The employee survey: benefits, problems in practice, and the relation with HPO

By Dr. André de Waal


IntroductionThe employee survey -benefits, problems in practice, and the relation with the high performance organization

One of the management techniques which has gained much popularity the past fifteen years is the employee satisfaction survey (Hartley, 2001; Wiley, 2012). Many organizations, both profit and non-profit, use a yearly questionnaire, which measures the satisfaction of employees with all sorts of things in the organization. Yet recently, dissenting opinions can be heard that are critical of what they call “the yearly employee survey ritual”. The criticism focuses on the results of the survey which are not dealt with adequately so that the employee survey gradually has become a dissatisfier for employees and has not helped the organization to improve in a sustainable manner. Another phenomenon is that organizations that are considering to conduct a high performance organization (HPO) diagnosis – in which it is evaluated by means of a questionnaire and interviews how high performing an organization currently is and what improvements are needed to achieve high performance (de Waal, 2012a) – in the end, do not do this diagnosis using the justification that “we are already doing an employee survey”. In this article, the purpose of the employee survey, its advantages, its problems in practice and its relation with high performance are discussed. In the latter, it is shown that the employee survey and the HPO Diagnosis are two different but complementary techniques that can and should be used in conjunction with each other.

Benefits of the employee survey

In the literature, it is has been commonly accepted that there is a strong positive relation between employee satisfaction and organizational results (Heskett et al., 1997; Lau, 2000; Schneider et al., 2003; Irvine, 2009; Pech, 2009; Gable et al., 2010). Employees that are more satisfied will help customers better, which in turn makes these more satisfied, which increases the chances on customers being loyal and returning to the organization to spend more (Temkin, 2011; Xu and Van der Heijden, 2005). This even applies to employees who do not have direct customer contact: if they are more satisfied they will perform their tasks with more energy and higher quality which causes increased (internal) performance. Employee satisfaction is equated to employee engagement: the higher the satisfaction with an organization, the higher the commitment to this organization (Bowles and Cooper, 2009). To measure employee satisfaction (or engagement) organizations often use a periodic employee survey. In this survey, employees are asked to rate their satisfaction with the organization on a number of aspects. Individual scores are averaged and analyzed, often by the Human Resources department. From the analysis, several attention points are derived which lead to improvement actions by management. By executing these improvement actions, the satisfaction and engagement with the organization will increase which in turn will cause the organization to perform better. This makes the employee survey one of the most important management improvement techniques (Hartley, 2001).

Problems in practice

Unfortunately, in practice, the employee survey leads to less benefits than expected. This is because there are four main well-known problems with the survey:

  1. The results of the employee survey are hardly acted upon by management. A lot of time, effort and money have been spend on questioning employees but subsequently there is hardly any improvement action. Reasons for this inactivity are downplaying the survey results, not enough knowledge to remove the sources of discontent, or the belief that measuring satisfaction equals creating satisfaction. In addition, there is not enough time to address all issues, as the employee survey is conducted every year. Managers do not get sufficient time to substantially work on the issues before the next survey is upon them. So they have to turn to band-aids that do not work sufficiently. As a logical consequence both managers and employees get frustrated: managers because they cannot get the survey scores up enough, and employees because they do not feel taken seriously by management as their grievances are not addressed (Mastrangelo, 2009; Edwards et al., 1997; Sugheir et al., 2011).
  2. The employee survey does not measure what management thinks it is measuring and what it can act upon: “We now have a complete picture of whether employees are satisfied or not and we can do something about it”. However, not all aspects of working life can be measured in terms of (dis)satisfaction. Sometimes the survey simply measures employee understanding (“Do you know the organization’s strategy?”) not whether they are satisfied with it; or measures if things are present according to employees (“Are there enough possibilities for you to suggest ideas?”) and again not whether they are satisfied with this; or it is unclear whether satisfaction is measured on function, manager or organization. In addition, the survey can inquire about aspects management cannot or is not allowed to fix (“Are you satisfied with your pay?”). The problem is that employees, because their opinion is asked about these things, get the impression management will do something about issues, while this in reality it is not going to happen. Again this creates frustration and resentment (Bowles and Cooper, 2009; Mastrangelo, 2009).
  3. The employee survey is either too short and is limited to only issues that directly affect employee satisfaction, or much too long and asking after so many issues that it is impossible for management to address these all in the coming year (Mastrangelo, 2009; Kennedy and Daim, 2010).
  4. The employee survey only asks about the satisfaction of employees with internal issues and affairs that directly affects them, like working conditions, work environment and the exploitation of their potential by the organization. This strict focus on “internal employee satisfaction” causes potential relevant issues to be excluded. In addition, not enough connection is made between employees’ opinions and how these affect the execution of the organization’s strategy. Through this, issues which have to do with the effectivity of the organization, suppliers or customers, quality of management and quality of interaction and dialogue between managers and employees and cooperation between organizational units stay off screen; issues of which employees often have a good picture, as they are dealing with these on a daily basis. The consequence is that management gets a partial view on the organization and by definition cannot take comprehensive improvement actions to create a HPO (Wiley et al., 2006; Sugheir et al., 2011; Wiley, 2012).

What to do?

The benefits of doing an employee survey are evident, but so are the problems. It seems in recent years the latter have gained the upper hand, explaining why organizations seem to be loosing their taste for conducting another employee survey. Therefore, there is an urgent need for the employee survey to be improved. This requires addressing and remedying the four aforementioned problems as follows:

The HPO Diagnosis

Based on a review of 290 academic and management publications in the area of high performance and excellence, the characteristics of high performance were identified (de Waal, 2012a). These were put in a questionnaire that was distributed worldwide. Approximately 3,200 respondents from 1,475 organizations (both large, medium sized and small; both profit, non-profit and governmental) in 50 countries filled in this questionnaire in which they indicated how their organization scored on these characteristics and performed against their peer groups. Subsequent statistical analysis of the collected data showed that there are 35 characteristics that have a direct positive relation with competitive performance. These characteristics always appear in five groups, the so-called HPO factors. When an organization scores higher on these five HPO factors than its peer group, the organization also surpasses its peers financially and non-financially. Subsequent testing revealed that these five factors are valid for both all types of company sizes, all industries and all countries (de Waal, 2012b)….

Emerald Insight Article: The employee survey – benefits, problems in practice, and the relation with the high performance organization