Employee Surveys That Work

Improving Design, Use, and Organizational Impact

Alec Levenson (Author)

Publication date: 04/30/2014

Employee Surveys That Work
Offers practical guidance for designing employee surveys that yield useful results Explains the hidden pitfalls in many popular survey practices Written by a rising HR analytics thought leader Most employees like company surveys (A) Very much, (B)

* Offers practical guidance for designing employee surveys that yield useful results

* Explains the hidden pitfalls in many popular survey practices

* Written by a rising HR analytics thought leader

Most employees like company surveys (A) Very much, (B) So-so, (C) Not so much, or (D) Not at all. For most, the answer is D. And the same is often true for the executives who have to figure out how to apply the results.

But that's because so many employee surveys are poorly designed, says Alec Levenson. Employees with very different work functions are given the same set of questions, even though their experiences and concerns are wildly divergent. Surveys try to cover too many different kinds of issues at one time, resulting in either a bland set of questions or a survey that goes on forever. Questions are asked without a clear sense of how the answers will help improve the business, the reason for the survey isn't clear to the participants, and employees never see anything done with the results.

Employee Surveys That Work offers sensible, practical ways to make employee surveys more useful, accurate, and effective and counters a number of unhelpful but common practices that have arisen as employee surveys have become commonplace. Levenson provides specific advice for ensuring that the purpose and desired outcomes of surveys are clear, the questions are designed to provide the most relevant and accurate data, and the results are actionable. He looks at a wealth of specific issues, such as the best benchmarking practices, the benefits of multivariate modeling for analyzing results, linking survey data with performance data, how best to measure employee engagement, the pros and cons of respondent anonymity, and much more.

Employee surveys serve an indisputable role in providing a way to measure key organizational processes based on information from the people most informed about those processes-the employees who work with and implement them on a daily basis. But a lot can be done to design, implement, and act on surveys in more meaningful and productive ways. This book provides a road map for doing so.

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Overview

Offers practical guidance for designing employee surveys that yield useful results Explains the hidden pitfalls in many popular survey practices Written by a rising HR analytics thought leader Most employees like company surveys (A) Very much, (B)

* Offers practical guidance for designing employee surveys that yield useful results

* Explains the hidden pitfalls in many popular survey practices

* Written by a rising HR analytics thought leader

Most employees like company surveys (A) Very much, (B) So-so, (C) Not so much, or (D) Not at all. For most, the answer is D. And the same is often true for the executives who have to figure out how to apply the results.

But that's because so many employee surveys are poorly designed, says Alec Levenson. Employees with very different work functions are given the same set of questions, even though their experiences and concerns are wildly divergent. Surveys try to cover too many different kinds of issues at one time, resulting in either a bland set of questions or a survey that goes on forever. Questions are asked without a clear sense of how the answers will help improve the business, the reason for the survey isn't clear to the participants, and employees never see anything done with the results.

Employee Surveys That Work offers sensible, practical ways to make employee surveys more useful, accurate, and effective and counters a number of unhelpful but common practices that have arisen as employee surveys have become commonplace. Levenson provides specific advice for ensuring that the purpose and desired outcomes of surveys are clear, the questions are designed to provide the most relevant and accurate data, and the results are actionable. He looks at a wealth of specific issues, such as the best benchmarking practices, the benefits of multivariate modeling for analyzing results, linking survey data with performance data, how best to measure employee engagement, the pros and cons of respondent anonymity, and much more.

Employee surveys serve an indisputable role in providing a way to measure key organizational processes based on information from the people most informed about those processes-the employees who work with and implement them on a daily basis. But a lot can be done to design, implement, and act on surveys in more meaningful and productive ways. This book provides a road map for doing so.

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Meet the Author


Visit Author Page - Alec Levenson

Dr. Levenson is Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations in the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California. His action research and consulting with companies optimize job and organization performance and HR systems through the application of organization design, job design, human capital analytics, and strategic talent management.
Alec’s work with companies combines the best elements of scientific research and practical, actionable knowledge that companies can use to improve performance. He draws from the disciplines of economics, strategy, organization behavior, and industrial-organizational psychology to tackle complex talent and organizational challenges that defy easy solutions. His recommendations focus on the actions that organizations should take to make lasting improvements in critical areas.
Alec has spent over a decade and a half training human resource professionals and teams in the application of human capital analytics across a broad range of Fortune 500 and Global 500 companies.
His research has been published in numerous academic and business publications and featured in major media outlets including New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, CNN, Associated Press, CBS, U.S. News and World Report, National Public Radio, USA Today, Marketplace, and Fox News. He received his PhD and MA in Economics from Princeton University and his BA in Economics and Chinese language (double major) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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Table of Contents

introduction

A Roadmap to Effective Employee Surveys

part one

Survey Goals, Objectives, and Methods

chapter one

Goals * Define a Clear Sur vey Purpose

chapter two

Objectives * The Pros and Cons of Focusing on Employee Engagement

chapter three

Methods * Match the Measurement to the Processes, Roles, and Teams

part two

Design and Delivery

chapter four

Good Survey Practices * Don't Reinvent the Wheel

chapter five

Anonymity vs. Insights * Confidentiality and Organizational Data

Matching

part three

Survey Analysis, Interpretation, and Action Taking

chapter six

KISS * The Power and Pitfalls of Simplicity

chapter seven

The Big Picture * What, How, Why, and Who of Statistical Modeling

chapter eight

Reaching Conclusions * Benchmarking and Statistical versus Meaningful Differences

chapter nine

Moving Forward * Reporting and Taking Action

resources

references

index

acknowledgments

about the author

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Excerpt

Employee Surveys That Work

chapter one

GOALS

DEFINE A CLEAR SURVEY PURPOSE

Conducting an effective employee survey requires a substantial amount of time, energy, and resources. You have to have a clear purpose for the survey, and the questions need to be worded accurately. You should minimize survey length to yield a response rate that is sufficient for scientific accuracy. The results should be presented in a format that maximizes usability, and you need to engage all of the relevant stakeholders in the feedback and action-taking process. These and more principles hold for all surveys regardless of length—even short “pulse” surveys. Each chapter of this book addresses one or more of these aspects. In this chapter we start with purpose.

Recognize the objectives and tradeoffs. A theme that runs through this book is that there are tradeoffs in employee survey design. You can’t have a survey that does everything for everyone while being short enough to elicit high response rates, so you have to choose one primary purpose—two at the most—and stay true to the purpose when deciding what to include and exclude. This means selecting the desired outcomes for the survey and the right organizational level or levels on which to focus. It also means recognizing the limitations of surveys.

Surveys are good for gathering information in a focused way from a large group of people. A survey can collect a lot of data quickly and cheaply, but it might increase decision-making time. Stakeholder interviews alone may identify the organizational issues to be addressed. Archival analysis of data in your IT systems may provide a sufficient assessment. Direct observation of people and processes might reveal sufficient information for action taking without further investigation.

Surveys are best used when integrated with other assessment approaches. Interviews and focus groups of key stakeholders are often needed to define the scope of a survey. Archival data analysis and direct observation, if conducted before or during the survey design phase, can provide complementary information to help refine the survey scope. Alternatively, a survey analysis might identify issues requiring additional investigation. Interviews and focus groups can probe complex issues in ways that surveys cannot easily measure. Archival data analysis and direct observation can provide data that validate the initial conclusions of a survey analysis.

Many organizations, especially large ones, conduct enterprise-wide annual or biannual employee surveys. Conducting a survey across employees in different roles doing different things involves tradeoffs. You survey diverse people from different backgrounds who experience different things at work and whose prospects for rewards, development and promotions, influence and authority, and so on are different. You have to decide to focus primarily on individual employee issues (such as motivation, turnover, etc.), business process issues (such as group dynamics, collaboration, cross-functional collaboration, etc.), or both.

For example, administrative assistants, researchers/ engineers, salespeople, laborers, truck drivers, and software programmers all have different competencies, roles, and responsibilities. They have unique career paths both internally (within your organization) and externally. Organizational processes—R&D, sales, marketing, logistics/ distribution, supply chain, IT, HR, finance, and so on— focus on very different things. If you try to use one set of questions for all employees or organizational processes, you will need to reduce the focus to the most common denominators or run the risk that entire portions of the survey will be irrelevant to the people answering it or to the leaders who have to act on it. The alternative is a survey so long it is a burden to fill out. A better solution is different surveys with different focal points for different departments.

When designing the survey sample, it is important to acknowledge the potential risks of leaving people out. If a group or unit is excluded from a survey for no logical reason and if no reasonable justification is communicated, then people might question the survey purpose and undermine its support. To mitigate this, any survey sample limits should be clearly linked to the survey strategy and communicated to the organization.

The key lies in striking the right balance. An enterprise-wide survey that tries to be all things to all people with the same questions every year is going to have significant gaps. Targeted one-time surveys of specific units, processes, or roles will always get deeper insights into the most critical current issues for those groups. The big, broad approach’s greatest benefit comes from focusing everyone in the organization on one topic in a cost-effective manner while not overselling the benefits.

Desired outcomes for the survey. A survey should never be conducted without a goal in mind. Measurement alone is not enough to justify a survey. A survey is just one step in a greater process of some kind of organizational initiative or sensing effort, such as improving morale, setting the stage for a reorganization, improving operational effectiveness, and so on.

There are many potential desired outcomes for an employee survey: improved employee retention or engagement, customer service, quality, work processes, organizational climate, change effectiveness, talent management, and more. The first challenge is selecting the highest priority outcome or set of outcomes. Effectively addressing multiple outcomes in the same survey is possible; however, if they are closely related the survey will be shorter, and both clarity of purpose and ease of responding will be greater.

For example, change may be a high priority. If the organization is about to undergo substantial change or if the goal is to assess organizational agility, then change readiness is an appropriate focus. If the organization is undergoing or recently underwent significant change, then measuring change impact likely is more appropriate. While both change readiness and change impact are aspects of change, rigorous measurement of each requires a significant number of different survey questions. Measuring both well could easily mean a long survey with little room for anything else.

For a second example, understanding employee retention is always useful. Yet retention is not equally important for all settings and roles. For roles with difficult to replace capabilities, the cost of attrition and importance of retention are high, even if turnover might be relatively low. An example of a role like this is general managers with deep organizational and cross-functional knowledge. For roles with capabilities that are easy to replace, where new entrants can quickly get to full productivity, the importance of retention is low, even if turnover is high. A role like this is a call center job for “cold call” marketing of credit cards, where a minimal amount of training is needed, turnover does not affect the productivity of other employees, and employees can get up to full productivity in a relatively short amount of time. In contrast, there are other call center jobs that are highly complex, requiring a wide and deep knowledge base and significant training and experience. In these instances, the role is hard and expensive to replace and desired retention is high.

Thus retention’s importance depends on the role’s capabilities and turnover’s impact on those capabilities and organizational effectiveness. Retention likelihood can be measured using a small number of questions on intention to turnover. Yet measuring intention to turnover is different from understanding what drives people to leave; that requires a full model including factors such as opportunities for development and promotion, pay satisfaction, supervisor support, how supportive and productive coworkers are, and more. So if retention is an important organizational priority, an entire survey easily could be dedicated to measuring the factors behind it.

The more committed leadership is to achieving the survey goal, the better you will be able to focus attention and resources on doing the measurement. However, the survey must be an impartial measurement of the situation and factors impacting the survey goal. A survey should never be crafted to lead to a predetermined outcome.

For example, suppose senior leaders want to increase the productivity of a workforce that is already working long hours and complaining informally about too much work. Someone might suggest a survey highlighting only the positive aspects of working there to show a dedicated and committed workforce ready to take on any challenge, including more work. Such a survey might focus only on readiness to take on new challenges and the opportunities for learning, development, and career advancement. Those measurements are important but tell only one-half of the story. Additional measurements of work-life balance/burnout, intention to turnover, and organizational commitment should also be included for impartial measurement that truly gauges whether people are at the breaking point and cannot handle a greater workload; with these in hand a more accurate assessment could be made of the potential negative impacts of an increased workload.

Designing a survey that impartially measures the survey goal is important for keeping employees engaged in the process and increasing participation. Employees always have some sense of the issues being addressed in a survey: it is impossible to keep the true objective hidden. If a survey is poorly designed to measure a predetermined outcome, the first employees to take the survey will realize this and spread the word among their peers. That will lead to lower response rates and increased mistrust in management for fielding the survey—the exact opposite results you want to accomplish.

Organizational levels to target. Generally speaking there are three different organizational levels: (i) individual employees or roles; (ii) teams, work groups, or functions; and (iii) business units or the entire organization. There are two separate but related organizational level issues for employee surveys: question wording and the level of analysis. Chapter three has a detailed discussion of both issues. Here we address level of analysis specifically related to survey purpose.

The types of questions that can be asked effectively vary across the levels:

✓ Issues of retention and motivation often are best addressed at the individual employee or role level.

✓ Work processes and work group climate often are best addressed at the team or work group level.

✓ Organizational climate often is best addressed at the business unit or entire organization level.

Other question types can apply across levels. For example, change readiness, change effectiveness, and perceived organizational effectiveness can be measured at each level.

Even if an issue can be addressed across levels, its importance across the levels depends on the survey objectives. Though surveys are filled out by individuals, many key insights occur at the function, work group, business unit, and enterprise levels. It is important to clarify the desired level of the organizational outcomes and adjust the survey focus accordingly. For example:

✓ Change readiness can be measured at the individual level. However, organizational change effectiveness occurs at the work group level and higher.

✓ Relationship with supervisor can effectively predict employee engagement and retention at the individual level. At higher levels, it can gauge managerial training and effectiveness.

The ultimate issue is survey length and accuracy. It is important to conduct measurements at the appropriate level that are as accurate as possible. If multiple levels measurement is a high priority, then that should be the survey purpose. If not, then use single-level measurement to minimize survey length.

Summary of Key Points from This Chapter

Image Recognize the limitations of surveys. Don’t overuse them. Combine them with other assessment types as appropriate (interviews, focus groups, archival data analysis, direct observation, etc.).

Image Choose desired survey outcomes to maximize support of top organizational priorities. Choose one or two top priorities to focus on.

Image Clarify the highest priority organizational level for the survey priorities. Addressing multiple levels in the same survey is doable; choosing one primary level is more manageable.

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Endorsements


“From survey design to actionable analysis, this is exactly the resource I would recommend to anyone launching an employee measurement strategy.”
—Caroline Leach, Vice President, Communications, DIRECTV

“Before your organization embarks on another employee survey, read Dr. Levenson's book. Your results will be more accurate and actionable.”
—Kara Schillaci, Director, Organizational Management and Development, PepsiCo

“Alec Levenson cuts through survey hype with practical insights and advice for making the most from employee surveys and managing rather than simply measuring employee engagement.”  
—Per Scott, Vice President, Human Resources, Royal Bank of Canada

“Dr. Levenson convincingly reminds us of the axiom ‘correlation does not imply causation. ‘A must-read for those looking for actionable insight, not simply lots of data.”  
—Dianne Reece, Region Manager, Organizational Development and Training, FMC Technologies

"Before your organization embarks on another employee survey, read Dr. Levenson's book.  Your results will be more accurate and actionable."
--Kara Schillaci, Director, Organizational Management & Development, PepsiCo

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