Company climate surveys have been conducted for years, but there is still an ongoing debate on their pros and cons, and no best practice consensus of how to make them work for every organization.
Why is there confusion, given this lengthy history?
First , let's look at what a climate survey is.
An employee climate survey usually consists of a set of multiple choice questions that employees respond to. These questions ask employees various things about how they feel about working at the company. Common question topics concern management, peers, work environment, benefits and compensation, teamwork, skills development and advancement opportunities.
Input from these surveys can help companies fine-tune themselves if they discover that their compensation packages are not perceived well-or physical work environments can be improved—or more investment in training and promotional advancement opportunities are needed to spearhead employee motivation and to improve employee retention.
But there's also a dark side to these climate surveys: employees and their managers fear them.
So what's to fear when these surveys are performed anonymously and by outside consultants?
"The promise of anonymity is a common way to encourage frank input," said a Harvard Business Review article. "Here's the logic: If no one knows who said what, no repercussions will follow, so people can be forthright about any topic.....but "allowing employees to remain unidentified actually underscores the risks of speaking up—and reinforces people's fears. The subtext is "It's not safe to share your views openly in this organization. So we've created other channels to get the information we need...Many told us that they go to libraries and coffee shops and use public computers to complete online employee surveys—because they worry they'll be tracked through their IP addresses otherwise."
These fears are not unfounded. A business colleague shared with me several years ago that his CEO initiated a company-wide climate survey that both staff and management were required to complete. "We were told the surveys would be anonymous and that a third party would compile them and write a report," he said. "The CEO was very autocratic and several of us said we preferred open, participative communications. Over a two year period following the survey, the CEO "slow fired" all of us by making life so miserable that we just couldn't work there anymore."
Of course, this doesn't mean that climate surveys, done well, can't benefit managers and employees.
A statement on survey development company Flex Surveys's website says that, "When conducted correctly, employee climate surveys provide a direct way of discovering the opinions of employees that would likely otherwise be overlooked and unreported. By determining the way employees view their organization, business owners can take immediate action to ensure identified issues are resolved and areas of weakness are improved, as necessary. Employee climate surveys are also a great way to make employees feel that they are integral to improving business practices."
One way to do this is by creating a climate survey that sticks with objective and observable questions, and stays away from subjective opinions or from responses that target specific individuals. A question might read, "My work assignments are always clear and easy to understand," instead of, "My manager always gives me work assignments that are clear and easy to understand."
Another idea is to set a regular time (annually or perhaps every two years) in which climate surveys are conducted. In this way, climate surveys are perceived more as a regular and ongoing business process—and not as a sounding alarm or a warning of an impending organization shakeup.
Most importantly, managers should keep in mind that they are the real enablers of work and and in many cases, of employee motivation. They can go a long way in building teamwork, trust and results in their companies-with or without climate surveys.
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Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.