Employee Survey Overview

Steven Cesare, Ph.D.

A business owner from Indiana recently inquired about doing an attitude survey to gauge employees’ perceptions of the workplace.  The business owner drafted some standard questions and was prepared to distribute the document to his employees, and then he decided to seek my input.  While he certainly would have conducted any type of survey he wanted to, I suggested a more thoughtful approach that caught him by surprise which ultimately dissuaded him from using his original questionnaire.

My first recommendation was to identify the goals of the survey.  “Why are we doing this?”  He didn’t really have a sound answer to that basic question.  For example, most surveys should have 5-7 topics that management wants to assess to improve performance, morale, efficiency, teamwork, etc..  Common survey topics include:  communication, safety, compensation and benefits, job design and satisfaction, supervisory relationship, trust in management, tools and equipment, company direction, training and career path, and company culture.  

Second, I suggested that a cross functional team of employees be established to identify the specific survey goals and then begin drafting 4-5 items for each goal, thereby providing appropriate targets for each topic.  For example, potential survey items dealing with compensation include the following:

  • I believe I am paid fairly for the work I perform
  • The company pays employees at a higher rate than the local competitors
  • If I work harder, the company will pay me more money
  • My annual performance evaluation is tied directly to my wage rate
  • Work performance is more important than tenure, in order to get paid more at this company 

The rule of thumb is to never ask a survey item that the company will not address if poor results are received.  To that end, management should have an action item list for every possible item to show the employees it is committed to improving the workplace.  If management is not going to take action, do not ask the item in the survey; too much credibility can be lost.

Third, once the survey has been developed, proofread, and approved, inform the workforce that an anonymous survey will soon be distributed, with its goals specified directly.  By the way:  Never do a survey alone; always pair it with follow-up interviews.  Surveys are best at assessing broad topics superficially, though inherently negligent in addressing the underlying drivers of the results.  In short, surveys cannot ask the insightful “why?” question.  Interviews can, should, and must do so to give the results clear direction.  Accordingly, let the employees know that random confidential interviews will be conducted as part of this survey process.

Next, distribute the survey as desired:  all employees, sample of employees, certain divisions, etc.  Tabulate the survey results (e.g., average score, frequency counts), coordinate the random interviews to seek potential explanations for the results, and then schedule a series of meetings to feed the survey and interview results back to the workforce.  Upon presenting the results, make sure to schedule follow-up meetings to track the action items that will be implemented to improve the performance on the originally-identified goals of the survey.

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Steve Cesare Ph.D.

has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience. Prior to joining The Harvest Group, Steve worked with Bemus Landscape, Jack in the Box, the County of San Diego, Citicorp, and NASA. Steve earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University, and has authored 68 human resources journal articles. As a member of The Harvest Group, Steve’s areas of expertise include: staffing, legal compliance, wage and hour issues, training, and employee safety.  Read Steve's full bio.