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Employee Attitudes: Silence Is Not Golden
 

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR  4/1/2011
 

When employee attitude surveys generate less-than-ideal results, leaders need to “accept the reality of that data” and share the results widely with employees at all levels of the organization, an expert says.

“Silence is not golden here,” said Linda Dulye, president of Dulye & Co., an employee engagement consultancy in Warwick, N.Y., during a webinar held March 15, 2011. Employers should share “the unvarnished views as they are,” she said, and should engage everyone, not just managers, in responding to the results.

Dulye & Co. advocates a six-step process to maximize the effectiveness of an employee survey.

Calibration

Prior to administering a new employee survey, organizations should look at previous surveys and their results and ask themselves a series of questions, such as “What’s the driving force behind the survey?” Is it simply “that time of year” or because the organization is trying to win an award? Is the survey tied to the organization’s business strategy?

Dulye said that before proceeding an organization should tap into a third party or a neutral employee group, such as a multi-level cross functional team, to consider the organization’s motivation for conducting a survey. The group should consider questions such as:

  • What are we measuring?
  • Who creates the questions?
  • Can remote employees participate easily?
  • Will all results be communicated?
  • Who is held accountable for success?

Dedicate several months to calibrate, rather than simply repeating prior surveys, Dulye said.

Communication

It’s important to share straight talk with leaders about what is going well at the organization and what is not going well. “Bad data is good data if it really reflects what your workforce is feeling,” Dulye said. “Be direct and open. Package results for visual consumption. Clearly identify high performing areas as well as low performing and middle performing areas.”

It’s important to get leaders comfortable using the word “weakness” and discussing poor performance areas, according to Dulye. If “happy talk” dominates the survey discussion, it’s an indication that those involved have surrendered to their fears, she noted.

And when it comes to communicating results, Dulye noted, they should not be reserved “for executive eyes only.” Representative verbatim comments should be shared with employees—typos and all—as part of the numerical presentation of results, she said, to enhance the authenticity and transparency of communication.

Similarly, executives should not be expected to own responsibility for communicating results and follow-up efforts. Instead, she recommends that organizations select people who are not in HR or corporate communications roles and make plans to engage them before, during and after the survey period to explain why measurement matters, how it relates to business performance and how the organization will change as a result of the survey feedback.

Organizations can facilitate the communication process by providing results in a format that is simple and easy to follow. “If you can’t understand the chart in 15 to 20 seconds it’s too complicated,” Eric Hansen, measurement team leader for Dulye & Co., said during the webinar.

Coaching

Instead of allowing leaders to write survey results off by saying that “the data were what I expected” or “there were no real surprises,” they should see data as “a personal and professional coaching tool,” Dulye said, and as an opportunity for learning.

Collaboration

“Measurement shouldn’t be a solo exercise,” Dulye said. Yet in many organizations, she said, collaboration requires a paradigm shift from flying solo—the “me” way of doing things—to an inclusive measurement process—the “we” way of doing things. “Collaboration doesn’t come naturally or easily,” she added.

Once senior leaders agree on a few areas where performance needs to be improved, they should “sound the call for front-line employees to get involved,” she said. Though the size of a cross-functional action team will depend on the size of the project, Dulye said, 80 percent should be front-line workers and 20 percent should be supervisors—nominated from the bottom up or by peers—and supported by a senior-level champion to monitor and support, but not manage, the team. Such teams should be in place within a month after the results are released, she said.

“Let the teams do the talking about updating about their progress,” she noted. “Don’t communicate for them.”

And that goes for HR too. HR and communication professionals should “help leaders learn to let go and trust the thinking and recommendations of action teams,” she said.

Continuous Improvement

It is important to keep “a steady stream of data pulsing” to be sure that follow-up action plans are achieved, Dulye said. “You can’t wait twelve months to assess the follow-up from teams,” Hansen agreed.

That’s why he suggests that organizations conduct a series of pulse checks, using all available communication outlets, such as all-hands meetings, company intranets and online polls. Some employers might even use an online dashboard to give employees real-time access to the results from such mini polls.

Low-tech options such as informal “hall talk” and “management huddles” are another option.

But when such listening sessions are being held, Dulye & Co. recommends, leaders should “leave the PowerPoint charts at the door.”

Celebration

Organizations should take time to celebrate progress, Dulye said, by recognizing results, and the people involved in the process, at appropriate intervals.

And companies should give employees who have been involved in the survey process the chance to lead company meetings, speak at industry conferences, provide quotes for articles in business publications and act as tour guides for executive and customer visitors, she said, as another way to celebrate and recognize their efforts.

This process should act as a closed loop, Dulye said, cycling continuously from calibration and communication—during which time organizations identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats—to coaching, collaboration and continuous improvement—the time to take correction action and conduct pulse checks—to celebrating and recognizing progress, at which time the process begins anew.

“Data is a gift,” Dulye said.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Untangling Positive and Negative Employee Feedback, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, August 2010

Employee Surveys Help Measure Engagement, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, October 2009

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