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Peter Cappelli, professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote an article in today’s Wall Street Journal that is essential reading for everyone whose organization administers annual employee surveys. In it, he writes about why companies do employee surveys, what they do with the findings, and why their surveys should be totally overhauled. He tells us half of all employees don’t respond to internal surveys, often because they don’t trust their responses will be treated confidentially, fearing they could be punished for speaking their minds. Rightfully so, say the data: studies show nearly nine in ten companies monitor employees’ communication. The other big reason employees give for not filling out internal surveys (or not speaking openly when they do) is the same reason why most customers don’t bother to give feedback – they don’t believe deaf-eared managers will do anything positive with the results. Again, employees are right. Cappelli tells us nearly 60% of HR executives admit to dealing with only the small things and doing nothing about the important issues. Here’s a number that caught my eye: 27% of middle managers never even look at the results of their employee surveys. In both cases, social desirability is at work, meaning there are surely some who don’t bother to look at survey results or do anything with the findings but are unwilling to admit it. In both cases, companies are wasting resources and squandering opportunity.

Cappelli says there are better ways. 

One of his suggestions is to make better use of exit interviews with those who have resigned. Another is to employ a steady stream of pulse surveys rather than one big survey. For those who don’t believe in the impact of a steady stream over time, I suggest you avoid visiting the magnificent Grand Canyon. 

I’d like to add another better way.

Before they start on their next employee survey, the smartest companies ask and answer the three pillars of research design: 

  1. What are we trying to do with our investigation? I use the term investigation to indicate a more vigorous, robust, and potent way to do research – one that adheres to the principles of the scientific method and is led by people trained in critical thinking. 
  2. What do we need to learn?
  3. How are we planning to use the evidence we collect?

For each of these three pillars, the best study planners determine which goals are Critical, which are Important, and which are Potentially Worth Exploring. They also determine which things need to be done Now, which need to be done Soon, and which can Wait Until Later. Surveys are commonly overbuilt, and the best companies know using multiple triages like these allows them to more effectively and efficiently establish priorities when allocating people, time, and money to investigative research. It is one of the few times I favor ranking over rating because it keeps planners moving along and avoids getting bogged down.

The right strategy includes testing all of our assumptions, especially the ones we hold most dearly. 

This is harder than it seems because many of our assumptions are deeply embedded in our thinking and we hold them to be unimpeachable truths (All men are created equal). When companies do a top-notch job of testing their assumptions, they learn which of their mis-beliefs need to be updated or replaced. The four types of assumptions are:

  1. Things that are true, 
  2. Things that may be true,
  3. Things that were once true but no longer are, and
  4. Things that were never true.

Executives who are shown the evidence from assumption testing are usually shocked to discover how many of their assumptions fall into categories 3 and 4. This is best done before planning and designing your next employee survey, of course.

A talented team compiles the results of a thorough analysis of all the employee research we have ever done. 

They sort and organize the evidence, analyze it, and present their conclusions to planners using the V-Confidence Interval: High, Medium, and Low (remember, the best companies avoid splitting hairs too early). Decision-makers and study designers examine the evidence to identify:

  • What feedback they collected in the past but was ignored.
  • Which findings were actually used to improve things.

They evolve this list further by determining what issues they will not do anything about (double everyone’s wages) and so will not include them in their new employee surveys.

One more thing to keep in mind.

The more structured your company’s employee surveys, the less the opportunity you give employees to tell you what’s important to them and what they think the company is doing right and wrong. And shouldn’t that be the point of conducting employee surveys?

When asked their reasons for using employee surveys, the two explanations we hear again and again are “we’ve always done it that way” and “I never thought about it.” The first, usually given by middle manager box checkers, is the worst reason. The second reason is the most baffling to data-driven decision-makers.

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