The employee survey has long been seen as a way for organizations to reach higher engagement numbers, but some forward-thinking employers are revisiting such processes, looking to glean business insights and more meaningful feedback from their workforces.
When the U.S. housing market began to falter in early 2007, most organizations in that space sought to cut costs and simply circle the wagons.
But at Moen, the faucet and bathroom-fixtures producer, it became the perfect time to revisit its ad-hoc employee-survey process and begin harnessing the wisdom of its 2,800 worldwide employees to become more responsive during this volatile period in the market.
"The thought then was that this is absolutely the right time to do this," says Robyn Hill, vice president of human resources for the North Olmstead, Ohio-based manufacturer. "We wanted to stay in tune with our folks, and we felt it was important that we get it all on the table and understand what's working and what's not.
"And now," she says, "we do it every year."
While the company's previous -- and irregular -- efforts at surveying employees largely came through the internal use of polling sites such as Zoomerang, Moen, with the help of Philadelphia-based The Hay Group, rolled out its first, formalized web-based survey to employees in 2008 "in every location we have," Hill says, including manufacturing plants in China and India, and distribution facilities in Guatemala and Mexico, as well as to every U.S. location.
While previous surveys had been scattershot in subject and content, Hill says, the new one consists of 30 to 35 questions that are largely the same year over year, with only minor modifications.
It takes between 10 and 15 minutes to complete, which is -- coincidentally -- the same length of time the average American spends in the shower, according to company data.
"We wanted to be able to get good metrics and good analytical capability," Hill says of the formalization process, "so that we could begin to address areas of concern for employees."
And, after the 2010 survey results showed the company had "scored lower than we had wanted in the area of recognition," Hill says, the HR function built and rolled out, in January 2011, a five-tier strategy entitled the High Five program, which added -- among other features -- an annual presidential achievement award for teams and individuals.
"We saw such a rise in the [company] favorability scores just by bringing this to the forefront," she says. "Having this visible sign of people being recognized has made a huge difference for us."
The revamped survey process also proved helpful when the company was looking to burnish its branding a few years back.
"Our surveys are now a great launching pad for getting and understanding feedback for strategy changes we're making," she says. "As our marketing team was working to refresh our brand standards in 2009, it was important for them to understand how and if [sales] associates felt their work affected the brand image."
So a special section of survey questions was added just for the company's sales associates.
"The feedback received shaped our internal messages and supported our ability to link individual roles to our brand strategies," says Hill.
Moen's revamping of its employee-survey program represents an evolution in thinking about how organizations may use employee surveys to guide both business results and higher employee-engagement numbers, says Kevin Sheridan, senior vice president of HR optimization at Avatar HR Solutions in Chicago. But in order to reap such benefits, he says, the company must not only ask the right questions, but also be ready to act upon them.
"It's all about accountability," he says. "Most companies are not very good at follow-up, and that is the cardinal sin of the employee survey."
"A More External View"
While there are certainly benefits to using an employee survey to follow how a particular initiative is being viewed and implemented internally, employee-survey results are also increasingly being closely analyzed to see how a company stacks up against its competitors.
That's the case at Caterpillar Inc., a manufacturer of industrial mining, construction and transportation equipment based in Peoria, Ill., says Bonnie Fetch, the company's people and organizational development director.
After Chief Executive Officer Douglas Oberhelman's appointment in the summer of 2010, she says, the company began "taking more of an external view" of its annual employee survey.
"It's good to look internally," Fetch says, "but it limited us in [finding out] how we stacked up against other manufacturing organizations."
That shift in focus also required changes in the questions being asked of employees and in who would draft them, which, for an HR function priding itself on customization and "making things our own," as she says, were difficult things to lose control of.
Armed with this new view on surveys, the company reached out to Wayne, Pa.-based Kenexa, which it had been working with since 2002, in order to redraft previous survey questions -- this time with an eye toward the competition.
"We pushed the enterprise from specific company questions to questions in Kenexa's normed database," Fetch says. "We wanted a survey that meets the enterprise's needs, but also the needs of the individual business units, as well."
With the results of a voluntary employee survey launched last October showing the second-highest participation rate in company history, at 93 percent, the new questions and normative database comparisons are proving themselves useful to the organization, Fetch says.
"It's yielded incredibly valuable information relative to the top 10 percent of companies and where Caterpillar fits," she says, "as well as where our strengths lie and where the opportunities are.
"Analytics is becoming more relevant all the time," she adds. "And we are using Kenexa to help us understand trends and how we stack up with the competition for people."
While large organizations such as Moen and Caterpillar are seeing positive results based on innovative uses of their employee-survey processes, at least a few consultants feel that, generally speaking, employee surveys are not appropriate for helping to develop an organization's business goals or overall strategy.
"My position on the issue is that [employee surveys] do not provide enough meaningful input to be useful in developing an overall business strategy," says Chuck Gumbert, founder and CEO of The Tomcat Group consultancy in Wichita, Kan. "They are more of a gauge as to what is taking place internally within the organization."
Further, he adds, "most employees have not been exposed to the issues within the industry, market or customer base and, as such, do not see the big picture," he says, adding that their input is more skewed toward smaller, more internal issues, such as where employees may or may not eat their lunches.
Gumbert adds that employee surveys are also generally skewed based on what has happened internally within the last one to six weeks. "If, within that time frame, there was some good or bad news affecting the shop floor," he says, "it will affect the overall results of the survey."
Taking an even more negative view on the current use of employee surveys, Sally Mounts, president of Washington, Pa.-based Auctus Consulting Group, says they "are an egregious waste of time, money and resources. They are virtually never the result of a genuine, ongoing effort from upper management to take the pulse of an organization.
"More often than not," she says, "they are slapdash efforts, hastily put together by an executive who wants information to fuel a pet project or gain consensus for an idea."
Another inhibitor to the efficacy of employee surveys, she says, is that they are seldom preceded by an executive briefing explaining why participation in the survey is important.
"Nor are they [followed] by a briefing explaining the results of the survey or detailing how they will be used to promote change," she says.
"Because of this critical disconnect, surveys can actually harm morale, since survey after survey is completed with no discernible change in the organization."
"A Very Long History"
One organization that doesn't have that problem is North Mississippi Health Services, the Tupelo, Miss.-based healthcare provider with approximately 6,200 employees.
"We have a very long history with employee surveys," says Vice President of Human Resources Rodger Brown, adding that NMHS has been polling its employees bi-annually since 1978.
Consisting of a flagship hospital in Tupelo, five community hospitals and four nursing homes across northeast Mississippi and northwest Alabama, Brown says "we have seen how focusing on employees affects the other metrics we want to achieve, like patient satisfaction [and] the ability to control quality and grow as a healthcare system."
While the surveys have been a part of the organization's culture for decades, it wasn't until a few years back that management began asking employees how they felt about the more-than-600 supervisors within the organization. Now, within the survey's results is a management-index score for each supervisor to see how well (or poorly) his or her employees rated him or her on categories including knowledge and communications.
"We pay a lot of close attention to those scores," he says, "and, depending on how they score, we either recognize them or have training ready to improve their skills. If you're not doing a good job leading, then employees are not happy and you will not achieve the results [you] need."
NMHS also uses Avatar HR Solutions' Action Pro plans, which are used to develop supervisors' skills around their unit's top three identified drivers of engagement for their workers, whether they be communications efforts, allocation of resources or another driver.
And such prioritization is vital for organizations to do in order to not only improve engagement scores, but also boost other measures of a company's health, says Bill Erickson, executive vice president at Kenexa.
"The biggest thing where people get [employee-survey results] wrong is they don't prioritize the information," he says, adding that Kenexa's research has shown that, when an employee survey identifies six distinct factors as part of an organization's overall engagement equation, that company will get more improvement on all six factors if it just focuses on two of them.
"For example, if you raise your scores on rewards, then your communications scores will go up with it. There's lots of overlap there," he says. "The business linkages to surveys are phenomenal. And once you get that, then, as you develop your survey, you've got to come back to those actionable things."
Regardless of the approach taken to shake up a company's employee-survey program, NMHS' Brown says, HR leaders should take the long view.
"There's got to be a consistent, ongoing process in place," he says. "It can't just be a random act, because you'll never get the mileage out of it."