Not just any employee survey, the questionnaire the Wild Oats staff completes twice a year is designed to generate enthusiasm

In the beginning, in 1984, Wild Oats Market founders Libby Cook, Michael Gilliland, and Randy Clapp rang up sales and stocked the shelves of their tiny grocery store. The shop was fruitful and multiplied, and by 1988 the owners had stopped managing the stores and started managing a company. But they were losing touch with the store floors, as the original shop, in Boulder, Colo., had bred 11 more scattered across three states. The store managers were reporting all the right numbers to the home office, but back at the cash registers, employees were getting slipshod training and late performance reviews.

"In our business we need to keep our staff happy because they're the first line of defense when customers come into the store," says Cook. But it was almost impossible to gauge store morale after the owners stopped working side by side with produce clerks and shelf stockers. So three years ago the owners organized a way to get the feedback they no longer picked up informally at the cash registers.

Gilliland and his management team developed a survey that reflects the company's offbeat attitude. The questionnaire asks each employee to rate morale and job satisfaction. Ten questions call for a number grade, ranging from "awful" to "wonderful," or "remarkably bad" to "terrific." The language, says Gilliland, keeps the survey from being dry and encourages the playful atmosphere the company promotes. The numerical ratings yield the "Happiness Index," which, the form says, will show whether store morale is "giddy or suicidal."

Wild Oats surveys the entire staff twice each year. Most responses are anonymous, although some employees volunteer their names. Until recently, says Gilliland, participation was optional, and less than half the staff responded. Last year 90% of the employees participated.

The results are computerized and compiled into lists broken down by store. All three owners read the statistical overview and the individual responses. "It can bum managers out," says Gilliland. "If there are 30 great comments and 5 negative ones, they'll fixate on the negative." So he acts as a screen, removing nonproductive negative comments from each store's summary. And instead of mailing the information to store managers, Gilliland sits down with them individually to discuss the results.

Every round of surveys brings a surprise, says Gilliland. Not long ago he was astonished to see the worst complaints from the store with the best working conditions and the most benefits. Frustrated employees indicated that although the manager was well liked, he was behind on their reviews and had failed to fire a particularly unproductive employee. "We'd assumed it would be the happiest store, but it wasn't," says Cook.

Not only do the surveys send a clear morale message, but employees use them to tell the owners what, specifically, they'd like changed. When workers criticized the company's health coverage, they asked for more varied benefits. Based on survey requests, Gilliland and Cook now set aside $200 per employee as a yearly wellness allowance, which employees may use to cover such uninsured expenses as acupuncture and health-club memberships. And this year, after career-intent employees used the survey to beg for a piece of the business, Wild Oats added stock options to the company's benefits. The company also responded to employees who were angry about training and late performance reviews. Raises are now retroactive to the scheduled review date, and the store added a souped-up training program.

Since Wild Oats started conducting the surveys, turnover has steadily declined -- which Gilliland attributes partly to the survey's therapeutic benefits. He says each round brings in about 20 ideas and keeps the corporation in touch with the front lines. "For example, I would never have thought of the wellness benefit," he points out. "My idea of what's important is different from an hourly worker's."

Sample staff survey with responses in italics:


This survey has been created so that you can anonymously relate your experiences as a staff member of Wild Oats. We will be using the numerical portion to come up with a store "Happiness Index," which will tell us if morale is giddy or suicidal. This feedback will help us create a better working environment for everyone. Please do your best to complete this survey in an honest and open manner and with as much detail and explanation as possible.

Please rate your responses [on a scale of one to 10]. Feel free to use the back of these sheets for additional comments.

1. How happy are you with your job overall? [1 = Not happy at all/10 = Ecstatic] 8. Allow alternative work schedules for salaried workers, like a 4 day work week with 10-hour shifts.

2. How do you feel about your benefits at Wild Oats? [1 = Terrible/10 = Great] 7. Love the profit sharing -- real incentive! How about more "carrots" to keep people more long term -- retirement benefit?

3. How do you feel about the pay levels at Wild Oats as compared to similar employers? [1 = Worse than most/10 = Better than most] 7. Not having such a low ceiling for hourly workers.

4. How do you feel about the employee-review system at Wild Oats? [1 = Hate it /10 = Love it] 4. Need retroactive pay when managers are late getting reviews done!

5. How is the overall morale in your store? [1 = Awful/10 = Wonderful] 7

6. How do you feel about the responsibilities of your job? [1 = Too little/10 = Too much] 6

7. How effective is your store manager? [1 = Very poor/10 = Very good] 6

8. How effective is your department manager? [1 = Remarkably bad/10 = Terrific] 8. Easy to talk to, open to suggestions.

9. Why do you come to work every day? [1 = Have to/10 = Want to] 1. I didn't win the lottery!

10. How does Wild Oats compare with your previous employers? [1 = Worse/5 = Same/10 = Much better] 8. Like overall store concept -- ethics, consciousness, attitude.

11. What department do you work in? (optional) Deli

12. How long have you worked for Wild Oats? 4 months

13. How do you feel about the training and orientation program you experiences when you started? Do you feel you understand the procedures, policies, and responsibilities that are part of your job? How would you change things? Should be more standardized so all employees learn the job the same way.

14. What do you like least about you job and/or the company? Please explain. Not enough time to do the job.

15. What do you like most about the job and/or the company? Please explain. People, atmosphere.

16. What would you change if you were the owner? Use more local vendors! Give good support to general managers.

Michael Gilliland explains how the system keeps the owners in touch:

* * *

1. I'm looking for an overall mood. Some employees circle a very high grade, then rag on you on 20 different points. Maybe they haven't thought their responses through very thoroughly.

2. Even now that we've added the wellness benefit, health insurance is still an issue we hear about. Because of the response to this question, this year we're going to increase the company's contribution from 50% to 94% for employees with at least one year's service.

3. We used to ask, "What do you think about your pay?" but, of course, the response was always bad. The new phrasing helps us make adjustments based on employee feedback comparing our pay with industry averages.

4. Since we started this, the number one complaint was that reviews weren't done on time, so we've made raises retroactive. And people want their managers to spend some time with them on reviews, instead of just grabbing them in the aisle and saying, "You're doing OK." So in the last six months we've hired three full-time training and review people.

5. If the person is happy (#1) but reports low store morale, it could be that the store is understaffed. Some of our managers get overzealous in cutting costs for the profit-sharing program.

8. In our large stores, responsibility is decentralized, and a department manager can have more effect on an employee than a store manager might. We can learn a lot, especially if the employee answers question #11.

9. Once a person answered, "Greed." Another wrote, "To meet women." This is a mood indicator -- I want to see that I've created a fun place to come to. If everyone answers, "To get a paycheck," I'll know there's a problem.

10. This is the first section I go to, because I want to make sure we're being competitive. I want people to be happier at Wild Oats than at other places they've worked, and most have worked at other grocery stores.

12. I'm most interested in new people's impressions and their fresh look at the company. I figure the people who've been here for years are probably pretty much satisfied.

16. I like to see two pages of suggestions. I'm looking for thoughtful responses and a keen eye for retail -- half a dozen suggestions says this person really has a future with Wild Oats, and this kind of person usually volunteers his or her name on the survey. I don't mind seeing criticism, either.