Unlocking the secrets of staff surveys

An earlier article discussed how staff surveys can be very useful tools to understand the opinions of staff and to give everyone an opportunity to express their views. It emphasised however that a proper analysis of the results of the survey is essential to identify the real meaning behind the data. In this regard, exploring possible causal links between different pieces of data is very insightful, writes Conor Hannaway.

Conor Hannaway

Conor Hannaway

A lot of surveys describe themselves as ‘employee engagement’ surveys. Employee engagement has been linked with better patient care and safety, higher levels of productivity and lower staff turnover. On the other hand, international data indicates that, worldwide, less than 30% of staff in organisations are engaged with even lower levels of engagement recorded in health care settings.

Firstly, it should be said that there is no such thing as employee engagement in an absolute sense. There is no widely accepted definition of employee engagement and there are no agreed ways to measure it. The disparity of results of aggregate employee engagement measures between some of the largest survey organisations demonstrates the lack of validity of such indices. The best that can be done, and it is valuable to do it, is to agree on some factors commonly associated with engagement and to devise a survey for your organisation based on those factors.

The use of aggregate indices is to be avoided as the results they provide are relatively meaningless. They suggest a science which does not exist. Likewise benchmarking against large samples of organisations in different contexts is relatively meaningless. External benchmarking does have a value in raising questions and providing perspective rather than providing answers. An organisation may be disappointed by the response to questions to a statement regarding two-way communication and find comfort in the fact that most organisations score poorly on this issue. For example, the challenge of holding team meetings in organisations with shift working again helps to inform the response to a low score for this survey question.

There are many reasons why an employee might wish to leave his or her employment which does not necessarily reflect badly on an organisation.

Even smaller benchmarking exercises between groups of organisations can be misleading. A simple example demonstrates the futility of some benchmarking. This can be seen in relation to a question about intention to remain working with an employer. There are many reasons why an employee might wish to leave his or her employment which does not necessarily reflect badly on an organisation. These include lack of career opportunities in a small unit, inadequate public transport, personal factors or low pay rates in the sector. Unless benchmarking is done against truly comparable employments, its value is very limited.

The real value in a survey, however, comes from a deep analysis of the responses from the survey data itself rather than from simple comparisons with other organisations. There are six main areas of analysis of survey data. These are:

  1. Development of appropriate yardsticks for each category of question. For instance, in all organisations typically employees will score questions relating to their own work area better than the wider organisation and will score their own managers more favourably that senior management.
  2. Inter-department benchmarking – how do like parts of the organisation compare with each other and why are there differences?
  3. Identifying trends, particularly from one survey to the next.
  4. Highlighting ‘red flag’ issues such as survey results which explicitly or implicitly indicate that the organisation is not living up to its values.
  5. Analysis of comments arising from open questions.
  6. Causal analysis searches for causal relationships between the responses to different questions.

It can be very difficult to establish causal relationships simply from survey results. However, they readily yield up interesting data demonstrating a close association between different factors. An analysis of multiple surveys conducted by SHRC Limited recently in a number of different health service organisations shows a strong association between the responses of employees to questions relating to be being shown respect, being involved in decision-making affecting their work and feeling valued as an employee with being happy and contented in their work.

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