MARKET RESEARCH: Exploring what staff truly think - Surveys are an important way of establishing how staff feel - and often have a strategic role

Ten years ago, businesses did employee surveys to be nice. They wanted to know how their staff were feeling, what they were thinking, and if they were happy in their work.

Ten years ago, businesses did employee surveys to be nice. They

wanted to know how their staff were feeling, what they were thinking,

and if they were happy in their work.

Nowadays, the reasons are more hard-nosed, with surveys linked to

strategic plans. ’Employers are more focused on the benefits. They

realise customer service and quality are linked to the attitude of

staff,’ says Liz McCall, head of the survey and audit unit at The

Industrial Society, which does research for employers.

’Most people have a reason for needing feedback. Sometimes it is

specific, for instance, staff turnover is too high, but more often it is

because companies are working toward standards like Investors in

People,’ she says.

The number of employee research specialists is growing, but the biggest

players are in two camps. Some - like the Industrial Society and Gallup

- have a wide remit, first helping to research employees’ perceptions

and then advising on what to do next. Others, such as ISR and the

Electoral Reform Society, are pure researchers.

’We have a deliberate policy of not seeking to be management

consultants. There is a potential conflict of interest,’ says Electoral

Reform Society consultant Michael Stone. His organisation’s reputation

for fairness and honesty is a strong factor in convincing employees of

its independence.

’We have a history of working with trade unions. When we say to staff

you can trust us not to identify you, then they believe us,’ he


Open forum approach

ISR chairman Roger Maitland believes employees must be able to say

whatever they want. ’Don’t leave out key questions because you know the

answers will be uncomfortable. If you do, the response rate will go

down, comments will focus on that one area and you will lose


A key skill of external researchers is drawing up meaningful


The Industrial Society often uses focus groups to get to core issues,

while the Electoral Reform Society uses telephone interviews, arguing

focus groups can be riddled with office politics. ’We would rarely do a

survey without talking to some employees first. The qualitative work

will help explain the reasons behind the survey results,’ says


Food firm Geest researched the attitudes of employees at its Barton upon

Humber plant last autumn, looking at job satisfaction, communications,

management style, working environment, training and safety.

Geest used the Industrial Society for the project, because of its

expertise in designing questionnaires and ability to analyse the mass of

data generated from large surveys. ’We did not have the time or

expertise to go it alone,’ says Neville Hounsome, its human resources


Comparing the results

It was also important to be able to benchmark results against Industrial

Society norms. Results for job satisfaction, motivation, management, and

quality were above industry averages. The results pointed to practical

needs, such as a lack of car parks, and a desire for more focus on

training, safety and communications.

’We will do a second survey when we will measure whether our people

actually feel we have acted on their concerns,’ says Hounsome.

Motivation is also behind a major staff attitude survey, branded

Dialogue, just completed at Quest International, which makes flavours,

fragrances and food ingredients. The company, part of ICI Quest, wanted

to find out how its 4500 staff in 37 sites worldwide felt about their

jobs and employer.

It ran its first survey in 1995 and a second last year.

’Our customer base is changing and we needed to understand where the

pressures are. The better we understand our employees, the more

effective actions we can take. We know there is a direct link between

employee morale and customer satisfaction,’ says business excellence

manager Kazal Ahmed.

Quest used ISR, which provided a global overview for the board and

perceptions of staff in individual departments. Ahmed says ISR’s

experience of global research helped look at norms for particular


Research specialists say there is a trend toward linking customer and

employee research. ’Companies are asking customers and employees the

same things, and are then able to measure the perception gap,’ says


Gallup is working to link the two and takes a radical approach. It has

developed 12 questions, based on research with one million employees

which, it says, fit most needs.

’Answers to 12 questions are actionable and accountable. What do you do

with a survey of 100 questions?’ asks consultant Peter Slade.

The results are presented on a score card for individual business


The idea is that the scores, supplied alongside customer service and

financial data, can be combined to help small teams implement


ISR’s Maitland argues that market and employee researchers should work

together to establish links and share the skills of the two groups.

’If someone stops you in the street and asks questions, you have no

investment in the research. But if an employee is asked how they feel

about work, they are much more interested in the findings,’ he says.


When First Leisure was looking at ways to improve its communication with

employees, it decided to launch a programme of internal research.

But PR manager Ian Freeman rejected the idea of using a specialist

research company.

’I would not have considered an outside research company. You don’t need

any special expertise to know what your people want. We are a company of

7000 employees and it was more practical to do it ourselves,’ he


Freeman says the need to improve communications was brought home to him

when a line manager said he had found out from his daily newspaper about

First Leisure’s major acquisition of health and fitness clubs. ’We did

not have any formal means of communication and it was clear that we

needed to do something,’ he says.

First Leisure formed a communication committee, made up of people from

all areas and levels of the business. A senior secretary was seconded to

carry out face-to-face research, visiting every one of its 115 leisure

venues. She talked to all sorts of staff, trying to find out what they

wanted from internal communication, asking them about e-mail,

noticeboards and publications.

The feedback was overwhelming in its clarity. ’Staff wanted a

publication - not delivered electronically, but something warm and

cuddly which they could show family and friends.’

First Leisure ran focus groups to help decide what kind of magazine to

create. The result is an irreverent quarterly tabloid, Your Shout,

produced by contract publisher, The Communications Team.

’Canvassing staff about what they wanted was the hardest part,’ says

Mark Flanders, managing director of The Communications Team. Flanders

and his colleagues tested the visuals and the tone of voice with

employees and then went to the staff conference to research content


’Everyone loves it. It is lively, using off-the-wall language.

Management are forward-thinking enough for it not to worry them if the

staff have what they want,’ says Freeman.