A Guide To Successful Employee Survey Research, Part 2
Establishing Meaningful Employee Survey Objectives
Before embarking on any employee survey program, it is vital to define a set of objectives for the research. Without these objectives and anticipated outcomes, the employee research program will lack focus and it might be difficult to generate enthusiasm for the employee survey among your key influencers and decision-makers.
We strongly believe that, in general, employee satisfaction surveys need to be viewed as an enterprise-wide initiative that has implications for senior leaders, front-line managers and employees across the organization. To be successful, an employee survey should be directed by HR but HR should not be the only department involved in planning the project.
As a result, it's vital that the objectives established for an employee survey be business-related and reflect the organization as a whole, in addition to addressing human capital management issues. Taking this wider perspective means that the improvements resulting from the employee survey are more likely to translate into broader business goals, such as improving customer service and optimizing overall organizational performance.
Here are some of the objectives defined by our clients over the years:
All of these objectives - and more! - can be achieved through a well-designed and well-executed employee survey. Next, let's take a look at our recommendation for how to establish realistic and meaningful objectives.
- Provide assurance to CEO, Executive Directors and Board of Directors about the quality and consistency of people management, and the extent to which our core values are being applied and lived by.
- Measure the level of engagement and satisfaction of all employees.
- Determine employees' understanding of, and belief in, our organization's mission, vision and values and organizational objectives.
- Describe our organization's existing culture and how/where it may vary from our mission, vision, and values.
- Identify our areas of strengths and best practice, as well as potential risks and opportunities for improvement.
- Understand and rank the drivers of engagement, satisfaction and team effectiveness.
- Measure the success of current organizational policies and programs.
- Provide input to managers to help them execute their accountability for performance improvement.
- Determine the training and development/job enhancement/career advancement needs of our employees.
- Establish benchmarks to track progress in future.
- Understand variations between business units/departments/locations in order to build on internal "best practices" and address particular areas of weakness.
Effective Objective-Setting Questions
Research objectives are simply answers to some basic questions about the information you want to achieve. When thinking about collecting information from employees specifically, we suggest asking yourself each of the following questions:
- What information you are looking for or what problem you are trying to solve? In other words, what are you hoping to learn? Are there any other ways you might describe what you're trying to explore?
- Are all team members in agreement about what this research should explore and, if not, what are the differing perspectives?
- What have you/your team already done to explore these issues?
- What other initiatives/internal issues might affect this research? AND what other initiatives/internal issues might be affected by this research?
- What decisions will be impacted by the learning from this research? How might you act differently based on what you learn?
- Will all employees be affected by this research (which is usually the case for most employee engagement surveys) or will this research only apply to a certain sub-segment(s) of your workforce?
- How will you build awareness of the employee research program, results and improvements among employees?
- Once you have collected the results, will improvement action be required at different levels throughout the organization?
- How will front-line managers and employees be engaged in both the survey process and in action planning based on the findings?
- How will the progress of the action planning be reviewed, monitored and communicated over time?
- How would you define "success" within the context of this research?
Deciding on the Appropriate Research Methodology: Qualitative or Quantitative Research?
Defining objectives at the outset of the initiative also helps to determine the methodology for collecting this information. For any research exercise, there are two basic methodologies:
Quantitative and qualitative research methodologies can both be highly effective in employee research. It is essential, though, to select the most appropriate methodology for the research objectives.
- Qualitative research is a more exploratory research technique that uses non-numeric data, such as open-ended interviews, focus groups and naturally occurring conversations, to identify and describe themes, patterns, norms, beliefs, decision processes and systems.
- Quantitative research uses structured data collection methods, such as closed-ended survey questions, measurements of frequency and intensity and counting events, to determine the demographic and psychographic distribution of opinions, beliefs and behaviors. This type of research can also be used to test hypotheses and to build predictive models.
Qualitative Employee Research
Qualitative research is most appropriate when:
Face-to-face individual interviews and focus groups are the most common forms of qualitative techniques used in employee research. Qualitative research can both precede and follow quantitative employee research. For example, individual stakeholder interviews can be helpful when designing an employee survey, as a means of understanding the primary issues of concern within an organization. Qualitative research can also be used to pre-test a survey before administering to the larger population.
- The research objectives relate to relatively small groups of people rather than to the entire organization,
- You are looking to pursue a subject in more depth than is possible in an employee survey,
- You need the flexibility to move between subjects dependent on how participants respond,
- You are attempting to assess the range of feelings or attitudes about a certain subject,
- You are trying to understand the root causes of a feeling rather than just its symptoms,
- You are looking to identify the connections between issues, and/or
- You are researching particularly complex issues that would be difficult to quantify.
Alternatively, different types of qualitative research can be used after the survey data has been collected to better understand the meaning behind the quantitative results. For example, employee focus groups designed around specific topics can be helpful in turning survey findings into action.
Quantitative Employee Research
Quantitative employee survey research is most appropriate when:
Comprehensive employee surveys are the most common form of quantitative employee research. These surveys go by all kinds of different names, including "employee opinion surveys," "employee satisfaction surveys," "employee climate surveys" and "employee engagement surveys." Although these different versions can vary quite a bit in terms of actual content, most are intended to meet the same overarching goal - to help an organization understand how well it is managing its people and what opportunities exist to improve working conditions so that, in turn, employees are encouraged and enthusiastic about doing their very best every day.
- Large numbers of people need to be included in the research and, in many cases, this can refer to the entire workforce,
- There is a need to collect information on a large number of different subjects,
- It is important to have robust numerical data in order to confidently plan future action,
- You need to make measurable comparisons of survey findings between different groups,
- You want to be able to compare your organization's performance against other external organizations,
- You want to undertake some form of advanced statistical analysis on the results, such as regression or correlation analysis, and/or
- You need to link your survey findings with other research data (e.g., customer satisfaction data).
The Key Principles of Employee Surveys
Regardless of what your survey is called, it is useful to meet the following guidelines in order to ensure success:
- Who should participate? In our experience, it's best to invite all employees to participate, except perhaps the organization's newest employees or those with a less-direct working relationship with the organization.
- What questions should you ask? As you can imagine, there is a lot of variability in terms of survey length and content. These surveys generally measure thoughts, feelings and opinions about the work environment on a number of different dimensions, including attitudes toward the mission/vision/values, senior management, direct supervisors, corporate policies and even assessment of recent corporate decisions or changes.
- Who should collect the data? As a survey company, it should come as no surprise that we believe employee surveys - at least the data collection part - should be managed by an independent third party. We know that there are plenty of "free" or low cost survey tools available that you can use to collect employee data internally. However, protecting employee anonymity - both in reality and in the eyes of your employees - is absolutely essential if you want to achieve the highest possible participation and if you're determined to get honest and reliable answers. If you (i.e. Human Resources) are collecting the data yourself, especially if you're inviting people to participate via their corporate email addresses, how can you guarantee their anonymity? Also, many companies who manage their own data collection fail to recognize that there is a learning curve to writing and managing good surveys and do not adequately account for the time taken internally on the project when comparing against the cost of hiring an outside employee research company.
- What should happen after the employee survey is completed? In our experience, it is extremely important that any organization-wide employee feedback initiative be followed by action planning that addresses the top 3-4 opportunities for improvement. There is almost no value to an employee survey if the results aren't used to promote improvements within the organization - in fact, you're probably better off not doing a survey at all than to get your employees involved, have them take the time to share their opinions and then do nothing with the findings.
- How often should you conduct an employee survey? This is really a decision to be made by each organization individually. Many organizations conduct these studies on an annual basis, although some prefer to run them once every 18 months or every two years or so. Our advice is not to run a survey more often than you can effectively analyze and act on the findings. For example, if your survey suggests the need to overhaul your performance reviews, it would not make sense to launch another survey until all employees have had direct experience with the new review program.
Newer Types of Employee Survey Programs
Annual climate, engagement or employee satisfaction surveys are, by far, the most popular type of employee research project. However, the following types of research programs are also emerging:
- More frequent and shorter employee "pulse" surveys that can be used to "fill in the gaps" between the more comprehensive surveys,
- Conducting employee and customer satisfaction studies simultaneously with a goal of determining how closely the two are related,
- Evaluations of corporate procedures and/or policies, which can be used to both direct changes and to measure the impact of changes,
- Determining how strongly employees are aligned behind organizational rebranding, repositioning or new product development efforts,
- Understanding how well employees are managing through major organizational changes, such as mergers, acquisition/downsizing, etc.
- Internal inter-departmental customer service evaluations, which examine how well individual groups or departments are meeting the needs of the departments they work with most frequently,
- Internal communications evaluations, including helping to design corporate guidelines for effective communications, and
- Evaluation and employee input into design of different benefits schemes.
Now that we've discussed setting meaningful employee research objectives and reviewed the different types of methodologies available, it's time to delve deeper into the "best practices" for conducting employee surveys specifically.