Using Surveys to Evaluate Employee Satisfaction

Chris Mattie
Posted: 06/10/2008

How many of you have seen the movie Office Space? It is a personal favorite of mine. So much so that I have almost memorized the script from start to finish. For those of you who have not seen the film, it is a somewhat satirical comedic look at life in a software development company during the 1990s, with the main plot focusing around a small group of coworkers who are fed up with their jobs. Although the film did not do well in the box office, it has become a cult classic—mostly because so many people can relate to the plight of the characters.

So what does this tell us about the state of office environments in general? Granted, a movie is simply Hollywood’s attempt at entertainment, but how much of it is really based on truth, and how much is embellishment? How does a company go about determining if its staff is truly happy doing the work they are doing, or if a mass exodus is right around the corner? Perhaps the character Peter Gibbons would have been a better employee if he were given the opportunity to grow within his career. Perhaps his company, Initech, would have avoided downsizing if they focused more on the employees rather than their bottom line. And perhaps Milton Waddams would not have burned the office building to the ground if he was just given the opportunity to voice his unhappiness over something as simple as his red Swingline stapler. Apologies to those who did not see the movie, but I think you get my point!

Asking the Right Questions

Getting an accurate reading of the satisfaction levels within an organization may not be as easy as you think. It is important that your questions not only capture the intended information but also provide the opportunity for additional data mining or extrapolation of patterns or habits that can be critical for developing an accurate picture of employee satisfaction. The wrong questions—or even the slightest wording discrepancy—can dramatically impact results, not only by not capturing what the intended question was, but also through the misinterpretation of the respondent.

Let us consider a very simple example where XYZ, Inc. has issues with employee satisfaction as well as morale and is worried about increased turnover. Let’s reflect on the following question:

"Are you happy with your current position at XYZ, Inc.?"

The intent here is to determine who is happy working at XYZ, Inc. At its core this seems like a straightforward question, but what does it actually tell us? The obvious answer would be that given a number of respondents, you should be able to get a percentage of which employees are happy with their current positions at XYZ, Inc. and which ones are not.

Now let’s drill down a bit further. When we consider those who chose to indicate they are not happy with their current position, what does that mean? Does it mean they do not like working in the Account Management Department and would rather be in Sales, or does it mean they are not happy working at XYZ, Inc. at all? In this example, the difference is important, as one situation leaves an employee unfulfilled and working in a job he does not enjoy, and the other presents a situation where the employee may decide to quit altogether! Equally important is the fact the two situations should be addressed differently and may not be best addressed with a "catch all" style solution. In this example we can see how proper wording has left us with confusing results and little direction.

Consider the following alternative:

"Do you feel you have a future with XYZ, Inc.?"

A response to this question provides a much more definitive answer where you can see what percentage of employees actually believe opportunities exist for a future within the company.

Understand the Results

Equally important to asking the right questions is understanding the results you collect. For most, yes means yes and no means no, and when one of the two answers is provided you should have a clear direction as to the intent of the answer. Sometimes, however, answers can be taken different ways, which can lead to confusion or misunderstanding. Granted, a solid understanding of the subject matter both on the part of the respondents and the data analyst should prevent this, but it is not always the case. Many will tell you this very reason is why open-ended questions are not an effective way of gathering information since it can be difficult to understand the intent of the response.

One such example that is always evident to me is when I ask my wife, "How are you doing?" I (the data analyst) have learned through much time, effort and frustration (understanding of the subject matter) that her answer (the respondent) can not always be taken at face value. When I asked her this question, I will generally get one of three responses:

"I’m good." Translation: Things are good.
"I’m OK." Translation: Things are not OK.
"Fine." Translation: You’re in trouble.

A somewhat comedic example (for you, not for me), but the point is well illustrated that providing multiple choices or scaled responses can help provide easier results to interoperate, because people will often not mean what they say or say what they mean.

This does not mean you should only provide the respondent the opportunity to answer on a scale of one to five, but give careful consideration to which options they can choose and if they will provide sufficient insight to the question being asked.

Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Every time a group of people is queried via a survey, questionnaire or even suggestion box, there exists the possibility the responses will not be what you expect, nor what you want to hear. When viewing the results, it is important to know that the company is doing well, but it’s more important to see where employees perceive the shortcomings of their job to be. Very few employees leave their job because they are too happy. One of the most common beliefs that employees voice after completion of satisfaction surveys is a feeling that, despite providing their opinions, nothing has changed.

This by no means suggests a company should bow to every suggestion offered or give everyone a 40 percent increase in compensation, but it does present an interesting question of what comes next. First, share the findings of the survey. This lets all the respondents see first hand where their opinions reside relative to the entire company. Next, be prepared to take action based on the results. There is a very good chance things are not going to come out the way the company may think, and it is important they be in a position to not only accept that fact, but also to act upon it. Finally, a survey that shows, for example, employees are not satisfied with the amount of training available, provides a clear opportunity to address an issue that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. In short, take action. And let employees know actions are coming for areas they identified as being pain points. But be certain to see things through to completion.

Moving Forward

Taking the time and investing the effort to conduct a company-wide survey can require a great deal of effort. After the initial surveys are completed, spend some time meeting with employees to monitor efforts in improving satisfaction levels. One common technique involves round table discussions where senior officials are able to sit with a randomly chosen cross section of people from different departments. This style of "skip meeting" allows people to have open discussions with senior management without necessarily involving their immediate supervisors and managers. These candid meetings can prove invaluable in gathering supplemental information as well as demonstrating a concerted effort on the part of the company to keep in touch with their employees.

First published on Human Resources IQ.

Chris Mattie
Posted: 06/10/2008

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