It has become almost trite for companies to proclaim that “our employees are our most important asset.”  Trite because everyone is saying it, and because, for most organizations, it is so obviously true. The intellectual capital and the commitment and engagement of employees is an organization’s most sustainable competitive advantage.  Maintaining that advantage is an ongoing challenge as the competition for scarce knowledge and skills increases.

Given the importance of leveraging and retaining this important asset, organizations need mechanisms to frequently hear from their employees. Employee surveys are one such mechanism, as they can provide insights and feedback on the key topics that drive organizational effectiveness. In part 1 of this blog series we focus on best practices for designing and creating employee surveys – developing survey objectives and creating survey content.  Both are critical to ensuring that survey results are valid – that we are measuring what’s important to the organization and doing so using the right methods.

  1. Develop survey objectives: Best in class organizations begin their survey initiatives by first defining clear objectives for the survey (“What are we trying to accomplish?” “What will be done with the survey results and who will have responsibility for following through?”). Surveys can have many different purposes. We have helped clients use their surveys to identify causes of employee attrition and low engagement, understand the root causes of union-management conflict, reduce counter-productive work behaviors, assess employee perceptions of an organizational change, etc. There can be more than one objective at a time (although keeping the survey focused helps reduce length and the number of potential change initiatives), and there are many different possibilities for how the results can be used – but the objectives and process must be clearly defined upfront.

Involve Senior Leaders: Leverage input from senior leaders in defining the objectives as they will have the best perspectives on the business strategies and organizational priorities. Their inclusion early on in the process will also create buy-in so that they will have a vested interest in taking action based on the survey results.

  1. Creating survey content: Having clear survey objectives and purpose provides the framework for the topics that need to be included. To get to the level of detail needed to specify topics and select/create survey items, get input from senior leadership and HR about the areas in which employee feedback would be helpful to strategic priorities and improving overall organizational effectiveness. Depending on the survey objectives, it can also be useful to conduct a few focus groups/interviews with a sample of employees at different levels to understand issues from their perspective. In our experience, including employees provides additional validation that we are covering the right issues. Their inclusion can also help a) communicate the survey purpose, b) boost survey response rates, as employees feel more strongly that their “voice” matters and c) motivate employees to participate in any recommended improvement actions.

Leverage Survey Experts: Leverage survey content from survey consultants. Experts in the field will typically have a bank of items that have been refined and tested with a host of other organizations.

A typical employee survey item bank might include items related to the following topic areas: Communications, Quality/Customer Focus, Senior Leadership, Union Leadership, My Supervisor/Manager, Development/Career Opportunities, Rewards/Recognition and Benefits, Performance Management, Working Conditions and Resources, Diversity and Inclusion, Engagement/Commitment

Survey Item Criteria: Ensure survey items meet the following basic criteria:

  • Clear and concise – employees understand the meaning, and they generally interpret the item similarly. Keeping the reading difficulty level low, and writing shorter items, can help in this regard.
  • Behavioral – items reflect observable actions versus vague statements. For example: “My manager frequently talks to me about my career goals” versus “My manager is supportive.” The first example is specific and actionable, whereas the second example is not.
  • Single focused – the item deals with one topic, not two or more. Statistical results for an item like, “My supervisor sets clear goals and provides positive reinforcement when employees meet the goals,” will be ambiguous.
  • 7 or 5-point rating scale – the scale should have enough points so that employees have a range of options for communicating their perceptions, which increases the likelihood of variability in responses to each item (variability allows us to see differences between items and groups). The 5-point agreement scale (5 = strongly agree, 4 = agree, 3 = neutral, 2 = disagree, 1 = strongly disagree) is the standard scale used across the majority of employee surveys. Note that this scale has a mid-point to accommodate employees with “neutral/in between” opinions on issues. Scales without mid-points force respondents to make either a favorable or unfavorable rating, which inaccurately skews the survey results.
  • Dispersion in responses – variability in how employees respond to the item. An item where almost all employees respond at either end of the scale doesn’t tell us much about their perceptions, or differences among groups.

Include Open-ended Questions: Include 1 – 2 open-ended questions to get qualitative data about the organization. Employees typically enjoy the opportunity to comment on their perceptions about “what’s working” and “what’s not,” The comment themes are also beneficial to interpreting the survey results as they often provide context to numerical data – explanations for why certain results are high or low. Provide clear instructions to employees about how to input comments and remind them their statements are anonymous (e.g., “Please ensure your responses are concise, thoughtful, and constructive, as they will appear exactly as written. Keep in mind that your comments are anonymous and will be aggregated with other employee responses in order to identify major themes”).

Include Employee Demographics: Include demographics (e.g., department, job level, tenure, race, generation, gender) to assess where there are differences in the organization and where exactly improvement opportunities are necessary. Most organization’s today have the ability to link each employee to their demographics through an HRIS download. This approach removes the need to ask demographic questions in the survey which shortens the completion time, strengthens employee belief that they are not being identified (anonymity), and ensures accuracy in any analyses that involve comparisons of different demographic groups.

Conduct Survey Review: Before launching the survey have senior leaders and HR leaders review the survey and if possible conduct a mini-pilot with a few employees to ensure the technology works perfectly (survey link is accessible, filter questions work correctly) and items meet the above criteria.

Stay tuned for the next blog in our series on “How to Maximize the Value of Employee Surveys” as we will focus on communication strategies and survey reporting.

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