Build or burn?

Employee surveys

Overall, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your current job?

I’ve known new employees join a large blue-chip manufacturer and be astonished at the quality of the canteen, the freebies, the bargains in the staff shop, the stock participation schemes, the training, the employer pension contributions, the holidays, and yet also report persistent complaints from more established employees and the fractious employee relations.

I’ve also sat in Board meetings where executives have the results of employee surveys reported back to them and listened to the top team agonise on what it all means, and – in particular – why their employees are not happier.

The ‘overall, are you satisfied’ first question of the typical employee survey is a killer.  It can be especially difficult to interpret the replies in light of the answers to dozens of subsequent questions that follow, quantifying employees’ attitudes towards such areas as the quality of communication in the organisation, their line manager, opportunities for advancement, involvement in decision-making, and any number of other features of corporate life.

Employees might not realise or appreciate it, but companies that survey staff in a structured and regular way are already among the best of employers.  Firstly, they are large enough to afford the fee, which means their pockets are also deep enough to offer their staff above-average terms and conditions.  Secondly, they are bothered enough to ask, confirming they care enough to want to know the answer.  Lastly, it suggests they have an HR department to organise the survey and design the questions.  Having an HR department means, at least, that the company is aware of employment law and probably aspires to good practice in implementing it.  All of the above points towards a company that is a decent, caring employer.  Strangely, being a decent employer has limited impact on employees’ satisfaction levels.

Even employers offering superior pay and enlightened terms and conditions can expect these to produce a maximum satisfaction response of only 50% because pay and conditions are ‘hygiene’ factors.  They are the things that HR departments tend to worry about and develop policies for.  They are what people gripe about.  But even the complete absence of negative hygiene factors makes employees no more than neutral towards their job.  Positive satisfaction feelings arise from much less tangible, and more individual factors such as the psychological reward a person gets from their work and factors affecting their intrinsic motivation.  Employees might be treated disgracefully but love their work so much they might still give satisfaction responses well above 50%.  I’m thinking Apple employees working punishing hours being bullied by Steve Jobs.

One of the tell-tale signs of a hygiene factor is that in response to employee agitation managers make a change that costs them money, conveying a tangible benefit to employees (eg longer holidays) that managers believe should make employees happy, yet it doesn’t have any lasting impact.  Employees take it, don’t say ‘thank you’, and come back next year wanting more.  Managers feel they get no credit for having made the concession, and feel frustrated at the apparent truculence of their employees.

The public sector is a case study of the limitation of hygiene factors.  Years of pressing by strong unions against yielding managers has produced a situation where the terms and conditions of the average public sector employee are well ahead of the private sector and yet, I’m prepared to bet, the average level of employee satisfaction is probably no better than in their less well looked after private sector cousins.

Is this a counsel of despair?  Should you ignore employee satisfaction and treat your employees like some 18th century mill owner?  Not at all.  All I’m advocating is that you do not become so distressed by the replies you receive from your employee surveys that you end up chasing the hygiene factors for quick wins.  It won’t win you any lasting benefit and may even harm you in the long-term.  Better to concentrate on the things that genuinely motivate employees and use surveys as a means to monitor the impact of any changes over time.  In summary, cut yourself some slack and don’t let your HR department get carried away with too many new policies.  It’s the quality of your management team that will have the biggest impact on employee satisfaction.

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