If you’re going to poll your workforce on any issue, but don’t have any plans to change the organization based on the findings, then Tom Rath, head of the worldwide workforce consulting business for Gallup Consultants, has three words for you:
Don’t do it.
Rath, who spends a great deal of time on research around employee engagement, customer engagement, and management and leadership development in organizations, believes that you’d be better off not doing a survey at all if you don’t do anything based on the outcomes.
“That’s one of the biggest problems,” he said. “If you ask all these questions and raise these issues and aren’t prepared to deal with the results, sometimes that can get you into more trouble than if you’d never conducted the survey at all. Let’s say you ask people if they want more pay. Of course, they’re going to say they want more pay, but if you ask that question and don’t have a system in place to bring salaries in alignment with industry standards, the fact that you brought it up can cause problems.”
Gallup — a firm famous for its polling — devised one of the most well-known workforce engagement surveys in the world, the Gallup Q12, a little more than a decade ago. The Q12 is a 12-question evaluation of core constructs that could apply to virtually any industry.
“We had been asking unwieldy, long employee surveys for 25 years, if not longer,” Rath said. “We changed that about 10 years ago: Instead of walking in and asking whatever questions the employer wanted — and changing that every time for 100-question surveys — we realized the real potential for growth was in figuring out what core constructs you could develop on an ongoing basis.”
The survey’s success in finding strengths and weaknesses is due largely to the fact that it gauges the environment at a workgroup level.
“As much as a lot of us would like to believe that as leaders in organizations we can have an impact that reaches down to the front lines, we find that engagement is a local phenomenon that takes place within a work group and is very relevant to local managers,” Rath explained. “In every organization, we find highly engaged workgroups and workgroups that are disengaged. There’s as much variance within companies as across companies.
“We also measure at a functional level: Do you have the basic materials and equipment you need to get your job done every day? There’s also the more emotional component: Do you have a manager or someone else at work who cares about you? Have you seen recognition and praise in the last seven days?”
One of the more controversial questions on the Gallup Q12 pertains to whether or not the respondent has a best friend at work. Some might not think that’s relevant to performance, but it does have an impact, Rath said. “Sure enough, it’s that term ‘best friend’ that differentiates work groups that are highly productive from those that aren’t.”
Regardless of the methodology employed, Rath cautioned against using workforce surveys for selfish ends (e.g., substantiating hunches or creating the impression that an organization is doing better than it really is).
“I think it should be open-ended instead of loaded. At times, companies just want to conduct employee surveys to show to their board, their investors or whomever the audience might be that they’re doing pretty well. They want to frame the results in a way that will make them look good. It’s a real warning sign when you see that.
“The best organizations conduct employee surveys because they want to improve and have people more engaged on the job, which leads to better bottom-line productivity and share price. If you’re really going for improvement, you want to look at how you compare to benchmarks across your industry and across all kinds of organizations to figure out where you’re strong and where you have opportunities for growth, then focus on developing employees in those areas.”