Glad You Asked! Using Employee Surveys in Ownership Culture Work

By Noémi Giszpenc, Ownership Associates
Published in the May 2005 issue of the ESOP Report by the ESOP Association.

Attitude surveys have been around for a long time. Companies have used surveys since at least the 1920s and 30s to gauge such measures as employee motivation and job satisfaction. The ESOP community has a very specific rationale for tapping into the power of survey data, given the challenge of awakening a widespread interest in employee ownership. How else will we know whether employees "get it?" How else can we objectively justify our investments in training about ownership in general and the ESOP concept in particular?

So how can you use an employee survey most effectively? How do you get people to really share their thoughts? What do you do with the information you gather? And how can the process help people to adopt attitudes that make the company stronger? Here are some tips to help you do employee surveys right.

Process Counts

Pick Useful Questions.
Survey questions can be borrowed or invented. The advantage of using existing, validated survey questions is the chance to compare your results to "benchmarked" national statistical norms. This enhances the meaning of your results. The advantage of designing your own survey questions is that you can ask about issues particular to your circumstances and local culture. Of course, the survey you use can be a hybrid that combines previously tested survey items with your own customized items.

Sources of survey items with normed data include the Ownership Culture Survey (OCS) of Ownership Associates, used exclusively by employee-owned firms. Two additional sources, the General Social Survey (GSS), conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, and the Worker Representation and Participation Survey (WRPS), conducted by Richard Freeman (National Bureau of Economic Research and Harvard University) and Joel Rogers (University of Wisconsin-Madison), allow comparison to a representative sample of employees across the United States, but no comparison is possible with employee-ownership companies.

Make it anonymous and confidential.
No matter what is on their minds, employees will share more if they trust that their responses will not be linked to them individually. If they were going to tell you regardless, then they probably already would have done so! Note that simply announcing that responses are confidential may not suffice. Often employees feel more comfortable the more obvious and explicit their anonymity.

Use demographic variables.
The ability to compare groups of employees or different parts of the company on the same measures is one of the major value propositions of an employee survey. You can respect the anonymity principle while gathering background identifying data on respondents. Keep in mind that respondents feel less anonymous the more demographic questions they answer. Typical demographic variables include: job category, location, division/department, age or length of service (these tend to have pretty similar breakdowns, so it's usually not worthwhile doing both), gender, salary range, and size of ESOP account. Once you have settled on the variables, make sure that the categories for each variable 1) cover all employees; 2) do not overlap; 3) are unambiguous; and 4) include a minimum of 25 people--smaller groups tend to compromise respondents' sense of anonymity. An example would be the following categories for the age variable:

  • Under 25 years old
  • 26 - 35 years old
  • 36 - 50 years old
  • Over 50 years old

Compare responses.
Comparisons help you to understand what your responses mean. There are at least four ways to compare survey results. First, compare with other companies. An external benchmark can show, for example, that results that look positive are actually below average, indicating that the company has room to improve, or that wide variation on some issues is normal. To make comparisons to other companies you need to use the same questions as others have used and have access to the average responses. Second, compare internal employee groups. If groups differ systematically, they will require different management approaches. You'll need to use demographic variables (see above) to make these comparisons. Third, compare to yourself over time. If you use the same questions at regular intervals, roughly every two years, you can track change and progress over time and evaluate your training and communications efforts. Fourth, compare different items. Different survey items measure different aspects of your company, so comparisons can show how different parts of the company relate.

Get most people to participate.
Response rates as low as 30% can still be valid from a statistical standpoint, but companies get the maximum benefit from maximum participation. People will have more confidence in the results the higher the response rates, and more people will be involved in the "ownership dialogue." More people will respond if you 1) announce the survey roughly a week in advance and describe the content; 2) make it fun; 3) post a running tally of response rates; 4) encourage and remind people; and 5) commit in advance and publicly to how the results will be shared (see below).

Once the Results Are In

Share the results.
Committing beforehand to sharing at least a summary of the results encourages people to participate. Closing the communications loop demonstrates respect for the effort that people put into responding and signals that people have been heard.

Celebrate achievement and address weaker points.
A survey will reveal the stronger and weaker aspects of your company. Take time to celebrate and acknowledge the strengths, which form a good starting point for building success. At the same time, make plans to shore up any weaknesses that could be holding back the company.

Incorporate results into planning and management.
There are many ways that survey results can inform company operations. For example, they can help formulate a mission statement, signal the need for training, or constitute a measure for personnel assessment relative to goals.

An Ongoing Ownership Dialogue

Surveys provide useful information to companies, but even deciding to do one can have an effect on a company’s ownership culture. For example, if a group of employees helps design and test the questionnaire and organize the survey process, this can make them feel more involved and responsible. The workforce may simply appreciate having the chance to share their views.

Surveys represent an opportunity to start talking about company culture. And feeding back the results is a good time to continue the conversation. These encounters, along with special training sessions, can start the company converging toward a shared understanding of what ownership means.

Employees aren't the only ones who may need to change their perceptions. A survey can often shake management awake, too--for example by pointing out that they have different perceptions than the rest of the company. At one recent OCS client, top management perception of how much people felt like owners was a 7 on a 1-to-10 scale. Corporate HR estimated ownership feeling at 6, while in actuality the average was 5 and a half.

Nothing Measured, Nothing Gained

Evaluation is absolutely fundamental to proper management. If you're spending money, time, and energy on building a strong ownership culture, then you should be putting some portion of that investment into measuring the impact of your programs. Done well, surveys are a great way to gauge employee attitudes, and they have the additional important beneficial effect of "jump-starting" the ownership conversation.

Noémi Giszpenc is a principal of Ownership Associates, Inc. of Cambridge, MA, one of the leading assessment, training and organizational culture consultants to the ESOP community.

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