Why Employee Attitude Surveys Fail
The following article is
adapted from material in the "How to Conduct an Employee
Attitude Survey" section of the Survey
Tools for Windows manual.
Most larger companies conduct employee attitude surveys on an occasional,
if not on a regular basis. The senior management people in these organizations
will tell you that their commitment to surveying their employees is indicative
of their concern for their people. They will also tell you that they believe
that the survey process should result in well motivated employees who are productive
and quality conscious. In spite of this, these managers are often perplexed
because, no matter how many surveys they conduct, morale, productivity and
quality do not improve.
In this article, I will attempt to outline some of the errors companies make
when they survey their employees and I will suggest ways of conducting a survey
which will lead to meaningful changes and a well motivated and productive work
Conditions for Conducting a Survey
Many of the causes of unsuccessful survey efforts can be traced to the conditions
under which management does surveys. Often Human Resource executives initiate
employee attitude surveys in order to discover ways to improve the work environment
of their employees. However, too often senior management's full commitment
to the process and to making meaningful changes has not been obtained before
hand. As a result, management is not prepared to act on the survey findings.
In time, as these organizations continue to do surveys without providing feedback
and/or acting on the findings, employees become increasingly dissatisfied and
cynical about management's motives.
A second common unsuccessful scenario is that management wants to find out
how the organization is doing compared to other similar organizations. If the
organization scores more or less average, management feels there is no need
to make changes; and even when the results are poor, management often rationalizes
that considering the circumstances in which the survey was done (business downturn,
high turnover, etc.) they did not do so badly and no changes are made. In either
case the problem is that there are always some areas of dissatisfaction and
to raise expectations by doing a survey and then to not make any improvements
In yet other companies management conducts employee attitude surveys in order
to find scapegoats. In this case, management uses an employee attitude survey
to find the areas of greatest dissatisfaction and then fires the managers responsible
for those areas. In this situation too the morale of both employees and managers
The only good condition for doing an employee attitude survey is when senior
management (and not just the HR department) wants to find and solve the problems
that employees are facing in their work environment.
Types of Survey Instruments
The first question is whether you should use a custom product (whether designed
by a consultant or developed by your HR department) or an off the shelf tool.
At first glance a tool custom designed for your organization would seem to
be a better choice.
A custom survey will have questions primarily related to areas where management
feels there are problems. However, if management knows where most of the problems
lie, why bother with a survey? In fact, some of the most serious problems in
an organization are often those of which management is totally unaware and
these are unlikely to be revealed by a custom survey.
The opposite problem can also occur with custom surveys.
The management will often decide that to ask certain questions would be to
open a "can of worms" and
therefore will leave out the most pertinent and revealing questions. For both
of the above reasons, I recommend using an off the shelf tool. It may be desirable
to customize the tool by removing or changing a few irrelevant questions and/or
by using the appropriate terms for words like boss, department head, supervisor,
etc., but that should be the extent of any customization.
In terms of topics which should be covered, it is recommended that the survey
be as comprehensive as possible so that no problems will be undetected. There
should also be an emphasis on dimensions related to Maslow's higher order needs
(eg. autonomy, control, innovation, interpersonal harmony, etc.) because these
are the areas which most affect employee morale.
In order to have a comprehensive tool and still keep the survey to a manageable
length, it is best that the questions be as general as possible. For example,
ask if employees have the freedom to do their jobs in the way that they feel
is best. Do not ask if project status reports should be less detailed or produced
less often. The specific problems and solutions can be uncovered in feedback
and discussion sessions, after the survey has been completed.
There are two categories of survey tools, those which compare a company's
scores to standard norms (the norms tools) and those which compare the employees'
actual situation to what they would like ideally (the expectations tools).
The norms tools are best for companies that wish to see how they compare to
other companies. However, as discussed above this is a poor reason for conducting
Surprisingly few companies use expectations tools. This is probably because
they are afraid to ask their people what they want ideally since they fear
that they will raise expectations that can not be fulfilled. In truth, if management
makes a commitment to solving as many problems as possible given various constraints,
and if this commitment is honored, their people will be very satisfied. Employees
understand that the ideal is a target at which to aim and not a realistic expectation.
An honest effort to move towards the target is all that most employees expect.
The advantage of expectations tools over norms tools is best illustrated
with an example. In XYZ Corporation, they found that there was a lot of work
pressure and many rules and regulations compared to the norms for their industry.
As a result management allowed looser deadlines and eliminated many of the
rules and regulations, thus giving their people more autonomy. These well intentioned
initiatives surprisingly led to a drop in productivity and to a greater number
of rejects. The reason was that the workers at XYZ Corporation were motivated
by the challenge of tight deadlines and, in that high pressure environment,
they needed extensive rules for guidance.
Had this organization used an expectations tool, they would have realized
that the workers had no problems with work pressure or the number of rules
and regulations. Instead they would have found that it was the managers' lack
of interpersonal skills (even though these were about average for the industry)
that was causing worker dissatisfaction.
Use of Consultants
Companies often bring in an outside consultant to run their survey. There
are several reasons. They feel that they do not have the expertise to develop,
run or analyze a good employee attitude survey in house. They feel that an
outsider can be impartial and more forthright when recommending changes that
management should make. Often a consultant is seen as having the diplomatic
skills and perceived expertise to get management at all levels to accept changes
which are advisable in light of the survey findings.
In spite of the benefits of using consultants in some situations, there are
also serious disadvantages to the use of consultants. The most important is
ownership. When a consultant is used, the survey is the consultant's project
and it is all too easy for management to reject the consultant's findings or
to simply fail to implement the consultant's recommendations after the consultant
is gone. If the survey is conducted by the HR department, there is far more
commitment to the project and to the implementation of the action plans which
will evolve from the survey findings.
Another potential shortcoming of using consultants concerns the way in which
they develop their survey tool. Consultants typically conduct interviews with
employees and managers and then develop a custom survey instrument. As discussed
above this is not as good as using an off the shelf tool.
Finally, consultants are very expensive and the money could be put to better
use implementing action plans. On balance, in most situations it is advisable
to conduct your survey in house. Nevertheless, if you need a consultant, we
can refer you to an excellent one in your area.
Whom Should You Survey?
Obviously it is best to survey all workers in an organization. However, the
question of the level at which the data should be summarized still remains.
Should it be at the level of the plant, the division, the entire company or
at the level of each manager's work group? In my experience, I have found that
at least 50% of the problems that workers have are related to factors which
are under the control of the workers' immediate boss. If the survey data is
not analyzed at the level of each manager's work group, then these problems
will not be detected.
It is also very important that the managerial work groups (ie. the groups
of managers reporting to directors, the groups of directors reporting to VPs
and even the group of VPs reporting to the President) be surveyed as well.
Problems that managers have can also affect motivation and morale. One can
hardly expect poorly motivated managers to inspire their people. Moreover,
if the surveyed managers get good feedback and participate in the development
of their bosses' action plans they will be much more likely to do a good job
providing feedback to and developing action plans with their subordinates.
Properly conducted surveys can be extremely beneficial to an organization
but there are times when an employee attitude survey should not be run. It
should not be run during major labor negotiations, strikes, corporate restructuring,
downsizing, nor during summer and Christmas vacation periods. Aside from these
major disruptions, companies should not wait for just the right time to do
a survey. The earlier a survey is conducted, the sooner the plans can be developed
to tackle any existing problems that are be revealed.
Surveys, even if they encompass entire large corporations, should be both
run and analyzed over a three week period. This ensures that employees get
feedback while they still remember the survey. In order to do this it is necessary
to use a computerized survey tool (whether purchased or developed in house).
An excellent tool is our own Survey
Tools for Windows. It allows you to easily and cost effectively
design, administer and analyze professional employee surveys.
Once a survey is run, subsequent surveys should be run at the same time each
year. Annual surveys are the only way to monitor changes in employee morale
and motivation. In addition, when managers know that their groups will be surveyed
every year, they have an incentive to improve the working conditions of their
Feedback and More Feedback
One of the major reasons why surveys fail is that employees are left with
the impression that nothing was ever done with the survey results. In some
cases this is true; in other cases the wrong things were done; and in some
situations, proper steps were taken but employees did not recognize the relation
between the steps that were taken and the survey.
As mentioned previously, running and analyzing the survey should take a maximum
of three weeks. The remaining feedback and action plan development steps should
take a maximum of five more weeks.
After the survey results have been generated, the Survey Administrator should
meet with each of the managers and review the findings. At the same time the
Administrator should also coach the managers on how to conduct the Feedback
I meeting in which each manager presents the findings to his or her group.
During the Feedback I meeting, the manager should present the findings in
an open and non defensive manner. He should use the findings as a catalyst
to get the group to open up and to help him understand the specific problems
that led to the survey results. For example, if the findings indicate that
the group is unhappy with the state of disorganization that exists, the manager
should try to find out exactly which things are disorganized. He should also,
in a brainstorming manner, ask for all the possible solutions to the problems
that have been revealed. The manager should not comment on the proposed solutions
at that time but simply record them.
After the meeting the manager should prepare a three part report for the
Survey Administrator. He should indicate the specific problems that are in
his area, his action plan for the next 12 months and his recommendations to
senior management for changes which are outside the manager's control.
The Survey Administrator should collect the third part of each manager's
report and use it to prepare a set of recommendations for senior management.
Senior management should then prepare its action plan for the coming year and
communicate it to management.
During the Feedback II sessions each manager should give his or her people,
both his action plan and the senior management's action plan. It is important
to remember that all problems revealed by the survey do not have to be addressed
by the action plans. It is quite sufficient to address some of the problems
and to leave others for a future year's action plans. The important thing is
to do as much as possible given time and budget constraints.
The major benefits of the above model are:
- Employees get prompt feedback regarding the survey results
- Employees' input is sought and used to get a full understanding of the
- Employees' recommendations for improvements are seriously considered
- Employees get prompt feedback regarding management's action plans at all
- Managers, as employees of their respective bosses, get the same feedback
and opportunities to propose
- Management at all levels develop their own action plans and are therefore
more committed to them
- The fact that each manager's action plan is known by his or her boss and employees and the fact that the process will be repeated in one year, encourages managers to implement their plans.
It has been said that what gets measured gets done. This is only half
true. While management's choice of things to measure tells employees where
management's attention is focused, to be truly effective measurements must
be accurate. A furniture manufacturer that measures productivity in the
plant by the amount of scrap left over each day is not likely to remain
in business very long. In the human resources area, many companies have
instituted annual salary reviews which tie salary increases and promotions
to the level of an employee's performance instead of to seniority or inflation.
However, if the performance appraisal process is poor the company's objective
of retaining and attracting first class people will not be met.
The same logic applies to employee attitude surveys. While many senior
managers claim that their most important resource is their people and do
conduct employee attitude surveys, few companies do so without making many
of the errors discussed in this article. It is a failing which can and
should be corrected because in the long run, the motivation level of a
company's employees is the one measure which is most indicative of a company's