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A Guide To Successful Employee Survey Research, Part 4

Choosing The Right Employee Survey For You

employee survey methodologyNow that we have reviewed the importance of establishing clear survey objectives, the most critical steps in the employee survey process and how best to communicate your survey plans to your employees, the next step is to start making some practical decisions about your survey. "Practical" in this case does not mean "unimportant." All of the decisions you make on the factors reviewed here will help determine how successful your employee survey will be.

Online vs. Paper-Based Employee Surveys

These days, online web-based surveys are the most frequent survey methodology and almost all survey programs include at least some electronic data collection. This type of survey offers many benefits over hardcopy surveys, including:
  • Being cheaper and easier to administer than paper-based surveys,

  • Offering the ability to monitor response rates in "real time,"

  • Limiting each employee to one survey through the use of unique access codes,

  • Allowing employees to be routed to certain questions (which is known as "skip logic programming") based on their demographics and/or their responses to certain questions without letting them know they are being routed or requiring them to pay attention to skip instructions,

  • Ensuring that all participants answer every question they are asked.

However, before deciding that a web-based survey is the best option, it's vital to consider the following questions:
  • Do all employees have, or have access to, a computer or tablet with has external Internet access?
  • Are all of the employees sufficiently computer literate to complete a web-enabled survey?
  • Do you have field-based employees and, if so, how would they complete a web-enabled survey?
  • Can your IT Department provide the necessary assistance and support with the survey?
  • Is the culture in place for it and would it adversely affect the response rate if the survey were web-enabled?
If some of these problems exist, then it may be more appropriate to initially administer a mostly paper-based survey with a small scale web-enabled pilot in the most appropriate parts of the organization. In future years, the web-enabled element can be increased until it completely replaces paper-based completion.

It may seem obvious that online will continue to dominate as the preferred methodology for data collection, but in some industries, such as manufacturing and hospitality, paper surveys continue to be the only realistic option for "non-wired" employees. In our opinion, the data collection method used for an employee survey should not, by definition, create a barrier to participation - if your employees are not "wired," then only offering an online survey is not the best way to go. Sometimes, the more traditional approaches - like paper surveys - are the best choice. For help in making this decision for your own organization, look to how you manage other types of employee activities, such as benefit enrollment.

Mobile surveys are also getting a lot of attention these days but they present some challenges for employee surveys. Most online surveys can be accessed by any mobile device with an internet connection. The problem comes, though, with trying to complete a survey on phones with very small screens (less than about 7 inches diagonal). This may be fine if the survey is extremely short and does not include any open-ended questions but it can be challenging for more detailed surveys. Over time, as phone screens get larger, this issue will become less of a problem and mobile surveys will become more common. As well, most people have little difficulty completing surveys using iPads or tablets because those screens are large enough to ensure a good survey-taking experience.

Employee Survey Questionnaire Design

The design of the employee survey questionnaire can have as much influence over the response rate as the method of completion. Employees can abandon surveys that they feel are biased or unfairly written. The elements of a good employee survey are as follows:
  • Each question must directly relate to, and be measured against, the survey objectives,

  • The survey must be easy to complete and not attempt to "trick" employees,

  • It should take no longer than 20-30 minutes to complete,

  • The survey should only contain questions that employees can reasonably answer,

  • Similar questions/topics/themes should be grouped together, since this creates a more favorable survey "flow,"

  • The employee survey should only include questions that will give relevant and actionable information to the organization,

  • It must strike the right balance between addressing the needs of employees and the needs of the organization,

  • At least some of the questions should allow comparison of results with other external organizations, and

  • To emphasize the survey's role as a means of creating a better work environment, some of the questions should allow employees to provide improvement ideas and suggestions in the form of "verbatim" or "write-in" comments.

survey design choicesFollowing up on a suggestion we made earlier, as part of the questionnaire design process, it can be worthwhile to conduct qualitative focus groups and/or face-to-face interviews with employees and key survey stakeholders (i.e., senior leaders, board members or managers with a real interest in using the survey results) in order to solicit their feedback on the most valuable subjects and content to include in the employee survey.

There is both an art and a science to writing good questionnaires and this requires a solid understanding of research techniques and best practices. In addition to protecting employee anonymity, this is another reason why we strongly recommend against using a DIY approach with employee surveys. If the survey itself is poorly designed and badly written, with ambiguous, confusing or contradictory questions, then the survey results themselves may be useless for providing the correct direction in action planning. Additionally, DIY employee surveys come without comparative benchmark data. This lack of valid normative data makes it impossible to accurately determine which of your scores are low relative to similar organizations and, as result, this will leave you in the dark as to which issues you need to focus on first.

Employee Survey Validity and Reliability

The validity of your employee survey results is dependent on two key factors the quality of the survey design and your success in getting the highest possible level of employee participation. A well-designed survey asks the right questions (what is known as "face validity" in the scientific literature), which ensures you are getting feedback that addresses real workplace issues and can serve as the foundation for effective action planning. When reviewing your survey content, look at each question carefully in the light of this need for face validity.

Your employee survey should also be constructed with an eye to minimizing sources of bias, providing statistically valid results and, most importantly, providing a full and complete picture of the state of employee engagement in your workplace. These elements include aspects of the survey design, survey administration and the analysis and reporting of the survey findings.

We strongly believe in taking a comprehensive approach to employee surveys, measuring employee experiences ("When was your last performance review?"), feelings ("How committed do you feel to this organization?"), observations (Agreement that "There is a good sense of morale among the people you work with"), priorities ("How important is it to you that policies are administered fairly?"), and judgments ("How much do you agree or disagree that this organization administers policies fairly?"). By asking questions that capture all these different aspects of the employee experience, we are able to avoid traditional sources of response bias.

Many HR professionals have concerns about about employee surveys being too long because they do not want to overwhelm their employees. We feel that this concern is best addressed by achieving the most effective balance between survey content and length. This translates into a survey that is 15 to 20 minutes long. We believe this is a worthwhile investment of time by your employees, especially if your full study is conducted only once a year or every two years. Provided that your employees believe that senior management is serious about both asking for their opinions and taking action on the results, you should be able to achieve optimal participation with a survey of about this length.

We know that there is a trend these days in favor of very short employee surveys, although this seems to be driven solely by concerns about length and not about survey content. Following the old adage that "you don't know what you don't know," you will not be able to identify systematic problems within your organization if you do not ask about them. Collecting results using a short survey that does not encompass the issues your employees are facing will do little or nothing to help you improve your work environment. This is not to say that "pulse" studies do not have a role to play in employee surveys - since there can be great value "checking in" with your employees between your full surveys - but content should not be sacrificed simply for the purpose of reducing survey length.

Finally, good data is nothing without statistically-appropriate analysis, thoughtful interpretation and actionable insights. We'll review our guidelines for meeting these goals later in this Guide.

Multiple Languages in Employee Surveys

Many organizations, especially those operating in multiple countries, need to decide whether to offer their employee survey in more than one language. Although this decision needs to be made internally, our advice is to avoid letting the language of the survey become a barrier to participation. Just as with your survey methodology, your guiding principle should to emulate the language policy followed for other similar employee communications, such as corporate news or benefit enrollment. Some multinational organizations have established English as their sole language of communication, which suggests that the employee survey should only be offered in English. Others, though, accommodate a wide range of languages across the globe and their employee survey should be provided in a similar number of languages.

Keep in mind that when you offer multiple languages, the verbatim or write-in comments by your employees will be captured in their original language. For data analysis purposes, online "machine" translation services can generally give you the "gist" of the comment. However, if you need a more accurate representation of their comments, thoughts and feelings, you'll need to use a translation service. Now that we've established the basics of selecting the most appropriate employee survey methodology and designing meaningful survey content, let's now turn our attention to getting the highest level of employee participation.

Part 1: IntroductionPart 5: Maximizing Employee Participation


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