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"An Ear To Hear" Finding Out What Your Workers Really Think
By Marcia Zidle   Printer Friendly Version

What is the biggest problem for American businesses today? It's the labor shortage---finding and keeping high quality people---according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. "Companies don't seem to be doing much about this problem. While some are boosting wages and benefits, most simply seem baffled by the phenomenon."

What can organizations do to stem the tide of workers, who are here today, and gone tomorrow? Perhaps, it's to discover:

  • What attracts employees to a company;
  • What causes them to leave; and
  • What you, as a manager or business owner, can do about it.

Here are three ways to obtain this vital information:

1. Voice of the Employee

One of the more effective ways for companies to get timely information is from employee focus groups. Sometimes these groups coalesce around a particular issue. Is a new corporate policy working? Why has morale nose-dived? Do we need to increase or change training?

Other times, organizations want to get a better understanding of the impact of a major change on employees---perhaps after a merger or reorganization. The most dangerous position for a company is not knowing how employees feel about an issue. They'll demonstrate with their feet, and then it' s too late. Here are five guidelines to obtain valid information from "Voice of the Employee" focus groups.

  • Decide what information you are seeking and from whom---employees across business units, or certain departments, or specific demographic groups.
  • Use a focus group leader or moderator who is completely impartial because that person has to be able to convey findings to management, even if it's bad news.
  • Report only trends, concerns and questions. Information should be reported anonymously: no names, titles, or groups. Confidentiality is absolutely essential.
  • Report back to employees quickly that you have heard their concerns. Tell them which ones you can act on, which ones you can't---and why.
  • Finally communicate on an ongoing basis: "Here's where we are, where we're going, and how we're going to get there. "

2. Third-Party Exit Interviews

Exit interviews are structured conversations with employees who are voluntarily leaving a company. One of the reasons companies use these interviews is to examine the factors that cause employee turnover.

But, if human resources conducts these face-to-face talks or written questionnaires, it's highly unlikely that a departing employee will air specific problems. Even if they are leaving for upbeat reasons---a better position, a spouse's job relocation, a planned return to school---workers are hesitant to raise significant issues.

Exit-interview findings are "the canary in the coal mine," says Maury Hanigan, an expert in retention and productivity issues. "Figure out why they are dying and realize that these factors have an impact on the rest of the organization." The data should be used to make changes in policies, procedures, programs, and even management.

3. Employee Attitude Surveys

Progressive organizations today recognize that employees are first people-who have personal situations and perspective that affect their work attitudes and behaviors. By acknowledging these "people" issues, organizations enhance employee commitment and create workers who are on the job not only in body, but in mind and spirit as well.

Employee attitude surveys help organizations to:

  • Recognize and evaluate the similarities and differences among workers
  • Study the factors that can influence employee retention
  • Measure the impact of various approaches created to increase employee commitment.

Finding and keeping good people is a business problem that isn't going to go away, concludes The Wall Street Journal article. So how is your organization discovering what attracts good people, what motivates them to stay and what makes them leave?

Employee focus groups, third-party exit interviews and attitude surveys are effective tools to help companies retain high performing, committed workers now and into the future.

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