Employee Polls: A Vote in Favor

When corporate surveys ask the right questions, the answers become invaluable

My company runs an annual employee survey in the name of "continuous improvement," but nothing ever really changes. Now, my boss has asked me to come up with a better way. Frankly, I think the whole polling-the-people thing never works. Shouldn't we just switch to a town meeting approach? — Anonymous, Waterloo, Iowa

It's so easy to hate polls, isn't it, especially now? Everywhere you turn, you're bombarded with "expert" surveys about who's going to win the Presidential primaries, and by how much. Then, hours later, the poll results change or turn out to be way off, and the pundits start hyperventilating. You're left thinking that—as you put it—the "whole polling-the-people thing" doesn't actually tell you much.

Don't go there. Political polls have their flaws—they're an inexact science —and sure, company "town-hall meetings" foster meaningful debate. But effective employee surveys are, in fact, a form of polling that really works.

The key, of course, is the word effective. Too many employee surveys focus on the kind of incidentals that spur nattering in the hallways but rarely matter outside company walls. Maybe that's why nothing seems to change at your company. Effective surveys, by contrast, are devoid of trivialities about parking and the lunchroom. They're hard-hitting and confidential. They focus on issues that really matter. And they do so by delving into four distinct areas:

First, they uncover whether employees truly buy into the company's mission and its initiatives. Look, leaders can pontificate all day, but the future they envision won't arrive if employees don't see how a change in direction will boost both the company and their own careers. That's why, if you're moving from a product-driven to a service-driven strategy, for instance, make sure your survey asks employees how much they agree with statements such as, "I clearly understand the role service plays in the success of this business," and, "I support the use of our top engineers to upgrade the technology of our service offerings." Never assume buy-in. Measure it.

Second, effective surveys probe whether managers walk the talk. There's something inimitably motivating about a manager who does what he says he will and lives the company's values. Surveys, by dint of their confidentiality, can spotlight this key driver of employee engagement. They reveal, for instance, where managers stand on fighting bureaucracy or promoting on merit. Further, they can size up senior management's grasp of reality by asking for everyone's reaction to the statement, "What I read about this company in the newspaper and annual report is consistent with what I experience on the job."

Third, effective surveys shed light on company performance. The marketplace, in time, delivers this information, but employees are often the first to know where the company is falling short. Is it technology innovation? Is it quality? To find out, good surveys get gritty, asking employees how much they agree with statements like, "Our new products and services closely match what our customers want," and, "In two years our current technology programs will ensure we remain the market leader."

Finally, effective surveys probe the quality of people-management systems. If you want the best team, you need a stellar HR program, where people receive frequent, candid appraisals and are paid according to performance. That's why the best surveys ask employees to react to statements such as, "This business promotes the most capable people," and, "This business deals decisively with people who don't perform satisfactorily." Any response other than "strongly agree" demands action.

And action is, ultimately, the measure of any employee survey. The polls that leave you cold—at your company and in the "real world"—do so because they have meaning for about five minutes. An effective employee survey never fades. Its results are shared throughout the organization, and managers are really, truly held accountable for closing the gap between what people say needs to change and what actually happens.

No company (or country!) should be managed by polls alone. But employee surveys can be a powerful force for continuous improvement. We'd vote for them any day.

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