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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Inappropriate Survey Questions – or, By the Way, I Garden Also

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Here is a question posed to Randy Cohen, in The Ethicist column of the New York Times on September 24, 2010. “The company I work for has long conducted “employee engagement” surveys, supposedly confidential, but because many teams are small, supervisors often surmise who answered what. This year, in addition to the usual questions about how we communicate with co-workers, there was “Would you rather spend time with your children or your spouse?” and others that I thought were out of bounds. But I have a family to support, so I lied on some. For instance, I said I would rather play on a company sports team than garden. Are such lies O.K.? NAME WITHHELD, MINNESOTA.”

I have been conducting employee surveys for over 25 years, working with a good chunk of the Fortune 100. More recently, say the last dozen years or so, employee engagement surveys are often requested by clients and most consulting companies oblige. There is no single common definition of employee engagement among consulting companies, as everyone has their own set of questions measuring somewhat differing aspects of the employee/employer relationship. And, while I have my own favorite items which I have found over the years to link to business performance metrics, such as sales, goal attainment, turnover, absenteeism, etc, employee engagement is generally thought of as measuring how committed the employee is to the employer, including willingness to stick around, and give discretionary effort (discretionary effort can be parsed into discrete behaviors such as a willingness to speak positively about your employer, a willingness to go above and beyond in service to the customer, etc). Some pose that engagement comes from a combination of a trait (people who are more likely engageable) and a state (how the company is treating employees, yielding various emotions, such as pride, and behaviors, such as sticking around).

I have a tendency to like engagement indices that include future oriented questions, for if employees can’t see a future for themselves or a viable future for their employer the likelihood of longer-term engagement is about zero. For instance, I can be very engaged making buggy whips for my employer as Henry Ford is in the next building figuring out how to mass produce cars. As soon as I come to the realization that the world is changing and my employer is not changing with it (especially if I feel my recommendations or efforts at helping them change go unheeded), I will disengage rather quickly. One critical aspect of whether an employee is engaged is how the effectiveness of management is viewed.

By way of that background, let me state that in all the time I have been doing surveys I have never asked a question such as “Would you rather spend time with your children or your spouse?” orwould rather play on a company sports team than garden.” I have never seen questions like that on any credible engagement survey including those that I have seen from my competitors. Those questions are clearly inappropriate in a business oriented employee survey and I can only surmise that someone is conducting some kind of personality inventory along with the engagement survey. Possibly spending time with children might be seen as being in a leadership type role, rather than spending time with a peer, such as spouse might be construed. And a company sports team orientation is likely looking at a tendency for teamwork, rather than the individual behaviors associated with gardening. Regardless of intent those survey items are highly questionable. If a psychologist wanted to get at those issues there are ways to ask about them that does not get into such personal space.

I would highly recommend that anyone who is thinking of including questions such as the above on an employee survey that:

  1. You don’t;
  2. If you feel you must, they should be clearly stated as being for research purposes and not part of the engagement survey, and that you state how they will be used and who will see the results. Optimally, they should be optional.
  3. Or better yet, make that whole section dealing with items such as the above optional.

The original question to The Ethicist was skeptical about the confidentiality of the survey. I have consulted with many very good companies that are truly concerned about the views of the employees and want to create the best possible environment for them, which is a win/win for all concerned. But such personal questions like the above on a survey creates unnecessary concern on the part of the employee on topics such as confidentiality, and I can fairly confidently say yield little, if any, additional benefit. If supervisors are spending time trying to figure who said what instead of using the results to benefit their operation, they have been either poorly prepared to utilize the survey results or are not the kind of person that should be in a supervisory role in the first place.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

September 26, 2010 at 8:23 pm

One Response

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  1. Good topic Jeff

    Those kinds of questions are not only of dubious statistical use, but a fortiori will place all further and future surveys at risk by permanently alienating the population that is being surveyed

    At best a short term gain for log-term pain.

    Matthew Loxton

    September 27, 2010 at 4:59 pm

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