Our survey said: staff surveys are useful

New research claims the British are getting angrier. Road rage is now only one symptom of a nation increasingly prone to red mist. Not surprisingly, work has not been immune from the trend, although fury does not always surface in the most predictable situations. Who would have thought, for instance, that to some of the nation’s workforce an employee attitude survey can be the equivalent of a bad jam on the M25?

Staff surveys have made the art of listening to employees easy. Attitude surveys just about guarantee reliable, objective feedback to what staff are thinking ñ an invaluable foundation for future strategy. But spare a thought for those opening the reply-paid envelopes. Because every staff opinion poll is likely to carry startlingly physical evidence of an often ignored dimension of attitudes ñ rage.

Take the experience of a seasoned member of The Industrial Society’s staff surveys team, specialists who poll employee attitudes for a wide range of organisations. Properly completed questionnaires have not been the only things to emerge from the thousands of reply envelopes in recent months. A small but unforgettable number of envelopes have also produced a packet of condoms [unused], a razor blade [unguarded], syringes, pornographic pictures, and a collection of short, curly hairs that might just have been canine.

Other employees opt for straightforward abuse. Despised managers, unfair treatment and inadequate pay seem most likely to spark the staff surveys’ equivalent of hate mail ñ angry comments added as replies to “open” questions that typically round off a questionnaire. Expletives, racist or sexist language, and personal insults about colleagues ñ usually managers ñ all feature regularly in a minority of responses.

Arguably more deadly are the survey responses designed to settle a score, rather than simply register anger or resentment. The knowledge that “insiders” won’t see the response regularly prompts a minority of those surveyed to reveal or claim cases of personal harassment, bullying or discrimination that they’re unwilling or unable to raise elsewhere.

Even more explosively, be prepared for staff surveys to throw up allegations of actual corruption. A recent such case to emerge during one of our surveys uncovered major theft and led to police intervention and eventual imprisonment for the offender. The hardest symptom of survey rage to interpret is silence. How angry are the staff who choose not to respond at all, or are they simply too contented to bother?

Luckily, however chilling some of the responses are, opinion surveys remain a useful safety valve for employee anger, quite apart from being a vital communications asset. And razor blades notwithstanding, pollsters agree on one key piece of advice for organisations considering a survey ñ don’t do it unless you’re prepared to act on what it tells you.

By Patrick Burns, policy director, The Industrial Society

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