Employee Surveys and Research
10 Best Practices for
Well-orchestrated surveys lead to highest
return rates. Here's how to conduct the orchestra.
Employee motivation is vital to business
success. Increasingly, it distinguishes companies that thrive from those that
fail to survive. A highly motivated workforce delivers superior products and
services, and this in turn leads to greater customer satisfaction and improved
Given the implications for business
success, the measurement of employee motivation and commitment through the use
of employee surveys continues to increase, from an estimated 50 percent of U.S.
organizations in the 1980s (Delaney, Lewin, and Ichniowski, 1988) to more than
70 percent in the 1990s (Paul and Braken, 1995). Survey findings have become a
valued management information tool and are often used to identify and
prioritize issues for action, monitor the effectiveness of change initiatives,
establish performance objectives for managers, and provide metrics for the
"people" quadrant of the balanced scorecard.
Because survey results are increasingly
being used to guide management decisions, it is important to achieve a high
level of participation to ensure that the findings accurately reflect the key
concerns of employees. When response rates are low, the validity of the results
will be called into question, and sufficient data may not be available for
organizational subgroups or locations, hindering local action planning and
follow-up. Moreover, a low response rate sends an ominous message that the
workforce is disengaged and employees feel they lack a collective voice in
communicating their concerns to management. All of this diminishes the return
that an organization receives on its considerable investment in the survey
Participation in an employee survey is a
direct result of how well the survey process is designed and implemented.
Simply put, well-orchestrated surveys lead to higher return rates. Following
are 10 "best practices" for survey design and implementation and the
implications of these best practices for employee response rates. Also included
are key questions to ask at each step to ensure that your organization is
adhering to these practices.
- Establish clear goals and
objectives. In the early planning stage, articulate the overall goals and
objectives of the survey and define the anticipated return on investment. These
objectives should be developed with management input and clearly communicated
to employees in order to demonstrate the importance of the process. Without
long-term objectives that are clearly linked to company performance, the survey
may fail to elicit the management support and secure the resources required for
Key question: What does the organization hope to achieve
and what are the implications for company performance?
- Develop a communication plan.
Prepare a comprehensive communication plan to support each stage of the survey.
The plan should include a schedule of communication "events" as well as a
budget and formally assigned responsibilities. In the absence of a
communication plan, employees may not recognize the importance of the process
or see the connection between survey findings and subsequent follow-up
Key question: Who should prepare and issue survey-related
messages and when should these messages be communicated?
- Brand the survey process. The
survey should be "branded" with a tag line and an identifiable graphic logo.
The branding will help to provide continuity across each stage of the survey
and establish the process as an ongoing activity, rather than a one-time event.
When possible, the survey should be linked to other ongoing change initiatives.
Without branding, the survey may be seen by employees as an unconnected
initiative that will have limited consequences for the organization.
Key question: What theme does management want to convey through the
employee survey and how is this integrated with wider company change
- Allocate sufficient resources.
Estimate the resources that will be required to develop and implement your
survey and to support follow-up actions. These resources should be budgeted at
the start of the process and be taken into account in business plans. When this
is not done, the survey follow-up stage will lack the support required to be
effective and will often meet with resistance from line management. In
addition, employees might be convinced to participate in one survey, but if
they see no tangible evidence of change after the survey, they are not likely
to make the effort to participate again in the future.
Who will be required to manage and support the survey and what resources will
be required for the process to be successful?
- Define roles and
responsibilities. Support your survey by creating a network of internal
survey champions with responsibility for identifying the requirements for their
part of the business, managing data collection, and supporting follow-up
actions. Survey champions must be sold on the value of the survey and given a
clear description of their role requirements so that they can budget their time
accordingly. Similarly, managers who receive survey results for their areas of
operation also should be given clear instructions regarding their
responsibilities for survey follow-up. When this is not done, management is
less likely to communicate survey results to employees or take action in
response to the findings, and employees are less likely to have faith in the
value of the survey process.
Key question: What are the specific
responsibilities of the survey champions and what are the requirements of
managers who receive survey results for their areas of
- Demonstrate management
commitment. The research process will have greater credibility if employees
believe that it is endorsed and supported by senior management. Senior
management commitment can reassure employees that their views will be taken
into account and acted on. When management commitment is lacking, employees may
view the survey as a public relations exercise designed to project a "caring"
management style rather than a process for identifying and acting on employee
Key question: Who is the principal sponsor of the employee
research and how is this person's commitment to the process
- Ask the right questions the right
way. The survey should be designed to measure areas that are of concern to
management and employees. Even when the questionnaire includes standardized
items, the wording should be modified to reflect the culture of the company. An
"off the shelf" instrument that fails to address issues of concern or that
fails to reflect the language and terminology of the organization will be seen
as lacking in relevance and will fail to engage employees.
question: What are the topic areas that should be covered in the survey and how
should these questions be asked?
- Collect data the right way at the
right time. Consider the data-collection methodology that is best suited to
your workforce. Traditionally, surveys have been administered using printed
questionnaires, but the technology is now readily available for conducting
online surveys that make data collection easier, more efficient, and less
costly. Ease and convenience translate into higher response rates.
addition, unless there is a specific need to coordinate with other business
processes or a budgeting cycle, a survey generally should be administered at a
time when it will pose a minimal disruption to the business and when a maximum
number of employees are available for participation. Times of peak business
activity or when employees are likely to be on vacation should be avoided.
Similarly, data collection generally should not be undertaken during times when
management and employee relations are tense--for example, during a contract
negotiation, industrial action, or downsizing initiative.
important, survey administration should be scheduled so that the findings are
available in time to be included in business plans. This will position the
survey as a business-planning tool and secure the necessary budget for
follow-up actions. Poor scheduling for survey administration will invariably
reduce line-management support for data collection and may result in data being
available too late to influence budget or other business
Key question: What is the optimal time of the year to
administer the survey and when will data have to be available for the
- Take clear follow-up action.
The most effective way to build confidence in the survey process, and thereby
improve participation rates for future surveys, is for the organization to take
clear and visible action based on survey results. A realistic number of areas
should be targeted for follow-up action to allow the organization to
concentrate and focus resources on issues that will have the greatest impact on
performance. Failure to take action will create apathy toward the survey, and
targeting too many issues will diffuse the effectiveness of follow-up actions.
Key question: What are the key areas for action and which actions
are most likely to affect performance?
- Review and audit the process. A
formal audit process should be planned to monitor the effectiveness of
follow-up actions and to measure progress against objectives. Actions that meet
with success should be widely communicated and celebrated. This audit should
also include an assessment of the ROI associated with follow-up actions in
order to determine where investments should be increased, reduced, or
discontinued. Measuring the effectiveness and ROI of follow-up actions will
enhance the business relevance of the survey for both employees and managers.
It sends out the signal that the survey isn't simply a nice thing to do--it's
good for business.
Key question: How effective are the survey
follow-up actions and what is the ROI for the company?
Enhancing employee motivation has become a
business imperative and is essential to compete effectively in today's market.
The employee survey can be used to develop a strategy for creating a
high-motivation work environment and improving business performance. Achieving
a high response rate ensures that the survey findings are valid and can be used
for local as well as organization-wide action planning.
Adopting the best practices outlined above
will engage both management and employees in the survey process and can serve
as a catalyst for cultural change, creating an environment in which employees
are involved and have a productive and open dialogue with management