Employee surveys behaving badly

BY Julian Gorham

We talk to a lot of HR Directors and other ‘people’ people, many at FTSE listed companies and there’s one subject that keeps cropping up; the employee survey. It is, it seems, behaving badly .

Some organisations, are replacing it with just one question, ‘How likely are you to recommend your company as a place to work?’ And who can blame them? Just look at the cumbersome admin and the survey results that arrive too slowly. Not to mention the number one complaint about employee surveys. They don’t usually lead to action and if they do it’s too late.

HR Directors are saying that some organisations, especially in the US, are talking about creating a ‘listening strategy’. This sometimes includes surveys, but more often than not is driven by new technology that scrapes internal online forums in which employees participate, and even scans the contents of employee emails to infer employee sentiment.

Sorry, but scraping emails as a way to listen to employees feels frankly creepy. Think your employees don’t trust you now? They really won’t when they find out their leaders are snoopers.

Undoubtedly technology like this has a role to play and has promise. These tools can produce some useful information, but they should serve as a supplement to other sources of employee opinion and sentiment.

What I’m hearing is that organisations have to work harder and do a mixture of things to engage employees. A real listening strategy would include the following elements;

— a well-designed and strategically focused survey

— awareness of employee opinion on forums

— one-on-one conversations

— skip-level discussions

…to name a few elements.

But where, precisely, do you start to connect employees with the direction of the company? How can people understand what they can do personally in their daily roles to bring to life the strategy of the business? I think a single organising idea is where you start – a motivating idea that describes a company’s spirit so that employees can gather around it. After all, consistency of spirit, beyond consistency of communication, is what many organisations want – and the great ones achieve it.

Of course, leaders and companies need to make the effort to communicate the single organising idea to everyone and embed it into the organisation properly. The company must take it all seriously at board level and that’s often where employee engagement falls down.

But ultimately, it is people’s commitment to the spirit of an organisation that any listening strategy should be measuring. Without a clear and inclusive expression of it, employee surveys and everything else have nothing to target and probably do more harm than good.