It’s a situation that many boards have wrestled with: how to measure and monitor an organization’s performance beyond just the numbers from financial statements. There are many techniques for getting information about operational performance and sources from the outside such as industry statistics, customer surveys, demographic and market studies. However, equally valuable is information from the co-op’s employees — the people who spend a lot of time and effort working to make the operations and the organization successful.
A very valuable but under-utilized tool exists with which boards of directors and management alike can collect information from employees — an employee attitude survey. An employee attitude survey is a specific method of collecting input from employees about their job-related perceptions. The report that comes from such a survey will identify both organizational strengths and weaknesses. Management consultant Louis E. Tagliaferri likens an employee attitude survey to a financial balance sheet, providing “…a picture of the human resource climate at a particular time.”
Why and when?
The impetus for an employee attitude survey can come from two sources — from the board of directors or from management. Indeed, many successful, progressive managers have discovered the value of conducting an employee attitude survey for a variety of purposes: to identify barriers to efficient work performance; to improve communication among employees and departments; to improve employee morale and productivity; to identify training needs; and to demonstrate management’s genuine interest in hearing employees’ problems, concerns, complaints and suggestions.
However, boards of directors have their own reasons for wanting an employee attitude survey. Typically these reasons fall into two main categories: 1) to provide valuable information regarding management of the workplace as part of a management evaluation (evaluation of the general manager or management team); or 2) to provide background on current employee perceptions and suggestions as part of long- and shortrange planning.
When evaluating management performance, a board wants to know that all employees are fairly treated and that good employees are retained. At the same time, a board wants to avoid making the management evaluation a popularity poll, raising unrealistic expectations among staff about their role in assessing or guiding management performance. Indeed, when boards ask employees to complete a portion of the management evaluation, they send a confused and confusing message to employees and to management about management accountability. Employee attitude surveys are a superior alternative. They collect the same type of input while providing a more neutral, objective and comprehensive overview of the way the workplace is being managed — rather than an evaluation of an individual manager.
Secondly, employee attitude surveys can also be an invaluable tool to boards and management in short and long-range planning. By identifying areas of employee satisfaction and dissatisfaction, problems can be identified before they become crises; communication, morale and productivity can be measured and improved. In looking toward the future, an employee survey can provide important data on the health and well-being of the workplace as well as identify areas for improvement.
The timing of an employee attitude survey will, of course, be influenced by its primary objective. If this information is to be used as a part of planning, the survey should be conducted two to three months before the beginning of planning discussions. If the survey results will be used primarily as input on the board’s evaluation of management, the survey should happen at the end of the fiscal year. The results of the employee attitude survey can then be considered, as board members review management performance, along with the year-end financial statements and accomplishment of objectives and goals from the plan.
Techniques: Who and how
The most important factor contributing to the success of an employee attitude survey is that employees feel free to answer the questions frankly and openly. Without the confidence of employees, even the best designed survey will be ineffective. Therefore, the primary consideration in designing an employee attitude survey will be to ensure employee anonymity.
While many large companies sometimes have their own internal staff (typically the Personnel Department) conduct an employee attitude survey, smaller companies more commonly use a third party — an outside consultant or personnel professional. The reasons for using a third party are compelling. To begin with, survey design and interpretation require skill, expertise and experience rarely available among a small staff. Additionally, surveys can be easily compromised by the agendas (conscious or otherwise) of those who design and conduct them. Finally, of course, having co-op staff conduct a survey could cause employees to mistrust the promise of anonymity and make confidentiality more difficult. However, there can be many benefits to having co-op staff and directors help tailor questions to fit the issues facing the co-op and its workforce.
An employee attitude survey is just as important an activity as a marketing or expansion project. As such, it must be carefully planned, starting with clarifying the goals of the survey followed by preparation of the questions to be asked. Typically such surveys address the following topic areas: job satisfaction; competence and fairness of supervision; effectiveness of on-the-job training; satisfaction with pay and benefits; opportunities to grow and develop new skills; quality of the work environment (working conditions, personnel policies, relations with co-workers, etc.); operational efficiency; confidence in management; and effectiveness of organizational communications.
Since 100% employee participation is highly desirable, the survey methods used are very important. Surveys that are mailed to employees or handed out at work generally get poor response rates. Far more preferable is to set aside some time for employees to be scheduled to complete the survey. And, by having a third party on hand to explain the survey and collect forms, employees generally have more confidence in the confidentiality and anonymity of their responses.
Most employee attitude surveys ask employees to respond to questions using a rating scale and ask very few open-ended questions. However, open-ended questions have some advantages; as smaller employers (i.e., under 100 employees), most co-ops can get the best of both worlds. Nevertheless, questions should be designed to avoid making compilation and collation of the data too cumbersome.
After the survey
Communications is critical to the success of an employee attitude survey. While that communication starts before the survey — informing employees of a survey, its purpose and how the results will be used — it’s even more critical for employees to receive feedback afterwards. A memo should be sent to all employees after their surveys have been received letting them know that their candid and thoughtful participation in the survey was appreciated, that management and/or the board has received a report, and that further feedback will be forthcoming. Again, it’s valuable to emphasize that all surveys were handled confidentially and with complete anonymity.
Within two or three weeks, an objective summary of the survey findings should be available to employees. Such a summary should highlight both the positive and negative areas identified by the survey. Employees will appreciate the maturity and earnestness of a management that is willing to share results that identify where its weaknesses and failings may be. One of the greatest pitfalls of employee attitude surveys is the perception among staff that nothing happens as a result of their input. This can lead to cynicism and reduced participation in future surveys.
Then, depending on the goals of an attitude survey, the appropriate group (management team, board, etc.) should review the survey results, categorize and prioritize areas for follow-up, and develop or approve action plans for follow-up. When the survey is being conducted at the directive of or for the board, directors will want to ensure that management’s goals for the future entail both the appropriate areas identified from the survey and followup communication with employees. Finally, another survey can be conducted 12 to 24 months later that will provide even more valuable findings in comparison to the first.
Employee attitude survey results reflect the unique nature of each organization — each company’s particular strengths and weaknesses. As such, attitude surveys are an invaluable tool to boards and management alike in assessing the health and status of the human resource climate. When conducted in preparation for a management evaluation, such a survey will ensure that all employees provide valuable input on the way the workplace is being managed. When conducted as a part of the planning process, it will help identify areas where management attention is needed for the future.
Employee attitude surveys are excellent diagnostic tools by which boards and management can learn about important job-related perceptions of employees — perceptions that can significantly affect both individual and organizational effectiveness. By conducting an employee attitude survey, the board communicates that its ongoing concern for management of the co-op’s resources covers both human and financial resources. A survey by a third party can objectively help a co-op focus on problems and solutions and build a stronger, more effective organization.
References: “Taking Note of Employee Attitudes” by Louis E. Tagliaferri from Personnel Administrator, April 1988; How to Conduct Employee Attitude Surveys, by Pristo, Bert, and Thompson; “Asking Employees What They Think” by Claudia H. Deutsch from the New York Times; “Surveys Capture Untold Story” by Stephen L. Quinn from HR Magazine, September, 1990.