Employee Research: 6 Reasons Why It Is Different Than Other Research Designs

The following is adapted from an article concerning corporate employee research that ran in Quirk’s e-newsletter June 2010.

Employees are vital to any successful company yet the importance of employee satisfaction research is often overlooked.  Employee research – conducted within large or small organizations – is critical to maintaining a fine-tuned business engine where morale is high, turnover is minimal, and top-quality productivity hums along throughout the firm.  The company that understands the significance of employee research is not only rewarded by a content and stable workforce but a profitable bottom line along with a growing return on investment.

Conducting employee research is in a class all its own.  Asking consumers to confess their brand preference or convincing business customers to divulge their vendor selection process is one thing, but asking employees to reveal little-known opinions about their jobs – their life source – is a risky business.  What makes employee research “risky” becomes apparent when confronted by a number of employee-specific issues in the design of a qualitative or quantitative study.  Here are six unique design considerations in employee research:

  • Prior notification – via email, intranet, company bulletin board or newsletter – dispels doubts and cynicism while minimizing refusals and nonresponse.  To instill credence and maximize impact, the notification should come from someone in management who is far up in the chain of command yet carries a name that is easily recognized (and respected) by employees.  In some instances, this means the president or CEO of the company, in others it may mean the department head.  The important thing is to get employees’ attention and gain trust in the research.
  • All relevant management should be made aware of the research in order to create an informed and supportive frame around the research within the company.  This gives employees added assurance that the research is legitimate and important to the client company, which adds another brick to the foundation of trust.
  • Cooperation among non-management employees may be low (even with prior notification).  Management will participate in the research as a sense of duty (as part of their job description); but non-management tends to be more skeptical, questioning the real benefit of participation, and more likely to wonder ‘what’s in it for me?’  Understanding the varying degrees of cooperation by employee position – as well as by job function or department – will dictate the inclusion of certain design features as well as the success of the study.
  • A client contact name/email or number should be given during initial fieldwork so that employees have the option of verifying the authenticity of the research study.  Even with prior notification and highly-sensitive fieldwork, there will be employees who remain skeptical.  Left on their own, employees may question their immediate boss about the research who may or may not be able to answer the employee’s questions.  By proactively giving employees a name and email address (and/or phone number), effectively funnels employees’ concerns to the appropriate person within the company while reinforcing the trustworthiness of the research effort.
  • DIY fieldwork is a no-no.  The absence of direct client engagement with the fieldwork is important to maintaining employee anonymity, establishing trust between researcher and employee, and gaining honest input. Although it is a good thing to have a staff contact within the organization to legitimize the research, a third-party provider should be used for the actual fieldwork.  This means using outside recruiters/facility/interviewers for face-to-face qualitative studies and professional research firms for online/phone/mobile/mail/CLT projects.  DIY research (the rage in this economy!) is especially a no-no with respect to employee research.
  • Reporting and follow-through require special attention.  It is not good enough to submit a written report and hope that someone will act on the research findings.  Employees demand serious consideration of their suggestions.  They want to know the status of the research results and how their input is impacting corporate policies.  For this reason, the corporate communications department is an integral player in all employee research efforts.  By communicating research findings, the company is saying to employees, ‘We care about what you think, we are listening, and we are prepared to take action.’ This is just another vehicle by which the client company builds trust among its employees, makes the workforce feel good about their employer, and encourages them to participate in future employee research.

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