The Importance of Employee Surveys

America’s CEOs constantly say “Our people are our most important asset.” But how many organizations actually live up to this credo?

When I hear a leader say this I’ll investigate where the head of HR reports. I often discover that the top HR person reports to the COO or the CFO. That is a warning sign, as a leader who truly believes in their workforce as a strategic asset would have HR reporting directly to the CEO.

Another warning sign that this credo may ring hollow is if the organization fails to conduct an annual employee survey. I’ve worked with organizations that spend millions of dollars each year on market research yet never get around to an employee survey. In many cases it is because they are worried about what they might discover and recognize that conducting an employee survey sets up an expectation that actions will result from it.

I have been involved in about 250 employee surveys. Results can be eye opening and help create an open culture in an organization. How they are conducted and their content can tell a lot about what the culture of the organization is like.

The best employee projects I have been involved with have the following characteristics:

  1. They have sincere support and commitment from the CEO and the head of HR. This is essential to an employee survey’s success.
  2. They are developed by researchers and not HR or HR consultants. HR-produced surveys tend to be based on amorphous, general concepts and results tend to not be actionable. Surveys written by research departments and firms tend to be more specific and provide more direction as to what to do with the results.
  3. They are conducted annually. Similarly, they are part of a long term, continuous process of listening to employees and making changes based on their feedback.
  4. Results are used in managerial evaluations but are given the proper weight in these performance reviews and are not over-emphasized.
  5. Results are openly shared with the staff. Not just some of the results, but everything that was asked.
  6. They are conducted with a third-party. An outside firm can be objective in analyzing the results and can place results in a context of other projects the have conducted.

But, by far the most important success criteria for these projects is employees must be confident that changes will happen as a result of the survey. We counsel clients to put our recommended actions into three categories:

  • Changes that can be made quickly and visibly. These are little, inexpensive things that should be done right away, and the staff should know that they were made as a result of the survey.
  • Important changes that will require time and effort. These are more substantive changes that may require more input from employees and investment to make happen. Employees should know these efforts are happening and ideally be a part of them.
  • Changes that are recommended but that leadership will choose not to make. This is a step often skipped. The survey will uncover changes that leadership isn’t prepared to make, that require too much investment, etc. It is important that leaders acknowledge these to the staff. It is often sufficient to mention that the survey uncovered these items, but at this time priority will not be given to them. Employees greatly appreciate this honesty.

By far the biggest mistake that can be made with an employee survey is to conduct it and then make no changes based on its results. In my experience, this happens at least 50% of the time. I have counseled dozens of potential clients away from conducting an employee study because I didn’t feel they were prepared to act on the results. There is nothing worse than asking your entire employee base for feedback, and then ignoring the feedback they provide.

Employee surveys can be an asset to any organization. I honestly wouldn’t recommend working anywhere that doesn’t conduct an annual survey and doesn’t make changes based on the results.

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