Employee surveys

Why now could be a good time to consider an employee survey

‘Our staff are our best asset’ is a bit of a cliché. But in most businesses it’s true and how well your business performs rests on how engaged your employees are. Employee surveys not only signal to your staff that you care about what they think, but they also help to identify key issues that may be impeding performance. In the current economic climate this could give you the competitive edge that you need.

Often, it’s cultural issues that stop organisations reaching their full potential. People rarely want to under-perform, but more often than not the way that the organisation is run makes them do so.

Research shows that staff are usually held back by one or more of four key things. These might be labelled:

Self-fulfilment – are they doing work that they enjoy?

Line management – are they treated well by their immediate management?

Supportive environment – do they have the resources and the support that they need to be as effective as they could be?

Organisational engagement – do they understand and buy into the core thinking of the organisation: its vision, mission, values and objectives?

If it’s to do justice to the business and produce results that make a real difference, time needs to be spent on developing a questionnaire that uniquely meets the needs of the business. This is a skilled job and should be done by working closely with professionals who possess the necessary research skills and who understand how organisations work.

An employee questionnaire should not just be a list of statements and an agree/disagree scale (how strongly do you agree or disagree that…?). Even though this is what often passes as employee research, in reality, the question technique is very limited and many of the most important questions that should be asked cannot be shoehorned into that format.

Employee surveys can be used for a whole variety or reasons. Most commonly, they are used to explore a number of different facets of the culture – job satisfaction, line management, internal communications, commitment to core values, and so on. That being the case, each facet should be thought about carefully, with questions that can capture the unique workings of your business. And while it’s useful to have some general questions that you can compare with other organisations, you should avoid adopting only, or predominantly, standardised questions, as they may be irrelevant to your organisation.

Often surveys are used to explore particular issues in depth, such as internal communications or benefits, and rewards or change programmes. Again, the emphasis should be on customising the questions to your policies and practices.

Employee engagement has become one of the core concepts of HR management over the last few years. Despite this, there is no consistent definition of what it means. It is, though, a powerful idea and one that implies empowerment of staff; aligning them with the overall purpose and vision of the business and enabling them to reach their full potential. It can be helpful to think of it as the outcome of how staff interact with the management of the business. It might also contrast with the old ‘command and control’ model of how organisations work, as these diagrams illustrate.


But it’s very complex to measure this in staff surveys. And it should not be reduced to one or two measures, since this devalues the concept. Arguably, every question in the questionnaire should tell you something about how people engage with your organisation. A few general measures, such as job satisfaction and whether people talk highly about the business, will give you a sense of how effectively you are engaging your staff. The most useful questions, though, are the ones that tell you what the important issues are and a good idea of how you should go about addressing them.

Peter Hutton is a specialist in conducting employee surveys and author of ‘What are your staff trying to tell you?  Revealing best and worst practice in employee surveys’ published by Lulu.com

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