staffsurveyNo matter how closely you work with your staff, there are some things they may not tell you. There’s a power balance, even though we don’t like to admit it. Your staff may not be afraid of anything so obvious as getting fired for expressing criticism. But they may fear a loss of comfort and friendliness around their boss. They may think, “Better not to rock the boat.”

Yet staff feedback could help make your business stronger and could help you be a better manager. How can you solicit their feedback on compensation, working conditions, supervision and opportunities for greater efficiency?

One tool is an anonymous employee survey, especially for businesses with a critical mass of employees, say, more than 15. If conducted properly, employee surveys can collect the combined perceptions of staff as a body in a way that transcends the anecdotal evidence you hear from individuals. Also, surveys provide a benchmark against which you can measure progress in making your company a great place to work.

To be effective, a survey should:

Be absolutely anonymous.
Employees must have confidence that their individual ratings and comments on a survey questionnaire will not be revealed to anyone–coworkers, owners or supervisors. If you own or manage a small business where you work frequently in the store, you could probably recognize the authors of many comments written on a survey. In order to maintain anonymity, it’s best to contract with an outside party to conduct the survey.

Reflect the opinions of ALL the staff.
Don’t let participants self-select based on the intensity of their interest.  Self-selection tends to skew results toward the negative. Take steps to ensure that all eligible employees fill out questionnaires.

Include follow-up one-to-one interviews or focus groups of randomly selected employees.
Individual interviews and/or focus groups provide insight into the meaning of the survey results. Here again, a third party conducting the process could give employees confidence that their statements will be handled confidentially and without bias.

Put more weight on average scores than on written comments.
Satisfied respondents tend to write few or vague comments, while dissatisfied ones tend to write longer, more detailed comments. A single dramatic comment can make you think, “everyone feels this way,” but check the numerical results before drawing conclusions.

Use standard deviation as a tool to see where employees strongly differ, or not, on any given question. This is an essential aid in interpreting survey results.

Compare results to peer organizations.
This will help you interpret the survey results by giving you a sense of whether the scores are “high” or “low.” Some surveyors can compare your staff’s scores to the local workforce or other natural foods retailers.

Report back to the staff.
Either through an all-staff meeting or a written report, make sure your employees get to see the summary of what they as a body thought and said. And let them know what steps management intends to take to address issues raised in the survey.

Not occur too often.
If employees perceive that their opinion is repeatedly sought without concrete results, they will experience “survey fatigue.”  Most literature on employee surveys recommends intervals of no more than 18 months to 2 years.  It takes management that long to implement significant changes. Don’t blunt the edge of a fine tool by overusing it.  In any case, before employees are asked to fill out a repeat survey, they should be informed of what has been accomplished as a result of previous surveys.