The Respondent's Bill of Rights
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The respondent is not simply a passive player in a survey effort. There is a "Bill of Rights" for the respondent that should structure any survey effort. This list is not just a moral standard (athough it is the "right things to do"), it is a practical imperative. If you violate the rules suggested below, you will very likely compromise the success of your survey.
  1. The purpose of the effort
    Respondents to a survey have a right to know the purpose of the survey. Is it a precursor to improvement efforts? Is it simply "taking the pulse of the organization" with no particular commitment to change? Is it a precursor to an anticipated shift in strategic direction? Is it a way of checking how well the merger is going?
    1. Who will see the data? What are they expecting to do with it? Will my manager see the data for my group separately? Will the data ever be available to all employees?
    2. What is the time frame for the effort? When might they see a report?
    3. If you don't provide answers to these questions up front, employees will fill in their own answers from supposition or rumor. It won't be pretty.
  2. Appropriate points of involvement
    There are several points in the typical organizational survey where employees have a reasonable expectation of being involved.
    1. Employees have a right to help shape the content. Executives may define the purpose and parameters of the study, but employees are better equipped to shape the questions. For example, if the survey is a response to a high turnover rate, it's best to let employees suggest the issues to query. If you impose a set of standardized questions or deny any input on the issues in the survey, you may find employees simply disengage ... from participating and from any sense of ownership of the issues.
    2. Employees have the right to a safe and confidential way to participate in the survey. The administration and collection and analysis procedures should be designed to ensure their candor and comfort.
    3. Employees have the right to know the results. A detailed summary may be more than anyone cares for, but a bullet-point summary of key findings would be a good starting point. If an employee is curious about more detail, provide some mechanism for viewing the same reports delivered to executives or managers. This is not only a right of the respondent, it is simply common sense. If you hide information from employees, they will assume there's a reason, and if you don't provide one, they'll fill in the blanks on their own. I have had cases where rumors about the findings were rampant even before I got a chance to look at the data for the first time!
  3. Anonymity and confidentiality
    Participants in focus groups and respondents to a survey have the right to expect that their answers will be treated as confidential. If that promise is violated, even in spirit, the quality of the data degrades dramatically. A low response rate (i.e., less than 50%) always raises the question of what "the other employees" might be thinking. While confidentiality may seem like an obvious value in survey work, it is violated with surprising ease. An executive who is surprised or offended by the results starts to wonder "Who feels that way?". He or she starts asking more pointed questions about the departments or job groups with the lowest score. Perhaps it's the long tenured employees (or the newest employees) who misunderstand his or her actions. What seems like an innocent exploration of the data is described very differently by those who attended the meeting. Phrases like "witch hunt" creep into hallway conversations. By the time the story is told twice, the executive is described as compiling a list of offending employees and planning revenge.

    Ensuring confidentiality requires more than just good intent; all of the suggestions below will help with this most important guarantee:
    1. Make a clear statement of the guarantee of confidentiality in the initial announcement of the survey.
    2. Clarify at the start of any focus groups of interviews that the notes (a) will not identify the source of any comment and (b) will not be passed on to anyone other than those composing the survey.
    3. Repeat the pledge of confidentiality in the cover page of the survey.
    4. Repeat it again on the last page, where you would ask the respondent to answer questions about who they are or where they work. Make it clear that their comfort is more important than the completeness of the data set.
    5. Coach executives and managers to be temperate in asking for breakouts or subgroup analysis. Clarify that no data can be reported for a group of less than 10 (that's 10 respondents, not 10 FTE's).
    6. Supervisors and managers play a key role in encouraging employees to fill out the survey; make sure that their language and action does not slide over into being coercive or intimidating. Employees have the right to decline. Even if you force them to take the survey, they can still exercise that right (I've seen surveys with questions answered with all "1's" or to create a shape on the page out of the answers checked; one respondent circled the question numbers!).
    7. Provide different paths for employees to fill out the survey. If anyone is concerned about an online administration, provide hard copies and pre-addressed envelopes upon request. If they're concerned about a hardcopy, suggest the online option. If they're concerned that their copy is somehow secretly coded, offer to fax one to a number of their choosing. Let employees mail in the survey if they're uncomfortable using a centralized collection point.
    8. Avoid having any cryptic notations on the survey itself. Even an innocent form number or date or site designation may leave respondents wondering if it is a secret code of some kind. I have seen employees handle a survey with gloves to avoid any fingerprints, so don't underestimate the degree of angst an employee may feel.
    9. Make arrangements for the data to be collected and analyzed by someone outside the organization. Make it clear in announcements that "No one inside the company will ever see your individual survey." Then make sure it never happens.
    10. Open ended questions
      1. If the survey contains handwritten open-ended questions, make sure they are re-typed so no one can identify distinctive handwriting. This is also one of the advantages of an online administration; people not only write more when they're online, there's no need to re-type them!
      2. Have the open-ended comments screened by someone outside the company; be especially careful of any comments that mention people by name. Consider replacing the name with a code for [Manager] or [Executive] or [Secretary]. You may have individuals that need to be targeted for counseling, probation or dismissal, but a survey is almost never the right mechanism for finding them or confronting them.
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