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Commentary: Blend technology, goals for employee surveys

Even when positions in a legal firm are often highly sought after, simply filling every available office chair shouldn’t be the endpoint for recruiting and retention. Employee engagement is a significant part of keeping those seats occupied by passionate, productive and creative professionals.

Boosting employee engagement takes many forms — wellness programs, strategic bonuses, recognition events — but every campaign can start with a humble beginning of employee surveys.

Thanks to technology tools, there’s a wealth of options when it comes to choosing a survey platform, and some of the more simple choices are free or low-cost, making them ideal for smaller firms. But choosing a survey tool is only one small part of the process. Here are some tips for making sure you’re using that technology effectively to obtain the information you need:

Develop a larger goal: Every survey should answer its own question. For instance, do your employees feel valued? Is there enough challenge in recent projects, or do they feel overwhelmed instead? Where should you hold the summer picnic, at a fancy venue or in a local park?

By putting a specific goal onto each survey, you can limit the number of questions, which tends to increase completion rates and deliver stronger insight. “A common misstep is to ask too many questions that are unrelated to each other, and that indicates lack of a clearly stated goal,” says Don MacPherson, president and co-founder of Minneapolis-based Modern Survey, a developer of workforce measurement software. “Without a goal, you might get answers back and not know what to do with them, and then the survey was a waste.”

Be specific in your questions: Asking employees if they’re engaged with daily tasks or feel appreciated can be helpful for gauging overall satisfaction levels, but they don’t provide much insight into what may need to change. Matt Norman, president of Dale Carnegie Training for the North Central U.S., says the best surveys tie together engagement and leadership effectiveness, which can better hit a goal of assessing employee satisfaction.

For example, Norman says a question like, “Do you have a best friend at work?” is useful for determining engagement, while a leadership question might be, “Is your supervisor creating an environment that fosters collaboration?”

Make participation optional: Ideally, you would want every person at the firm to answer a survey, but MacPherson says that mandatory participation may actually skew the results. “It’s just an awful way to go,” he says. “People may feel forced to give positive responses instead of telling you how they really feel.”

To increase participation rates, MacPherson suggests making the survey mobile-friendly so employees can answer anytime, from anywhere. Also, let employees know how the data will be used, and that there will be follow-up action as a result of the responses. If they see survey answers turned into new engagement programs or better recognition, employees will be much more likely to participate in the next survey round.

See the red flags: Just as there are specific questions you can’t ask in an interview, there are some questions that should be off-limits for surveys. Even when employees answer anonymously, be aware that a poorly written survey can be a minefield of potential repercussions, advises Mark Pihart, shareholder at Winthrop & Weinstine.

“Sometimes, employers have anonymous hotlines they use for employees to file grievances, and there are some obvious benefits to that reporting mechanism, but there are legal issues as well,” he says. “The same is true with employee surveys. You’re soliciting information, both good and bad, with a view toward improving your organization. But if someone raises safety issues or harassment complaints, you have an obligation to investigate.”

That doesn’t mean that thorny questions should be avoided completely. Instead, make sure to set up a secondary mechanism that will allow those complaints to be addressed apart from the survey. Run the questions by any employment attorneys at your firm, or solicit advice from outside counsel if you don’t have that expertise in-house.

In general, employee surveys can be useful for gauging engagement and developing programs that staff members truly want — but like any technology tool, their utility lies in how they’re used. Setting goals and taking time to determine the best questions will go a long way toward harnessing survey technology more effectively.

Elizabeth Millard has been writing about technology for 20 years. Her work has appeared in ABA Journal, Law Office Computing, Business 2.0, eWeek, Linux Magazineand TechNewsWorld. She attended Harvard University and formerly served as a senior editor at ComputerUser. A version of this column originally appeared in Minnesota Lawyer, sister publication to The Daily Record.