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Employee Surveys - Asking the Right Questions

Parents will be familiar when they ask their children what they want to eat for their dinner that they will nine times out of ten reply with something that is inappropriate, such as chocolate ice cream, or something that isn't available, at which point no substitute will be acceptable to them. Cue tantrum and conflict, just because the parent thought it would be nice to ask.

Employees can sometime act very much like children when asked what they want; they don't always reply with what they really want, or what is good for them.

Throughout the years, business processes have had to be radically overhauled and it has been an era of Change Management (CM), Business Process Re-engineering (BPR), Total Quality Management (TQM) and Just in Time (JIT).

Cynics might label them all as modern versions of the original 50's 'Time and Motion' studies and they are, but they were essential in helping businesses adapt throughout an era that saw the introduction of computers, the internet communication explosion and later, the widespread use of smartphones.

When computers were first introduced they were locked away in secure computer rooms, the business processing methods had to be adapted to benefit from the enormous advances the computers provided. Then, as computers became more powerful, less expensive and smaller they gradually migrated to the desktop, requiring the business processes to change again from a centralised, to a network environment.

During periods of change questions to the workforce like, 'Why do you do it like this?' are often answered, 'Because we have always done it that way'.

Trying to understand if a process still has any benefit or relevancy to the modern era is always a challenge for those managing change. In some cases, although people may have lost sight of why they did something, once analysed, sometimes a logical reason can be found as to why it should be retained, but just as often it is found to be a process that just hadn't adapted to the times and people had continued to do something that had, for a long time been redundant.

In the decade where companies large, and then small, switched from manual to computerised accounts it was common after a successful migration to come across account staff maintaining a manual ledger even though it was by that time all computerised. It is an overused cliché but many people don't like change, even when it benefits them.

Throughout the 1990's it was common, in an effort to stabilise staff turnover in a period of mobilisation to pay 10% of an employee's pay at the end of the year as a lump sum in the form of a completion bonus.

When employees were given the option to come off the scheme and instead have their 10% paid to them in equal instalments throughout the year, more often than not they would regard the offer akin to a punishment. It transpired that many employees liked the company to hold money back and then pay it in a lump sum as a form of compulsory saving.

When Richard Branson's company Virgin was in its heyday it was generally accepted that the majority of his staff were paid below the market rate. However throughout the year Branson would arrange lavish staff parties, sometimes held in the grounds of his mansion complete with fun fair and attended by celebrities, providing a memorable day out for all his frontline staff and their families.

At the time other record companies would try and head hunt Virgin employees, often with offers that represented a considerable boost in salary, but to no avail, people liked working at Virgin and often the reason given was the social events.

However, when those same people were asked if they would prefer the monetary equivalent paid to them as a lump sum, or an organised event, the majority said they would rather take the money. Had they had the chance to choose, and taken the monetary equivalent, it is likely that the head hunters then would have had no problem poaching staff.

Not everyone is the same, many employees have to be encouraged to dance before they have a good time. There are of course those that do not want to dance and will hate you for it if you make them, but they are nearly always in the very minor minority.

No amount of bribery will make a rotten company smell of roses, if there are serious problems, such social events are likely to be boycotted, but the power of organizing social events with the aim of bringing together people, establishing good relationships, that are then carried through to the workplace, should never be underestimated.

Flexible working is likely to be worth more to a single parent than a lump sum payment, but given a choice, in most instances it is the natural instinct for the individual to take the money. Throwing money at a problem isn't always the right solution and it is the wrong solution if it doesn't make the problem go away.

We live in a world where the decisions that have to be made are not black and white, it is an imperfect world with many shades of grey and compromises have to be made every day.

This brings us finally onto the subject of Employee Surveys and asking the right questions.

There is no one size that fits all list of right questions to ask.

When conducting employee surveys the questions should be tailored to the specific organization. The questions need to reflect the aims and objectives of the organization, the vision of senior management and chosen with a view to helping the organization reach its goals.

Employee surveys should be designed to measure the effectiveness of certain policies in real terms and the survey results need to be considered alongside other measures to answer questions like, is staff turnover stable? Have personnel problems been kept to a minimum? Is morale good?

A useful survey question to ask each respondent is, 'Are there other companies that you admire?'. If employees do have companies that they admire then look at those companies to find out what they are doing right.

Don't ask employees simply if they want more money, the answer will nearly always be yes. Instead ask each individual to put in order their preference, make them have to choose between money and career advancement, flexible hours, a good working environment, medical benefits. In the developed world quality of life is fast over taking remuneration as the most important factor.

Employee survey questions should encourage employees to make choices, otherwise all that will be returned is information to confirm that employees on the whole want to work less hours, have more pay, receive extensive and improved benefits and be granted more paid holiday entitlement.

Employees have a responsibility to help to continually improve productivity; employee survey questions should reflect that responsibility.

It is the senior management's job to develop a framework to allow an organization to be productive and flourish; employees' need to play their part, take on responsibility and help fill in the dots.

In his inaugural speech President John F Kennedy asked his fellow Americans 'ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country'.  An employee survey asking the same thing of their employees would be on the right track as to what are the right types of questions to ask.

For more information or to discuss how online surveys can help you please contact or visit the quick, easy and cost effective way to do online surveys.

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Martin Day is a Director of Survey Galaxy Ltd
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