greeted with the same question for each 1:1, and should learn the 1:1 is about them. Once trust is established in the 1:1, everyone’s voice can be heard.

There are many manager tools available in this space. Managers should use these types of tools to keep their managerial skills current.

To be clear, we don’t think employee surveys damage an organization. Something is better than nothing. Ongoing conversation in a non-punitive, growth oriented manner is where we believe the biggest impacts can be realized.

Let’s work on the values of honesty, highest ethics, open candid discussion, leadership…