How a small business unit achieved a 99% participation rate in its employee survey—and actually did something with the results

Talent Survey

Posted by Nicolay Worren on October 28, 2014

Employees are asked about all kinds of things, in meetings, interviews, and “official” surveys. But is anybody actually listening to them or using their ideas? If not, why are we asking? “Sham participation” is demoralizing to employees and inefficient for the organization.

Of course, leaders have the option of making decisions without consulting others. Most employees fully understand they can’t be consulted on everything, and accept that somebody needs to make a decision. So do that if you don’t really intend to incorporate feedback into your decision process. It will save time for everybody.

But what if you do want to involve people? How do you create real involvement?

Let me tell you the story of a former colleague of mine, Jim, from my time at a global engineering firm. I was responsible for the first global employee survey in the company, with almost 20,000 respondents around the world.

We didn’t call it an “employee survey,” but “Listening to people,” to indicate that this was not a questionnaire, but part of a long- term improvement process. Still, the initial reaction was one of hesitation. It was a big organization with 53 business units, and (at the time) few common processes.

When we checked the level of participation in the survey a few days after it had been distributed, only about 30 or 40% of recipients had actually responded. Not the best news, given that we had set a goal of 80% participation. I didn’t keep the original chart, but it looked something like this: overall, low participation, except for one anomaly.

Participation Rate

The anomaly was a small business unit in Pennsylvania, U.S., which had achieved an 80% response rate after only a few days. It reached 99% before the 2-week deadline.

People chuckled when my boss looked at the graph and remarked: “What’s wrong with those guys?”

When the actual results came in, we weren’t surprised to see that this unit was one of the best (among 53 business units) in terms of employee satisfaction. After one year, it also beat the other business units in terms of implementation of improvement actions.

It wasn’t my responsibility, but I became curious, and later decided to find out what was really “wrong” here. I contacted the president of the business unit, Jim, and invited him to a conference call so he could explain how he had done it.

Here’s what he told me – highlighting what I think were the key factors.

1. He took personal ownership.

Most business unit leaders seemed to consider the employee survey an “HR thing” with only marginal business importance. So they delegated the whole process to their HR staff (or to executive assistants) and probably wanted to spend as little time on it as they could.

Jim saw it differently. He considered it to be a key strategic process, took personal responsibility for it, and invested time in it. He participated in conference calls to plan the distribution of the survey. He even went through the online questionnaire item by item himself, prior to distribution, to make sure it worked before it was sent to his people.

But how did he achieve the 99% response rate?

2. He made a strong, up-front commitment.

Jim told me he set up several all-staff meetings prior to the distribution of the survey.

The key thing he told his employees was: “You will soon receive an electronic employee survey. I would like you all to participate and give me your feedback…but be careful about what you ask for, because you are actually going to get it.”

Little wonder he got 99% participation!

3. He “closed the loop” by testing his interpretation of the survey.

When the results came in, it was clear that his employees were happy about many things (compared to the average employee). Yet there were still numerous improvement opportunities, as in every organization. For Jim’s business unit, the key improvement area seemed to be the reward system.

Jim had a special twist at this stage. The usual procedure was to meet with the management team, discuss the results, identify the improvement areas and actions, and go from there.

Instead, Jim looked at the results together with his team and came up with a preliminary plan for how to address the improvement areas. Then he went back to the employees and asked them, “If we implement the following actions, will that address the concerns you voiced in the survey about the reward system?”

The employees confirmed that it would.

He then asked IT to create a transparent system for tracking the status of the improvement actions: Every person in the firm could access a list with the activities that had been defined, the accountable person, and the status of each element of the plan.

Compare this to the typical (low) level of commitment that most leaders communicate in these kinds of circumstances: “We’ll send you a survey, and we might listen to your input, and if so, we might do something about it, and if so, we might follow up on whether our actions led to an improvement.”

Despite the 10 years that have passed, I still remember this episode very well.

Jim proved to me there IS an alternative to sham participation. That alternative is to start with precise commitments, as Jim did, and, most importantly, follow through. This is what creates real engagement — and enables real results.

Nicolay Worren is a senior manager with Deloitte AS in Oslo, Norway, and author of Organisation Design: Re-defining complex systems (Pearson Education UK, 2012). He also writes a

One thought on “How a small business unit achieved a 99% participation rate in its employee survey—and actually did something with the results

  1. Hi Nicolay,

    Your story beautifully illustrates how business participation in an HR initiative produces greater end-results:

    While all the other BU managers saw the survey as “an HR thing” and took little-to-no involvement, Jim made himself an active participant in the process.

    Jim’s active participation in this HR initiative drove employee engagement higher in Jim’s business unit. In other words, when business and HR team up, business value is created.

    Thanks Nicolay,

    Jim Watson
    Sr. Solution Consultant,
    Neocase Software

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