HUMAN RESOURCES

How to Get Feedback From Employees

That suggestions box? Ditch it in favor of savvier methods for getting workers to open up.

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No employee wants to be just a faceless cog. No matter how big or small your organization is, employees who don't feel like they have a voice can drain the oxygen out of other employees, lower productivity rates, and even cause increased turnover. Employees who feel voiceless are more likely to be a drag on the day-to-day mood around the office.

Like a good therapy session, giving workers of all levels a chance to express their thoughts on the direction of the company has the opposite effect: Show your employees you're interested in their opinions and they'll be more likely take a personal stake in the business. They'll go from feeling like they're working for the man to feeling like they're a part of the team.

"We don't recruit engaged employees. Engaged employees are created," says Lisa Wojtkowiak, client relationship manager with the Opinion Research Corporation, part of Infogroup. "It's our job to engage our employees from Day One."

In the old days, soliciting feedback from your employees meant putting a box marked "suggestions" next to the water cooler. Now, smart companies realize that, as they become more reliant on a knowledge-based economy, they need to engage their employees on a much more detailed level.


Getting Employee Feedback: The Issues to Target

Every method of gathering employee feedback depends on what challenges you need to address as a business. Consider: Is your employee base growing or downsizing? Are you preparing for a merger or staying level?

Professionals in the industry of employee research say offering general feedback opportunities are important — open-office policies or meeting with managers — but specific targeting of issues can help guide your company through difficult times.

Common questions managers seek input on include: how engaged are my employees? How satisfied are they working for the company? What is the communication like with management? Do they have the right tools to do the job? How secure do they feel in the job?

You can also use a survey to find out the demographics of your work force, such as age and gender, and to look for reasons for high turnover.

"You don't do business without employees," says Howard Deutsch, CEO of Quantisoft, a survey and consulting company based in Monroe Township, New Jersey. "Those who are highly engaged or motivated will be better at their job."

Gerry McDonough, CEO of LeadFirst, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based partner of data collection firm WorldAPP, that provides survey design and employee engagement consulting, says asking about the culture of the organization is important. The culture is "upstream" of issues like employee satisfaction and engagement, meaning the answers workers give about their coworkers and the general office environment often directly affect their job satisfaction.

The culture questions can affect your core mission statement too: is it a set of values your employees support?

Dig Deeper: How to Handle Employee Complaints

Getting Employee Feedback: Conducting Employee Surveys

Conducting a full-scale employee survey is still the most recommended method for gaining actionable employee feedback. Professionals recommend doing surveys on a regular basis, but say you shouldn't do it any more often than once a year because employees could lose interest if pressed for feedback too often.

Although it's recommended to tailor the specific questions to your company's current issues, though a common thred that most surveys seek to discover is how connected the employee feels to the company. Most surveys will inquire as to the whether the employee has a good work-life balance, whether they are proud to work for the organization and how much effort they put into their work. Questions can also be tailored to find out how long the employee plans to stay with the company or what their feelings are about health and safety issues.

"We have a lot of clients, and every single questionnaire is different," Wojtkowiak says.

Professionals say a mix of quantitative questions — asking employees to rate their satisfaction on a five-point scale, for instance — should be mixed with open-ended questions to gain a mix of anecdotal and statistical information.

As for length, experts say a survey with between 35 and 55 questions is the ideal length, and it should take no more than 15 to 25 minutes to complete.

"You want to make sure you have enough information so you can make good judgments based on good data," Wojtkowiak says.

If you want to conduct an employee survey more than once a year, she recommends trying a six-month "pulse" survey, a short four-to-10 questions of inquiry, usually based around measuring the impact of changes made based on feedback during the larger customer survey.

Companies should allow time for employees to complete the survey on the clock. It also helps to do the survey when the calendar is more likely to be clear: Avoiding the holidays or even your company's open enrollment period helps workers focus on their feedback.

Dig Deeper: The 60-day New Employee Survey

Getting Employee Feedback: Using Other Methods of Information Gathering

Just because a comment box is one of the oldest forms of employee feedback doesn't mean it might not be useful for your business. Although it feels a little cold, and, frankly, antique, Wojtkowiak says keeping a suggestion box is an easy way to let employees know you're interested in their opinion outside annual surveys. Town hall-style meetings and other group events that place management in front of workers are also becoming popular with companies. Or, consider an online portal where employees can send an anonymous note or post. Employee feedback can also be worked in from Day One. Wojtkowiak says successful organizations incorporate the need for employee feedback options and open communications in their training programs.

"If you're retaining your most valuable staff, you're really taking those best practices from those highly engaged employees and applying them down the road," she says.

Dig Deeper: Rounding up Staff Ideas

Getting Employee Feedback: Ensuring Participation

Typically employee surveys get a 70 to 90 percent response rate, but experts recommend several ways to ensure strong participation.

  • Anonymity.  If employees can be assured their responses won't lead to any retribution, they are much more likely to give honest answers, Deutsch says.
  • Proving access. Online surveys are considered the most efficient, but you'll need to make sure everyone in the company has access to a computer. This can be done by setting up a dedicated computer station in the human resources office or by scheduling time for certain workers to use a computer terminal.
  • Encouragement from management. A successful push for employee engagement has to be believable. That's why experts say if you really want to hear from your employees, you should have your top bosses encourage feedback on a regular basis or send out reminders. "The response rate really depends on how much senior management gets behind the project," says Josh Greenberg, president of AlphaMeasure, a research firm based in Boulder, Colorado, that has worked for Little Debbie snacks and the Canadian Red Cross.
  • Incentives. While experts discourage companies from offering direct incentives to individual employees who participate in feedback opportunities, other methods are available. Greenberg says some businesses will offer a raffle prize for something like an iPod nano. Others will offer to donate money to a charity if their surveys reach a certain response rate.

Dig Deeper: How to Communicate With Employees

Getting Employee Feedback: Using the Feedback

The worst thing for a company is to go to great lengths to solicit employee feedback, and then do nothing with it.

"If you're going to collect all this data and then not close the loop back to the employees it almost makes sense not to do the survey," Greenberg says. "It's important to let them know that they've been heard."

This can be achieved by sharing at least some of the results with the whole organization and setting benchmarks for improvement. Some companies will set up a goals monitoring system either online or on an office white board tracking efforts at reaching those goals so employees can be reminded of the progress.

Gerry McDonough, of LeadFirst, recommends companies split feedback into two categories: the broad issues that need to be addressed on a corporate or high management level and the narrow issues that can be addressed at a departmental or division level.

The shorter "pulse" surveys can also be conducted throughout the year to gauge progress. Wojtkowiak says matching the results to the hierarchy of your organization is important, to differentiate between the engagement of employees in an office in Kentucky versus one in Iowa.

"Don't put everybody in the same bucket," she says.

Dig deeper: 10 Ways the CEO can Reduce Office Stress

Last updated: Aug 10, 2010

TIM DONNELLY | Columnist | Inc.com Contributor

Tim Donnelly is a freelance writer and managing editor of Brokelyn.com. His work has appeared in Billboard, The Atlantic, Thought Catalog, and The New York Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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