Rich Peterson Debates Employee Surveys: Garbage or Gold?

Today’s high IT employment rate paints a deceiving picture. It seems to suggest a stable, satisfied marketplace for talented professionals. But there’s nothing stable about it.Most IT pros are working now. They have a job. But with all the stories of opportunity – higher salaries, signing bonuses, education and training programs, flex time, benefits, and other quality of life issues-it’s vital to understand just how important you are to your current employer-and if you might be more important to a different

Whenever possible, job seekers and job holders should find out if employees at the company they’re considering, or co-workers at the company where they now work, are happy. Is management listening? Are concerns being addressed? Are ideas given a chance to fly?

You probably don’t have to hire a private detective or conduct a Louis Harris polI to find out. The answer may lie with the company’s track record on employee surveys.

According to some industry experts, it is appropriate for a candidate to ask about a company’s history and practice of surveying employees. Also, your own experience with employee surveys in your current job is a useful indicator about just how effectively your employer is using this important tool. The employee survey experiences of some of the area’s leading IT employers is instructive and rewarding.

“We wanted an opportunity to get honest feedback from both long-term and new employees about our performance,” said Sandra Marra, director of human resources at Advanced Technology Systems (ATS), a national firm headquartered in McLean, Va., that develops, integrates, and implements high quality software systems and the enabling technology environment, which recently surveyed its employees. “We were pleased to find that, over all, our employees are very happy, giving the company high scores for balancing work and personal time, the level of supervisor support, and the work ethic of their colleagues. This kind of positive feedback means a lot to us.”

Surveying requires a great deal of courage and vision, and companies like ATS are on the front-end of the human resources curve. More and more companies are recently seeing the value of employee surveying. Historically, companies were too afraid of what they might learn in conducting surveys, so they chose not to do it. Now employers are realizing that this tool can improve their employee relations efforts tremendously.

And although employees do not expect their needs and wishes to be met “line for line,” they do need to see that the company is listening and responding.

In-house surveying can play an instrumental role in recruiting and retaining employees. It allows employees to candidly express concerns, and it helps employers improve work environments by making meaningful changes as needed. Seeing their suggestions implemented almost always improves employee morale, productivity and quality of work. It also creates an atmosphere of partnership. What’s more, it can materially improve employee referral programs because employees spread good news about the company they work for. Studies have shown employee referral programs are the best way for companies to find talent or for candidates to secure a career opportunity.

Surveying also raises the expectations of employees. They are looking for something to happen as a result of being asked for their opinions. Thus, when surveys are conducted and no action is taken by senior management together with the human resources department, employees can become demoralized, apathetic or cynical. This can be the kiss of death in any organization. Therefore, it is incumbent on the company to follow through on any survey.  To survey and do nothing is more detrimental than not surveying at all.

And considering that nearly half of employee dissatisfaction issues reported are related to factors which are controlled by the employee’s immediate supervisor, surveying can uncover problems ranging from those that are company-wide to concerns at the departmental level. Most companies, though, look for common denominators
among survey results and implement changes based on their positive affect on the entire organization. In
addition, employers can learn about areas in which they excel so they can maintain the most effective employee policies and programs-and promote them to job candidates.

“From our employee surveys, we learned that we could further enhance our benefits package by making a few additions to the vacation and retirement programs,” said Marra. “The survey also pointed out that there’s room for us to improve our employee orientation program to help new hires become acclimated to the ATS culture.  We are now in the process of revamping our orientation program according to the needs specified by our employees.” According to Barbara Mitchell, a principal with The Millennium Group InternationaI, a human resources consulting firm in Vienna, VA, and president-elect of the Employment Management Association, surveying has proved to be an important tool in recruiting and retaining today’s sought-after technology professionals.

“One of our areas of focus is the development of retention programs for high technology firms. We find that a well-crafted employee survey is extremely important in the development of strategies for key talent retention,” said Mitchell.

Arbitron, a leading media information services company with an operations and research center in Columbia, MD, has been surveying employees for five years. Using CultureScan, a copyrighted survey instrument developed by the Gantz Wiley company in Minneapolis, MN, Arbitron annually collects information on employee attitudes in more than a dozen categories, including work environment, job satisfaction, training and career development, management, and salary and benefits, as well as demographic information. The survey has more than 60 questions and is distributed to all employees.

“The culture at Arbitron is highly collaborative, and we place a high value on employee involvement as well as a strong focus on our customers. These values are integrated at every level of our employee population and are incorporated into everyday decision-making and activities,” said Marilou Legge, manager of employee communications at Arbitron. “‘We routinely survey our customers about their needs and desires, and doing the same for our employees is a logical extension of that value.”

The CultureScan survey is typically administered just after election day each year. The theme is “your opinion counts,” and mock voting booths are constructed to administer the survey. The booths are stocked full of food and pencils, and employees are able to “go to the polls” to fill out the survey at various times throughout the workday. The surveys are then dropped into a nearby mail sack.  The voting booths are staffed with employee volunteers from across the organization, from senior management to part-time workers.

Those who work from their homes or who are traveling when the CultureScan survey is administered receive an “absentee ballot” and a business reply envelope in which to return the survey.

Arbitron seems to be doing something right.

“The exciting thing about this process is that we really are improving employee satisfaction,” said Kathie Ross, vice president of organizational effectiveness at Arbitron. “Every year we focus on two or three areas, and every year we improve. In fact, Arbitron perfonns at or above the national norms reported by Gantz Wiley in each one of the thirteen themes.

Arbitron’s success is due in large part to its commitment to implementing employee recommendations that benefit the organization as a whole. Baseline survey results are first reported to senior management who, in tum, share these results in a company-wide meeting. At that time, the categories where the company scored the lowest are identified for immediate action. Senior management later receives detailed reports which are then incorporated into planning efforts. Individual departments receive reports for their specific work groups, and group meetings are then scheduled to discuss findings and develop collaborative action plans.

Although Arbitron is very successful using an outside consultant to assist with surveying employees, companies who do not choose to invest in consultants can still achieve good results if they plan well. According to Surveying Employees by John E. Jones, Ph.D., and William L Bearley, Ed.D., the best surveys:

• Establish a clear purpose so that employees understand why completing it candidly is important.

• Create conditions that are private and favorable for honest responses.

• Involve a representative sample of employees in the planning effort.

• Establish a theme for the intervention such as “values” or “communication.”

• Set objectives to measure the extent to which survey feedback intervention is working.

• Customize and fit the local situation.

However, off-the-shelf tools can be customized by removing or changing irrelevant questions or terminology. They also tend to lack institutional biases that can get in the way when senior executives or HR departments develop their own surveys. Establish benchmarks for comparison in subsequent surveys. For employee recruiting and retention purposes, it’s best to survey employees at some regular interval and after improvement strategies have been implemented throughout the company.  Re-surveying annually is useful to measure progress and identify new opportunities for improvement. Surveys help to monitor employee morale and motivation, and they aid in providing management with a progress report and an incentive to continue to improve working environments. The importance of knowing that real change will result from the survey process is key to retaining employees at every level-from information technology professionals, to key business and marketing staff, to the chief executive officer. Companies that tie annual salary increases, performance bonuses, and promotions directly to meeting specific business objectives-including objectives recommended by employees and agreed to by management as a result of surveys-are better able to retain and attract the best job candidates.

When it comes to evaluating the staggering number of IT opportunities in the job market, it makes sense to ask questions about how well an employer asks questions of you. What they do about the answers can be critical in your decision to stay or move on.

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