Too often employee surveys become excuses for griping instead of tools for change. But care in the design and admin-istration of a questionnaire -- and, of course, in follow-through -- can elicit constructive responses. Here's what a few smart company builders recommend:

Use descriptive cover letters. Just Desserts, a $13-million bakery in San Francisco, introduces surveys with a letter that spells out their purpose. The letter also guarantees that responses will remain confidential. Just Desserts hires an outsider to crunch data, ensuring confidentiality.

Do surveys on company time. That's standard for the 800 employees of Wild Oats Market, a 12-store chain based in Boulder, Colo. (See "The Motivational Employee-Satisfaction Questionnaire," February, [Article link].) "If they do it on their own time, you can get skewed results, what with brownnosers, squeaky wheels, and overly cheery new hires," says cofounder Michael Gilliland. "Fifteen minutes is a great equalizer." Just Desserts does likewise, but since its 340 employees can't just step off-line en masse, they respond to surveys in shifts.

Ask selected workers to edit your drafts. Before they can provide an honest response, employees must interpret questions the same way you do. Just Desserts' director of human resources, Barbara Radcliffe, engaged some of her most articulate workers to edit out manipulative or leading questions. She also produced surveys in Spanish for her Hispanic workers.

Keep surveys short, and do them frequently. That way you can quickly spot and fix problems. Just Desserts' latest survey, a soporific 26 pages, tackled too many topics. "We hadn't done one in five years, so we tried to make up for lost time," Radcliffe explains. "Next year we'll try minisurveys on specific topics."

Make surveys user-friendly. Place the easy, multiple-choice questions first, and toss in a few "mood" questions to measure employee satisfaction. Finish up with a generous amount of space for suggestions and comments. "The most important changes we made to our profit-sharing plan this year came out of white space," says Jerry Rackley, product manager at Teubner & Associates, a $4-million software developer in Stillwater, Okla.

Broadcast the results -- and act on them. Wild Oats and Just Desserts print survey findings (with graphs) in their newsletters. Teubner distributed a three-page summary of the changes to its profit-sharing plan two months after its survey. "You have to close the loop as quickly as you can," says Rackley. "We get a 100% response rate because employees know we do something with the information. If you do nothing, you've duped them." -- Karen E. Carney

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