Do employee surveys really serve a useful purpose?
Employee surveys seem to have become a regular part of corporate life.
But many managers who want to gauge levels of employee satisfaction feel that the feedback they receive is often less than helpful.
Employees, the managers complain, often take the chance to voice familiar grievances, such as poor communication. Employees for their part are often sceptical about the surveys, seeing them as a managerial sop with few concrete results.
Even human resource managers agree that surveys on their own are of limited utility. But they can be helpful in conjunction with other ways of sounding out staff. At the Newport plant of the Canadian-owned Mitel Corporation, all 900 employees are asked to take part in an anonymous survey every 18 months, and every three months 40 people are asked the same sort of questions in a telephone survey. The company asks questions about work relationships, career progression and so on. Ed Marsh, head of human resources, says: 'With feedback from more informal sessions, the surveys can throw up a pattern of problems. They are one of the major inputs to our business planning.' Suspicions about surveys are voiced by Christopher Mabey, head of the Centre for HR and Change at the Open University Business School. 'The way you frame the questions will determine the answers that you get,' he says. 'They are a blunt sort of instrument to pick up on something as intangible as corporate culture. First-hand views and opinions are much more valuable, and can be a very important catalyst for change, as long as staff are made part of the feedback exercise and follow-through.'
Jenny Davenport, who advised on the Industrial Society's 1994 best practice report on employee surveys, emphasises that the processes used to assess the results must be properly thought through. 'If employees say they like their job, it does not necessarily mean that they think they are working for a wonderful organisation,' she says.
This is a sentiment often expressed by staff in the NHS. Paul Sabapathy, chief executive of an inner-city community health trust, knows (because he talks with his staff) that many of them feel they are overworked. The annual employee survey takes the temperature of the North Birmingham Trust more formally.
Meanwhile, the John Lewis Partnership is one big organisation which is very sniffy about conventional employee surveys. John Lewis prides itself on good employee relations. A raft of mechanisms 'make sure there is always a flow of information and opinion - to and from management'.
Meanwhile, Sabapathy wants to improve the response rate to employee surveys, and has developed a novel way of achieving his objective. He has promised the 1,800 staff he will put 10p of his own money into a hospice donation for every questionnaire returned. If other managers followed his example, such surveys really would become popular among employees.