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Soliciting Employee Feedback: Getting Results with Employee Surveys

Every human resource professional knows that a company is only as good as its employees. That’s why it’s so important to get their feedback and respond to their needs, their ideas, and their suggestions and fast.

If you could read your employees’ minds, you’d have higher employee retention rates, lower absenteeism, improved productivity, better customer service, and better morale. While mind-reading remains in the realm of sci-fi, you can do the next best thing: ask employees what they’re thinking.

Employee surveys are an effective way to tap into the thoughts of the workplace. Soliciting feedback should be a regular part of the HR function. While many HR professionals ask for employee feedback when changes are being implemented, few survey to check on the status quo. That’s a mistake.

People, company culture, and goals all change frequently. Just because something worked well six months ago doesn’t mean that it still does. By tuning into what your employees are really thinking, rather than what you think they’re thinking, you have an opportunity to correct problems early and capitalize on successes quickly.

Employee surveys can lead to great savings too. The Employee Involvement Association, which has 6,000 U.S. corporate members that use employee suggestion programs, found that each employee idea that’s implemented saves an average of $6,224 per year. Multiply that by the number of employees in your company who may have good ideas waiting to be expressed and the savings can be significant.

Include Everyone

Survey everyone. You never know where good ideas will come from. Leave no one out, not even a group of employees that you think aren’t affected by a particular issue or aspect of the company. If you do, you risk overlooking a potentially fertile source of information. If employees don’t know about a particular issue, that’s all right. Instruct them to leave that section blank. But don’t assume that they won’t weigh in. What they know just may surprise and enlighten you.

Example: Say that you’re seeking feedback on office processes. Good information will come not only from those who work in the office, but also those who support the office. Employees who have even occasional contact with the office may offer valuable insight. Take mail clerks, for instance, who make their rounds once a day. Although it might seem as if this group has limited knowledge about processes in the office, you may find that limited knowledge goes a long way. Mailroom staff might be the only employees who know that each department keeps its outgoing mail in different places. This might lead to lost time and office interruptions. In this case, a mail clerk might suggest a timesaving, uniform company-wide pick up system. An employee survey could provide the perfect vehicle for gathering this important idea.

The more open a company is to hearing what all of its employees, not just those in the top echelons think, the better. Even part-time or temporary workers can lend valuable insight.

Example: Many retail organizations don’t think about surveying holiday wrappers. After all, they’re only temporary workers who seemingly have little understanding of the complexities of the company and who won’t be around for long. That’s a mistake. Although these people may only be with the company for a few weeks, they’ll be there for a very important few weeks. This group can have a major impact on sales. If they walk off the job, pass their dissatisfaction onto customers, or aren’t well trained, the company loses money. This population can be a wealth of valuable information. Ask them what they think and you can improve your training procedure, your management style, and find out what customers are saying about your services.

Include Everything

Annual employee surveys should be standard. They should include all aspects of the company. Solicit feedback on everything that goes on in your organization. Nothing should be off limits. The deeper and broader, the better. There may be areas within the company which you and management think are going swimmingly, but in fact are the source of consternation among a particular group within the organization.

Some HR professionals are loath to send out broad employee surveys for fear they will become an invitation to complain. And in many cases, surveys do become a breeding ground for griping. That’s OK. Being open to a little grumbling won’t hurt anything. Reading complaints will give you a feel for what people are experiencing and give employees an important outlet to voice their frustrations and their concerns. This sort of employee feedback is important, but know that every comment doesn’t have to be acted upon. Later, during your analysis of the employee survey results, you’ll be able to sort out valid issues from random venting.

Not all surveys are created equal. The best way to design an employee survey is to enlist professional help. A professional firm will break the survey into topics and then have a series of questions on each topic.

Additionally, the survey should dig for details in those areas where there’s been change or where you suspect problems.

Specific changes in the company may signal the need for smaller, spot surveys relating directly to the change. Acquisitions, moves, lay-offs, the merging of departments, and other shake-ups all may warrant surveys. These employee surveys should be short and go right into the issue. You’ll want to survey those affected by the change both directly and indirectly and only about the change itself.

Survey Smart

Just because you have a well-crafted employee survey doesn’t mean your data is going to be useful. Time and timing are both critical to a successful survey.

Give employees time to fill out the survey thoughtfully. If you send it off at two p.m. don’t expect it back by five. Two weeks is about right for a multi-page survey. Give employees any more time, and they may forget about it. Any less and you may wind up with knee-jerk responses. The most helpful information will come from employees who have had time to consider the issues.

Next, figure out a good time to send out the survey. Every company has slow and busy times. Pick a time when people are less busy so that they have the time to devote to the survey. If you’re a summer-oriented business, do it in the fall when things slow down, but when the memory of the busy-ness is still fresh.

Also, if you want employees to take employee surveys seriously, they must be used sparingly. You don’t want to survey so often that employees grow bored and ignore them.

Advertise employee surveys well in advance. Make sure employees know that a survey is coming and that it’s important to the company. Post notices on prominent bulletin boards, mention the survey in in-house publications, and send e-mail about it to every employee. While you don’t want to bombard employees, you do want to get across the message that the survey matters.

Be sure all survey results are submitted anonymously. Let employees know that this is the time they can really get things off their chest and throw out ideas. If you don’t do this, you will not get honest answers. Guaranteeing anonymity is the only way to ensure that the feedback you’re receiving will be honest.

Let employees know that survey results aren’t just going to be filed away; that they will be acted upon. It’s just like voting: people want to know their voice counts. The main reason employees eschew filling out surveys is that they don’t think that the company takes them seriously. If employees believe that their input matters, they will participate. If not, they will not.

Analyzing Information

While individual employees can make good points, offer productive suggestions and otherwise improve business, the first experts look for when examining data from the employee surveys is a theme.

First, map out what has been reported by the greatest number of people and identify the groups most affected. Are employees generally happy or unhappy?

Does one department seem better adjusted, busier or more enthusiastic than another? Does just about everyone wish you never invested in that new equipment? Is there a cog in the wheel that has been identified in the production line?

Next, look to see if departmental sub-themes emerge. Are the computer programmers sick of working in teams and feel they’re being hemmed in, but the sales force would prefer to see greater emphasis on teamwork and have teams rewarded?

Does your production line feel put upon by the engineering department? Is there a lack of communication between administrative staff? Is one building having more success with electronic communication than another? Is Accounts Receivable experiencing stress because the sales force submits complicated paperwork? Do your hourly employees utilize the fitness facility less than others do because they do not feel welcome?

Once you’ve gathered information, you’ll probably need the help of experts to determine where changes should be made. In some cases, the data will lead to logical conclusions about simple, effective ways to address employee concerns. In other cases, an area that’s been identified as a hot spot may be outside the purview of human resources. In those cases, you may want to probe further. You can present the problem based on employee survey data and ask the group to brainstorm about solutions. Be sure managers and others who can enact change are involved in these discussions so that practical, do-able solutions, not just wish lists, emerge.

Asking Counts

You won’t be able to address all concerns of all employees all the time, and employees don’t expect you to. Just asking employees what they think can help foster good relations. Employees appreciate being heard. They want to work for a company that cares about how they’re faring. Surveying sets a tone of openness and receptivity.

Of course, if you simply survey and never act on information, that good feeling isn’t going to last. Employees will want to see some action. There’s nothing worse than sending out an employee survey whose results go ignored. They want to know that the company has responded to some of the concerns of the workforce.

That’s why it’s so important to communicate the outcome of survey results. When changes are stimulated by survey results, get the word out. It doesn’t matter where in the company changes are being made, notify everyone – those affected by the change and those who are not. For instance, if survey results determined that a water cooler was needed on the second floor, send the message out that floor two now has a new water cooler thanks to employee suggestions. That way, employees see that their input matters. By demonstrating that employee surveys have a tangible impact on the workplace, you encourage participation in future surveys.

No organization should miss an opportunity to survey staff. It’s the only sure-fire way to peer into the minds of employees and take the pulse of the company as a whole. Gathering feedback though employee surveys ensures a happier, more productive, and more loyal staff. Not only do surveys give your organization an opportunity to address pressing issues as they emerge, but, even more importantly, surveys empower employees. Asking them what they think and acting on their advice makes them partners with management in determining direction. In turn, the workplace will soon look more like a place employees want to be and have a vested interest in being there.

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