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Analyze This

Employee-survey programs can yield valuable data to drive organizations forward, but the hard work involved could be wasted if the results are not effectively communicated back to workers and quickly acted upon.

Monday, November 1, 2010
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Depending on who you ask, there may be no more odious utterance in the English language than: "Please take a moment to fill out this survey."

If you're a busy employee at a mid- to-large-sized organization, then your response to that request usually accompanies either a sigh or a roll of the eyes, followed by a diatribe about how those things are a joke and no one ever takes them seriously.

For example, when the question, "Do you actually fill out employee surveys?" was posted on city-data.com, a research and forum website, the responses varied in tone, but many shared the same sentiments of one irate poster in particular.

"The survey results were published within the company about 10 months later," says the perturbed poster. "They never seemed to reflect any of the concerns that employees talked about daily. It was a table of statistics and comparisons with previous years and every year the conclusions were the same -- generally, the company and management were found to be doing a brilliant job. Whatever."

It is essential that surveys give employees a chance to make their opinions heard, but it's equally important to ensure they do not end up inspiring the same grievances as that angry online poster. Nearly three-quarters of companies with more than 10,000 employees actively use employee surveys, according to a research report by Wayne, Pa.-based HR solutions provider Kenexa.

If done properly, they can be an important tool for HR executives to glean business information from employees.

"[Employee surveys] not only allow for new, innovative ideas, but also allow executives to assess and steer the culture in the right direction," says Manny Avramidis, senior vice president of global human resources at the New York-based American Management Association.

But Prasad Setty, director of analytics, communication and compensation for the people operations department at Google Inc., says companies must survey with caution.

"We'd rather not do a survey than do a bad one," he says. "And any time an organization does a survey without sharing the results or taking action, they're overanalyzing their employees. ... Over-surveying can lead to low response rates, apathy and results that you can't use or trust -- all of which are a waste of everyone's time and energy."

So gauging the pulse of an organization's employees is a lot like hitting a moving target, where human resource leaders must balance the good will of employees to share their feelings with the company's constant need for fresh data.

For those companies that do it right, however, the benefits can be substantial, including reduced turnover rates and higher employee-engagement numbers.

And while it's important to focus on the 'How are we doing?' side of a survey, Avramidis cautions HR leaders not to miss a valuable strategic opportunity to work with other leaders when conducting them, in order to leverage the intellectual capital of the organization, because employees' insights may also help to influence future strategic decisions.

"In short, you want to know what your employees have to say," he says, adding that the legwork can now be done with very little effort and more immediate results.

"It would be in [HR executives'] best interest to leverage that new technology," he says.

Early and Often

The frequency with which employers survey their workers depends largely on the nature of the workforce, and advances in technology are also allowing organizations to be more agile in gathering data from some hard-to-hit targets.

At Kansas City, Mo.-based AMC Theaters, which has 360 theaters and 20,000 employees nationwide, the majority of the workers are entry-level film-crew associates who are tasked with taking tickets and working the concession stands, says John Nelson, the company's vice president of talent management.

"For a lot of them, this is their first job. And turnover is high," he adds.

AMC began doing engagement surveys three years ago, he says, adding that the company sends out survey questions to employees every 13 weeks in an effort to properly gauge satisfaction levels.

"We are looking for a measure that would indicate the quality of leadership provided by managers," he says. "Qualitative people metrics are hard to come by -- a measure that tells you something about the quality of the work environment provided by leadership."

To that end, AMC's surveys are aimed at pinpointing employee-engagement levels because, Nelson says, "we believe that, if folks are engaged in the work environment, then they will exhibit that discretionary behavior that leads to good business outcomes."

Associates are also asked if the survey results are being communicated back to them, and each general manager gets a copy of their own individual theater's report.

"We measure whether results are shared with team members and whether or not leadership responds," he says. "It's pretty clear [based on that data] to company management if the general managers don't share the results with associates," he says.

He adds that the company also posts each theater's engagement numbers on a company website on a quarterly basis.

"Our company is entirely transparent," Nelson says. "All our business results are published and every general manager can look at another's [engagement] numbers."

But constantly gauging the engagement level of 20,000 employees spread throughout the country -- while also maintaining the integrity of the results -- is not something that can be done with a pen-and-paper format.

"The only way this can work is if you do it electronically," he says. "When an associate logs on to our network at work, there's an icon they see to go right to a survey for feedback."

He says security issues make it necessary to require employees to use their ID numbers to use the survey, "but we communicate that we never see individual responses and we only publish results when we have five or more responses. That's something that we believe adds some integrity to the process."

To avoid what Nelson calls "survey fatigue," AMC puts out one annual survey in February, consisting of approximately 40 questions, followed by three "pulse" surveys throughout the year with just 10 questions.

The annual survey takes an average of 15 minutes to complete, he says, while the pulse surveys only take an average of two minutes.

And since the surveys began, Nelson says, turnover rates have declined while engagement levels are increasing.

Through the surveys, Nelson says, associates noted that they wanted more flexibility on scheduling requests, as well as more recognition for good work.

"Each individual team has their ideas about what they want, and it's up to the general manager and leadership that respond to them," he says. "I've heard companies complain that associates just don't participate, and my only answer is that, if you survey folks and then don't do anything with it, then it's a failure on your part."

Spirit of Google

While some organizations find great value in surveying their workforces on a quarterly basis, others rely on an annual survey.

At Google Inc.'s Mountain View, Calif.-based headquarters, a core team of industrial/organizational psychologists, Ph.D.- and master's-level analysts, as well as HR generalists, help create GoogleGeist, the company's annual survey that is released in September, says Michelle Donovan, a manager on the People Analytics team.

GoogleGeist contains a core set of items that all employees respond to, followed by another survey based on the employee's division, she says.

"Engineers get their own survey; sales gets their own survey," she says. "Finance, products and even HR [practitioners] get their own surveys. Each group has really unique issues."

The breakout surveys usually include 10 to 20 questions tailored to that division's challenges and goals.

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"Survey content is very important," Donovan says. "Some companies [keep] the [same] questions for four or five years. But at Google, typically, two-thirds of the questions stay and one-third is new each year."

After analyzing the prior year's survey results and looking for correlations and standard deviations that could yield valuable information down the line, the People Analytics team makes a set of recommendations for changes to the HR generalists in each division.

"We take the recommendations to the HR generalist of each major business and say: 'Here's what we're thinking about what to delete.' They can say 'OK' or say 'No, no, you can't lose that question.' "

In order to anticipate what questions will garner the best data, the company sends up a pilot survey every July, in which hundreds of employees are asked to test it.

"It helps keep content fresh and on current business issues," Donovan says, in describing the multi-step process of crafting the current year's surveys.

The survey's results are then gathered and digested by the team -- usually five to six weeks after being released -- and they are posted on the company's intranet site on the same day the information is presented to top leadership. "We're pretty proud of that," says Donovan.

Out of that presentation, leadership then decides on two or three areas to focus on for the year. Donovan recalls an example from a few years ago, when career development was targeted as an issue at Google.

"We did a ton of initiatives to help that out, and then the next year, we found the results of the survey turned up a 10-percent jump in career-development scores," she says. "We have found that, when we really focus on an area, we really do see results."

And, Setty adds, the company has a centralized process to ensure it doesn't over-survey its employees.

"This process covers everything from designing surveys to providing guidance on when to use surveys and when to use other sources, like focus groups; how often they should be done; and the right sampling techniques," he says.

Hearing Voices

Matt Valenti, the director of global market research for White Plains, N.Y.-based Starwood Hotels, says his company has been surveying its 125,000 worldwide employees through its StarVOICE survey on an annual basis since 2004.

"It's a natural tendency to say, 'I don't have time for a survey,' " he says, adding that "we are giving the employees an opportunity to have their voices heard."

The survey, which garners a response rate of more than 90 percent, is available in 42 different languages to accommodate workers from every country the hotels operate in. It's made up of 62 rating questions based on an agree-disagree scale, along with one open-ended question, and takes the average worker between 15 and 20 minutes to complete, Valenti says.

And it was a desire to be more flexible and responsive with the survey results that led Valenti's team to recently revamp its reporting system.

"If you can narrow the time and distance between getting the data and starting to think about action, you can capitalize on momentum," he says of the change.

Instead of simply providing the digested data to managers in a PDF format, the new format includes PowerPoint slides featuring discussion exercises for managers to work through with their charges.

"Having contextualized, directed slides that are a workbook and a group-facilitation exercise was a real add, and the fact that it was PowerPoint made it easier to edit," he says.

Valenti, who previously worked on the company's talent-management team before moving to marketing, says it's important to know what you're looking for before setting out to find it.

"Really define how you want to use the data before you even ask the question," he says. "That usually can be a good filter for how long you want it, what you want in it and what structure is best for your organization. That's something that's easy to lose sight of."

Ultimately, Google's Donovan says, when it comes to employee surveys, the difference between success and failure is clear. "If you're walking away from the survey results without a couple of new insights," she says, "then you're doing something wrong."

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