Should Employers Conduct Employee Surveys?

I recently read an article stating that over one-half of 250 HR respondents thought that the traditional employee survey is dead.  Most respondents felt that the future of employer research was “qualitative” rather than “quantitative,” and 80% believe that mobile technology will become the most common way for employees to voice their opinions.

A summary of the article in HR Magazine Co. UK observed that, although respondents believe mobile technology would be the most common means of surveying employees in the future, most respondents did not have the social technology to gather such feedback.  As one commentator wryly observed, it was amusing that “a survey has been used to predict the demise of employer surveys. . . .  much of the report is expressed in terms of the percentage of people who agree with this or disagreed with that.”  This commentator went on to note:

This tells us that numbers and words are important as bench marks and as illustrations of how communities think and feel.  The authors have failed to generate an alternative method to surveys in pursuit of the cause they discredit surveys….

As with all things, surveys or otherwise, it’s not what you do, it’s the way you do it.  There are good surveys and bad surveys.  Yes, we should embrace new technologies, as all good providers are, but let’s not pretend that the need for quantitative analysis (and resulting action) is dead.

My Observations

I agree that traditional surveys still have a role in the workplace, and their effectiveness largely depends upon how the survey is employed.  My first observation is that many employers do not use any type of employee survey, and also do not employ any other quantitative or qualitative methods to take the temperature of their employees.

My second point is that a “qualitative” process, such as supervisors interviewing employees or using focus groups or any other method of promoting conversation is superior to a survey. As a labor lawyer, I would obviously prefer that employers regularly conduct qualitative surveys of employees and avoid the problems that may cause union activity. Many employers suddenly seem to “get religion” during a union drive and wish that they had earlier taken steps to learn why employees believed that they need a third-party between them and the employer.

However, the reality is that many employers do not believe that they have the time, and their supervisors do not have the training to effectively seek qualitative input.  Given this workplace reality, a quantitative employee survey may be far better than no effort.

My third observation is that if an employer does not follow-up on survey results, they will make things worse than if they never asked.  When I was a “baby lawyer,” in the early 80’s, I responded to union and other legal problems at a now defunct company where the problems had been triggered by the employer’s failure to act on employee survey results.  When I found the survey results literally gathering dust on top of a filing cabinet, I was horrified to see countless “specific” references to discrimination, unfairness, inability to be promoted, favoritism, and basic failures, such as non-working water fountains and filthy bathrooms.

Using Employee Surveys For  Specific Issues, Such As “Safety Culture”

While the traditional employee survey may be declining in popularity, it’s use is increasing as employers seek to determine their “safety culture” and take actions to improve it.  I encourage managers to conduct discrete surveys of both employers and employees, and then notice the disconnect between responses.  Nowhere is the disconnect more apparent than in the case of safety.  I never met a CEO who did not assure me that safety was the company’s number 1 value, and they meant it.  However, when their employees were polled, or they came under the fine-tooth comb of an OSHA inspection, the executive learned that safety was taken for granted.

For this reason, I encourage employers to survey employees about their company’s safety practices, supervisor attitudes and safety and work practices; i.e., to determine their “culture.”

But the employer may not like the answers to their survey questions. 

Recently, a survey of several thousand skilled construction craft employees revealed that 93% of respondents felt that their company was currently at risk of an injury or death caused by “avoidable workplace attitudes” such as tolerating the incompetent employee or having a “just get it done” or “this is overboard” approach to work and safety.

Half of those same respondents stated that they were actually aware of an injury or death caused by one of these attitudes. 

Even more troubling, despite their concerns, only one-quarter of respondents said that they would speak up and try to correct unsafe conditions.  To put this in simple terms, only one in four employees said that they would tell an unsafe coworker to use fall protection.  Do you think that any of those employers expected responses from highly skilled craft workers?

How would your employees respond if asked some of the following questions?

Agree/Disagree/Strongly Agree/Strongly Disagree

  • We practice at the jobsite what is in our Corporate Safety Policy.
  • I always receive job-specific training.
  • Supervisors hold us to safety rules.
  • Our contractors work safely.
  • Management is serious about safety.
  • We cover safety issues for the job each day.
  • I hold coworkers accountable for safety.
  • Co-workers can help each other to work safely.
  • It is only a matter of time until I am involved in an accident.
  • Sometimes I am not given enough time to get the job done safely.
  • This is a safer place to work than other companies where I have worked.
  • I am encouraged to report unsafe conditions/near misses.
  • Management turns a blind eye to safety issues at times.
  • Some safety rules and procedures are not really practical.
  • Safety is one of the first things upper management talks about.
  • Upper management seldom comes on the floor.
  • Upper management is involved in safety training.
  • Upper management is involved in new employee orientation.

No survey obviates the need for front-line supervisor to remain alert and to talk to their employees.  Survey results will be meaningless if no one in top leadership champions the process.  Employers, like children, do not much care about our words; they observe our actions.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am excited about the new technologies and methods described in the survey.  There is a great deal of information to mine.  However, I would be pleased to see any additional efforts to learn what employees really think.


About mavity2012

I am a Senior Partner operating out of the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, one of the Nation’s oldest and largest management employment and labor firms. My practice is national and keeps me on the road or in one of our 28 offices about 50 percent of the time. I created and co-chair the Firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group. I have almost 29 years of experience as a labor lawyer, but rely even more heavily on the experience I gained in working in my family's various businesses, and through dealing with practical client issues. Employers tell me that they seldom meet an attorney who delivers on his promise to provide practical guidance and to be a business partner. As a result, some executives probably use different terms than “practical” to describe my fellow travelers in the profession. I don't enjoy the luxury of being impractical because I spend much of my time on shop floors and construction sites dealing with safety, union and related issues which are driven by real world processes and the need to protect and get the most out of one's most important business assets ... its employees. That's one of the reasons that I view safety compliance as a way to also manage problem employees, reduce litigation and develop the type of work environment that makes unions unnecessary. Starting out dealing with union-management challenges and a stint in the NLRB have better equipped me to see the interrelationship of legal and workplace factors. I am proud also of my experience at Fisher & Phillips, where providing “practical advice” is second only to legal excellence among the Firm’s values. Our website lists me as having provided counsel for over 225 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies, and as having managed approximately 450 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. I have coordinated complex inspections involving multi-employer sites, corporate-wide compliance, and issues involving criminal referral. As a full labor lawyer, I oversee audits of corporate labor, HR, and safety compliance. I have responded to virtually every type of day-to-day workplace inquiry, and have handled cases before the EEOC, OFCCP, NLRB, and numerous other state and federal agencies. At F & P, all of us seek to spot issues and then rely upon attorneys in the Firm who concentrate on those areas. No tunnel vision. I teach or speak around 50 times per year to business associations, bar and professional groups, and to individual businesses. I serve on safety committees at three states’ AGC Chapters, teach at the AGC ASMTC
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