Beware the staff satisfaction survey benchmarking myth

David Lusty says comparing the results of employee satisfaction surveys from different organisations in the interests of benchmarking can be deeply flawed and misleading.

When interpreting the results of their employee satisfaction surveys, many employers want to compare them with other organisationsto see if they are doing better or worse than the competition. This understandable urge is encouraged by some suppliers, who make much of itsability to ‘put your results into context’.

We know we must compare apples with apples, but like-for-like comparisons with other employersurveys are almost impossiblebecause of variations regarding expectations, question wording, question sequences, response options, and the ultimate useof the data.

Satisfaction measures are a resultof people’s experience compared with theirexpectations. Given exactly the same experience, people with lower expectations produce higher satisfaction scores than those whose expectations were higher. We don’t know how other employers’ people expected to be treated, so even when we have our benchmark data, this crucial part of the context is still missing.

So if you find that your employee satisfaction survey results fall short of whatever benchmark you are offered, it might be because some of the employees in the benchmark had been a bit surprised to be treated so well, while your people have learned to take it for granted.

Even if the data with which you compare your survey results is based on the identical item wording, do you know what questions preceded it in each case, and what effect those preceding questions might have? Unless all the surveys involveduse exactly the same questionnaire, it is not comparing apples with apples.

And although the same question or statement might be used, employees might be asked to respond on a different scale.

Your employee satisfaction survey should produce management information about how your people feel about being employed byyour organisation. That means information that will informmanagement decisions. A survey thatproduces data thatis nice to knowbut which doesn’t lead to actionhascertainly not earned its keep.Comparisons too often fall into the ‘nice to know’ category.

The information thatis most valuable in informing management decision-making comes from the internal comparisons your survey should provide. When you can demonstrate a statistically significant difference of opinionor level of satisfaction between one department and another, or between groups defined by length of service, age group, gender, ethnicity, location, etc,that difference can help you make the case for initiatives to bring about targeted improvement.

You can identify areas where something is working better than elsewhere,investigate the reasons, and then transfer the effective practices to other parts of your organisation.

Used in this way, an employee satisfaction survey is a valuable source ofinformation, and an effective performance management tool.

David Lusty is founder and principal consultant of research specialist Quantify, and was director of personnel and management services at Avis Rent a Car.

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