Where's the ticked-off box?

If you're sick of HR's endless, dubious employee surveys, says Adrian Furnham, there's a fiendishly simple way to fight back

December 15, 2011

Staff surveys go under many names: the Staff Attitude Survey, the Climate Survey, the Engagement Survey, the Employee Passion Survey. The title always refers to the latest fad, with job "satisfaction" becoming job "engagement", which has now metamorphosed into job "passion".

These polls are meant to tap staff morale, create a sense of democracy ("Have your say!") and help managers understand differences within their organisation.

Perhaps the earliest form of staff survey was the suggestion box, which usually ended up crammed with a mixture of sweet wrappers and rude remarks. Next came the extensive paper surveys of the 1980s and 1990s, which required some serious effort to analyse. Today, thanks to the internet, surveys are easy to use and process.

The Gallup 12 is well known and extensively used but rather expensive. It contains only 12 questions and takes just a few minutes to answer. The organisation promises to "benchmark" your engagement score, which means that not only can you examine how morale, engagement and satisfaction differ between levels, functions, sites and the like, but also, more interestingly, how you stack up against the competition.

The staff survey is, of course, the province of the most hated, loathed and despised department in the university - human resources. The survey-wallahs go to great pains to get a good response rate. They appoint, recruit and bamboozle people into becoming survey "champions", whose job is to get people to complete the damn thing. Nothing peeves, irks and frustrates the survey people more than a poor response rate. They worry that it implies that employees don't care about, trust or find any use for the whole process.

So why don't more people answer the questions? Here are a few of the thoughts that often cross the minds of those surveyed:

Is it really anonymous? Respondents are told they can be completely honest because the survey has guaranteed anonymity. Everyone has a non-traceable, randomised code. Sometimes the whole process is given to an outside body. But anyone in business knows how easy it is to trace a person, especially if the group size for analysis is small. So the whole trust and transparency mantra fails. Of course it may be simple paranoia on the part of some employees, but equally it may be that knowledge of how the analysis works tends to make academics cautious avoiders of this "electronic monitoring".

Who sees the results? It is customary for a "client" and respondents to receive a report giving the headline results. But do these reports ever show the really bad news? Namely, the news that 87 per cent of people neither like nor respect nor trust their manager, that 74 per cent are very strongly not proud to work for the organisation, and that a staggering 94 per cent think the appraisal/performance management system is a pointless, time-wasting, bureaucratic exercise?

Will any good come of it? So you tell the organisation that many of its processes and procedures are counterproductive, wasteful and pointless. Yet nothing improves. The same, alas, is probably true in politics: newly democratised people queue around the block to vote for the politician who promised the earth. Fewer take part the second time around when they realise that those promises were not fulfilled.

How will the results be used? Dictators are fond of plebiscites. Thus, because 51 per cent of the staff have said they felt "moderately unsafe" at work, a new security and surveillance system is introduced to increase "employee safety". The cameras and other devices are not only there for your "protection", but because you "asked" for them.

Who devises the questions? Do you have confidence in the CEO? What do you think of the canteen food? Of changes in pension policies? Of most interest are always the questions that are not asked.

Do you want some real fun? Devise - with like-minded others - your own survey. Invite all to add their own questions. Promise that the full results will be available online. See how the survey department responds to real democracy.

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