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Employee Attitude Surveys

by Pat Townsend
and Joan Gebhardt

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The simplest--and best--reason for an organization to go through the expense and work of conducting and reacting to an employee attitude survey is this: Virtually nobody gives better service than they receive. It is the rare individual (usually called saints) who consistently treats others well while being mistreated himself or herself. If an organization wants its employees to treat customers well, it must treat its own employees well. And only if it asks can it be sure that its employees perceive themselves as being treated well and fairly.

The biggest risk in taking an employee attitude survey is that the mere act of asking "How do you like it here?" implies a promise to make things better if respondents are unhappy. Just as with a customer survey, an organization shouldn't ask if it isn't willing to change.

When preparing to conduct an employee attitude survey, the organization should try to identify an industry prototype. This is beneficial both because the other organization has probably done extensive research in crafting the questions and because the accumulated answers provide a good benchmark.

If the organization can get a standard industry employee attitude survey, it can then add a few questions that apply to itself. Absent the availability of an industry standard, the organization may want to turn to a local college or consultant to build the survey. Again the caution: Don't ask if you aren't committed to reacting to the answers.

One-hundred percent of the people employed on the day the survey is conducted should be required to complete the survey. That will take some doing, but it's the only way to maintain the impression that the answers truly reflect the opinions of the entire organization. People whose lives will be directly affected don't want to hear about the "accuracy of statistical sampling" if they never gave their answers.

After tabulating the results, do two things quickly: Publish the results, and announce what will be done based on the answers. Publishing the results will, in itself, solve some problems. If an individual finds out that she or he is the only person in the company who is unhappy about a particular point, it may cause the individual to reassess the situation.

More important is how the company reacts to the negative answers. It's best to set a standard for formal response in advance (or, at least, before publishing the results). An example would be a pledge to formally address all areas in which the rate of negative responses is 5 percent below the industry average, or whenever the negative responses represent 10 percent or higher of the employee base. The dual standard is because, for instance, the employees may have a positive response to a point of 92 percent. That's fine--unless the industry average is a 98-percent positive response.

All negative responses should then be grouped by subject areas so that only a reasonable number of employee groups must form to make recommendations, rather than a few dozen. When announcing the subject areas--and what is contained within each area--accompany the announcement with a call for volunteers to study the problems and recommend actions. Cross-department and cross-level study groups can then be formed.

These study groups can't receive carte blanche to make changes. They should be given all possible information, complete with a specific member of the staff to turn to for answers, to help them arrive at their recommendations; they will have the senior management team, including the president and/or CEO, as the audience when they're ready to present their recommendations. "Yes" answers aren't guaranteed. The guarantee is that if senior management disagrees with a particular recommendation, it won't just say "No," but rather "No, for the following reasons ."

And, of course, the membership of the study groups should be publicized at the work's outset so that individuals can seek out group members to add their input. When the study groups have finished their work, the recommendations and senior management responses also must be publicized. The last step is to announce, "We'll do this again in two years."

Following these steps will ensure that employees--the piece of the quality puzzle most often ignored--will be in a position to ensure that everything else fits together.


About the authors

Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and four books: Commit to Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1986); Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation, and Measurement (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Five-Star Leadership: The Art and Strategy of Creating Leaders at Every Level (John Wiley & Sons, 1997); and Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997).

E-mail them at  ptownsend@qualitydigest.com.


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