The Top 10 Takeaways from Employee Survey Research

The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are."

Niccolo Machiavelli

I sometimes think of my job as holding up a mirror to an organization so that it can see not what it wants to see but what it has to see. While people in almost every organization like to think their organization is unique, most organizations really fall within a few common patterns, with some nuance, when it comes to employee survey findings. Here are some common patterns:

1. Employee attitudes are more similar than different: In most organizations there are virtually no differences to be found when the data is cut by gender, ethnicity, or generation. While there are some slight differences to be found, (e.g., females are often slightly more positive than men, as are traditional part-time employees versus full-time employees), there are no significant differences on organizational performance items like customer focus, quality, leadership, communications, decision making, cooperation, or teamwork. When differences are seen, it is usually indicative of significant underlying organizational issues.

2. Differences exist mostly by job type and rank. From years of research, we have discovered that the largest differences are most reliably found when you cut the data by occupation or level within the organization. Managers are generally between five and 15 points more favorable (perhaps unsurprisingly, the more senior, the more favorable). They are typically less favorable on customer service/focus, resources, and product quality. When the differences are larger, it is usually a sign that senior management is living in a different organization than the other employees experience. When that happens, each group would have difficulty seeing the world from the other's perspective. It is not unusual, however, for administrative groups to be more favorable than their level suggests.

3. New employees are the most upbeat. The most favorable group completing the employee survey will very reliably be the employees that you just hired; specifically, those with less than 12 months tenure will be the most favorable. It takes the typical organization about 12-18 months to beat that positiveness out of the new employee. Disillusionment with organizational effectiveness, training, advancement opportunity, pay, and other frustrations - as well as the sense the organization is not as was advertised - drive the numbers down.

4. The least positive will be those with around 3-5 years tenure. In many organizations there will be a gradual recovery in positiveness over time, but it usually never gets as positive as the newly hired employee was again. A small number of organizations can buck this trend; these organizations tend to be leaders in their respective industries, with products or services that inspire. They tend to be organizations that create new and exciting opportunities for people as they get to that 3-5 year range, and they usually operate in a somewhat unconventional manner without strong silos.

5. Geographical differences are real. The least positive employees in the world are reliably the Japanese (with a few exceptions). The most positive are those in Latin America and some other parts of Asia (e.g. Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam). The USA is below Latin America, with the UK trailing the USA and continental Europe lagging behind the UK. Russia and the USA look remarkably similar on a large number of items. However, there are some recent indications that some of these patterns are in flux, mostly due to changing external and environmental conditions.

6. When it comes to retention, be direct. The best way to predict turnover with an employee survey is by asking employees point blank if they are going to stay or leave. They tend to answer very honestly. If anyone tries to sell you some mumbo jumbo predictive index, walk away. There is nothing better out there than simply asking that one directly.

7. The best way to predict customer loyalty is to ask employees about whether customer issues are resolved quickly. Employees tend to have very reliable information that directly correlates to this issue.

8. The same holds true for safety issues. The best way to predict accidents is to ask about the safety environment and the emphasis placed on safety. Are you getting the idea yet?

9. Employees are often more critical than customers. Employees, with their insider knowledge, are generally more critical of product and service quality than your customers are. They see how the sausage gets made - and they know how it can be better.

10. Employee Engagement is no magic bullet. Simply measuring for employee engagement does not give you a complete picture, and it is rarely predictive of many critical organizational performance metrics. At OrgVitality, we focus instead on strategic employee surveys, to more accurately measure the items critical to an organization's success. These are the issues most important to leaders; these are the issues that kept them up at night.

While not every organization out there is as unique as perhaps they think they are, there are certainly some organizations that are performing better than others in various aspects. And there are some organizations out there that could really benefit from a well done employee survey, focused on the right things, aimed at improving effectiveness and performance, and monitoring employee sentiment and insight. Sometimes all sorts of excuses are given to avoid having to look at the organization squarely in the mirror. In my work, I've heard everything from, "We just had a bad quarter" to "We are unveiling our revamped strategy and vision" and everything in between.

Organizations making excuses like that, I would bet, would be extremely reluctant to use those same arguments with respect to tracking financial performance. None would state, "We had a bad quarter so we are going to skip tracking the financials this quarter. We will start again perhaps next quarter when we believe the numbers will look better." They simply would not be able to get away with it. If people are truly an organization's most important asset, as is so often stated, how can their opinions, observations, insights, and emotions be ignored?

OrgVitality is an organizational effectiveness company, offering a full suite of products and services designed to help you in your work. To learn more about our strategic employee surveys, 360 assessments, action planning portals, linkage analysis, and other tools, email Jeffrey Saltzman directly.