Guest blog: Time to give the last rites to the annual employee survey

The first of a regular series of guest posts from former Co-Op and Santander executive and Engage investor and advisor Rod Bulmer 

The Annual Employee Survey…..At best a corporate OFSTED report…At worst a waste of money and a killer of belief

We all know teachers, I’m married to one. Once every few years they are even more stressed than usual as they have OFSTED in. This usually lasts a week or so and as far as I can tell they run the school differently and better than they do normally with the objective of “getting a good OFSTED report”. After the inspectors have left things return to normal pretty quickly. This is madness though in fairness I think OFSTED has a role to play. It provides a decent benchmark (you’ve got to assume all schools take the same false approach), gives the school some insight and is undoubtedly powerful in identifying the very best and the very worst schools. However, surely a better model (if it were possible) would be to see the school as it normally runs day-to-day and then make progressive and incremental steps to improve it?

My contention is that the Annual Employee Survey is no better and often worse than an OFSTED inspection. For 26 years, in all companies and departments (from banking to funerals to insurance to asset management) we did an Annual Employee Survey. For 26 years I questioned why? Not necessarily why it was done but why it was so standalone? Why so many managers were surprised by what it said? Could they really be that disconnected? It changed over time as analytics got better and faster but the underlying mechanic never changed.

The process went something like this, depending on your perspective:

• The CEO – this is part of my incentive scheme and whether I like it or not a “vote for you sheriff” moment. I need a good score and a decent response rate

• The Exec team – got so much on don’t need an unexpected poor score. Need to manage the narrative early. Please don’t let me rank poorly relative to other execs

• The layers of management – “turkeys and Christmas” as it’s part of their reward/ recognition – need to make sure I remind my team of all the good stuff, encourage them to respond and if I’m a poor manager/not done my job well hope they think I’m a decent person so still score okay

• The colleagues filling it in – I know it’s anonymous but do I tell the full truth? I feel bad and its not always their fault I’m not sure there is anyone who says with absolute belief “This is my once a year opportunity to really find out what is going on and build plans around it to make improvements”.

So what’s the outcome you usually get?

• Like OFSTED it will highlight the really good and the really bad

• It’ll throw up the odd surprise but only because someone has not “managed the narrative” well

• The real value sits in the free format comments but they are sanitised so much, there are so many and people are so busy not enough time is spent reading them

And then this happens:

• Some big themes emerge and provide a focus that six months later is often forgotten. Do you know the themes from your 2016 survey today?

• Individual teams do some focused planning around the theme and their specifics. In truth it provides a point of reference but they probably knew 99% of it anyway

• Those with really bad scores go in to controlled panic mode if they care or brush it under the carpet if they don’t care and move on. Senior management changes that quickly that it will be forgotten.

So at best an OFSTED report, useful but not value for money and it really should be part of a range of things, not a one time, standalone exercise. But what happens in the worst situations? Here there is an emergent and sizeable population of colleagues who have spoken and expect to see some action. They are “middle-grounders”: they want to believe but are not advocates and could equally easy become detractors. The big corporate engine is not set up to respond or at worst is in denial. Nothing happens or even worse the messaging is counter-productive. These colleagues become detractors and they take other colleagues down with them. The more talented leave, the less talented become negative commentators and a constant drain on morale.

My best example (sanitised obviously). A change programme has not gone well with implementation poor. At a senior level benefits have been captured but they are not really sustainable. On the ground people are talking about it and those senior people who have “their ear to the ground” know this is not good. The annual survey tells people it is not good but they have to maintain the facade that it went well and the corporate intranet pushes home the positives, but lacking any authenticity. Meanwhile the comments boxes, personal twitter feeds, coffee machine chats, smoking shelter discussions all ask the same things – Do they know what is going on? This results in a significant reduction in belief, which is difficult to recover from quickly.

Listen and act. And repeat

This is a “rear view mirror” assessment and looking out of the “front window” things look even worse. Someone said to me 12 months ago “The world’s not going digital, it is digital. The only question is how you embrace it”. What are the implications of this for the failing Annual Employee Survey? People aren’t prepared to wait a day never mind a year, smoking shelter chats are no longer just for smokers they are happening every day through tech-enabled discussions; corporates don’t control the media or what people say about them, they can’t, everyone is entitled to a view and can share it.

So what’s my view? I’ve always said “it is easy to pick holes but much harder to fill them in”

• Ask yourself whether your culture encourages open communication? If not, why not? I believe strongly that the more open people are able to be the more quickly you get to and understand the issues. Cultures form from what happens but you can change culture more quickly than ever before. Celebrate what matters in a very high profile fashion but equally never tolerate what is unacceptable and be transparent about it.

• Think minutes, hours and days not months and years. It is very simple to ask people to give an immediate view through their smartphone. But the real challenge is being able to respond and react to what they say quickly. This requires processes that are radically different to what many companies have been used to. It is not about being lean it is about being agile.

• Try and communicate the strategic vision in simple terms with clarity. Ask yourself if it is understood. If not, why not? If yes, how can I bring it alive? But then be prepared to let your colleagues say what they think publicly, be open with their views, be authentic and real in what they are thinking. I would encourage radical transparency as it is what the future generations expect.

• Embrace technology. It many ways it is not changing the “job” to be done it is just allowing the “job” to be done much more quickly and effectively. If I had my time over with today’s technology I would be asking colleagues much more frequently to give their views on products, mood, service, competition. But the key is be able to react and for action to follow.

In summary, listen and act; listen and act; listen and act; listen and act. Think minutes, hours and days. You have to be able to listen but as importantly you have to be agile enough to be able act.

RIP The Annual Employee Survey (at least as a standalone)

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