MATTER OF TACT

Many companies are using researchers to gauge staff morale. But, as Martin Croft reports, it is a very delicate job

Bladerunner, the Ridley Scott science fiction film, opens with a scene set in a dingy office. A researcher is interviewing a new member of staff of a large corporation. After a series of apparently meaningless questions, the interviewer asks about the employee’s mother – at which point the worker pulls out a gun and shoots him.

Employee research is an ex-tremely sensitive area, and most market researchers who have worked in the field have come up against hostility from the staff they are interviewing.

“There are particular circumstances today which make this kind of research difficult. Skilled people have never been as prickly or distrustful of management as they are now – with good reason,” observes Simon Barrow, chairman of human resources company People in Business and also of the Market Research Society’s human resource interest group.

Employee relations have been strained by the past 15 years of anti-union legislation. Workers are feeling more vulnerable and more insecure than they did at the beginning of the Eighties. And paradoxically, while the removal of union power has strengthened the hand of employers, it has left them without lines of communication with their workforces.

Mike Emmott, policy adviser on employee relations at the Institute of Personnel and Development, says: “Management used to rely on the union to tell them what workers were thinking.” That’s not the case any more, he believes – so employers are having to conduct research into staff attitudes to “get at information which is impossible to access in any other way”.

The answers, Emmott argues, are vital to success in the market because “an increasing number of companies appreciate that good staff are their only competitive edge – whether you call it ‘corporate citizenship’ or ‘going the extra mile’.”

Staff often react in a hostile manner to researchers: but such anger is seldom really directed at the person asking the questions it is more usually symptomatic of a breakdown of communication between staff and management. And external market researchers – as opposed to people from a company’s personnel department can play a significant role in identifying problems and resolving conflicts, often because they come from outside the company.

Sue Pryke, a partner in consultancy Crucible Research, says: “Staff respond better to outsiders. There’s not so much hostility. We can really stress that answers will be anonymous.” But, she adds, it has to be explained to employees why the research is being conducted and what is going to happen with the results. They also have to be convinced that action will be taken to resolve any issues raised.

The IPD’s Emmott agrees wholeheartedly with this. He says: “Lots of firms are doing research on a regular basis – and some of them are even doing something about the findings. That’s where it usually breaks down.” Emmott stresses that the worst thing a company can do is have regular research sessions without any appreciable changes being made. “If you do these surveys regularly and don’t do anything about the findings, people get cynical about them and your response rates fall.”

But if you do manage to convince staff that management wants to hear their views (albeit totally anonymously) and that action will be taken, then you can get high levels of co-operation, says Pryke – perhaps more than you really need. She says: “Interviews can almost end up being a counselling session. Staff tell you more than they need to. The role of the researcher is much more wide ranging than with consumers.”

Incidentally, many marketers may wonder why researchers can provide them with detailed reports on likely consumer behaviour patterns based on a sampling of a few hundred, but need to distribute forms to all of a firm’s employees when conducting staff surveys. The answer, says David Smith, chairman of DVL Smith and a past chairman of the MRS, is simple – politics. “Sampling is usually not possible in employee research because it’s very difficult to explain to individual staff members why they haven’t qualified to be chosen. We’re doing exactly that for a retailer at the moment – we’re having to give out 8,000 copies of a questionnaire when it’s not strictly necessary. But we’re doing it so the chief executive can say that every one of his employees have had a say.”

Mary Sayer, divisional employee communications manager for BT Global Communications, is in charge of conducting annual research among her division’s 11,500 employees around the world, as part of a company-wide project, CARE (Communication & Attitude Research for Employees) that polls all 137,000 BT staff. Her difficulties are more practical than emotional, she says: “I produce 26 different versions of the questionnaire form in seven different languages – and then I have to create special versions for some of our joint ventures, without the BT logo on.”

Staff seem relatively happy to respond, she says – she got back 81 per cent of the forms last time round. What’s more, “from 11,500 forms, I got back 99,000 words of handwritten comments”.

The CARE survey results in a massive amount of quantitative data, which can then be followed up with focus groups to discuss particular issues which might be raised by staff.

Sayer has been testing an e-mail version of the questionnaire, which was developed by interactive response specialists Interactive Market Link, with 265 employees in Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Australia. The electronic survey offers some significant advantages, she says. Confidentiality is absolutely guaranteed, because the form is sent back anonymously to a mailbox which can only be accessed by the research company conducting the number crunching, while it saves huge amounts of time.

It also avoids one major potential problem which can afflict employee research when questionnaires are distributed by management – veiled threats delivered with the forms, along the lines of: “If I don’t get my bonus, nor do you.”

Sayer is experimenting with putting the questionnaire on BT’s Intranet services, so that staff can access it and complete it at leisure – “but that’s a bit more difficult”.

All managers who have at least eight staff reporting to them get a report giving details of what their employees had to say – eight was chosen as a cut-off point because with smaller numbers it would be too easy for managers to try to identify which individual said what. Sayer says: “It’s very easy for managers to become disconnected from the lives of the ‘real folk’ who work for them.” By giving them each a report on their own performance, as rated by staff, it encourages them to act. As Sayer observes: “We try to push the implementation activity down as far as possible, so that anyone with eight responses can initiate an improvement plan.”

Ken Anderton is a director of market research company SIA Group, which ran the number-crunching for Sayer’s survey.

He says that giving so many people copies of the results can mean printing off 8,000 versions: it also requires very careful handling, so that, for example, if all a manager’s staff say they hate him, that answer is not included.

But giving line management this kind of detailed analysis is vital if they are to be encouraged to act, he believes – and if management is seen to be acting, then staff are happier about responding.

“Most surveys we work on, we are getting between 65 per cent and 80 per cent response rates. The main reason for a good response rate is people getting feedback or seeing things happening.”

Resistance from staff is not the only hurdle researchers have to overcome. Clare Woodger, senior research executive with Research International, points out that resistance can come from management as well as employees. She says: “There are a number of key barriers with management. For a start, a lot of organisations feel they already know what their employees think. Then there are the fears that research will raise expectations for change which the company can’t or won’t meet. The answers may be bad news – employees may have a very negative opinion of their bosses. Then there’s the productivity issue – managers are unwilling to let staff take the time off.”

Smith agrees that management can sometimes be the biggest block to successful completion of a research project. He says: “There’s a tale – probably apocryphal – of the chief executive who locks all the responses to a staff survey up in his safe, on the grounds that the observations made were so interesting, he wants to keep them close by and study them.”

That’s no good, Smith says. “You need to explain to staff exactly why the survey is being done, and what is going to happen. You have to stress the anonymity of it. You have to get the support of departmental and regional management.

“Everything all the way down the line has to be conducted in a professional manner. And there has to be a guarantee that something will be done.”

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