Palmer Morrel-Samuels Talks Employee Surveys

Happy employees are productive employees. But how do you know if your employees are actually pleased with your organization, or if their job is just, well, a job? Surveys are an excellent way to assess how your employees feel, and they allow employees to be anonymous (and therefore honest) in their responses. Six Sigma IQ talked to Dr. Palmer Morrel-Samuels, President of Employee Motivation & Performance Assessment, about designing workforce surveys.

What do you find most useful about using surveys in the workplace? What are some of the advantages of using these?

By far, the most useful thing about surveys and assessments in the workplace is their objectivity, accuracy and egalitarian ability to give all employees a voice. There are four major advantages of using them:

  1. They objectively document change.
  2. They identify strengths and weaknesses in the organization.
  3. They measure linkages between "soft" aspects of the corporate culture and "hard" performance metrics.
  4. They allow you to cross-validate, and accordingly improve, all of the organization’s talent management assessments, such as those used for recruiting, succession planning and evaluating performance.

What are some of the best and worst questions to ask on these surveys?

The best questions always ask about directly observable behavior, and nothing but directly observable behavior; the worst questions ask about invisible entities like personality traits, inferred ideas, inferred priorities and other entities that can’t be observed directly. Why is it best to ask about behavior (e.g. yelling) instead of personality traits (e.g. aggressiveness)? Because the former will keep you out of court, and the latter is an open invitation for litigious employees to call their lawyer.

How did you get interested in surveys?

I got interested in them because I hate the bad ones so much and because the good ones are, in a sense, at the center of what makes democracies work.

Are there some types of industries where it would not be helpful to use this technique to assess the workplace?

Surveys and assessments are of limited value in companies smaller than 1,000 employees because anonymity is harder to insure and because executives in small companies are more likely to be knowledgeable about the perceptions, attitudes and behavior of the employees in their workforce.

What was your first job, and what did you take away from it?

I’ve had many beginning jobs along the way. Some of my favorites have been working as a garbage man, an assembly-line worker, a blacksmith’s apprentice and a therapist with disturbed and developmentally-delayed children. I especially loved working with disturbed and developmentally-delayed kids; nothing like a few years of that work to deepen your awareness of what it means to be a human living in a society where all of us—every single one—is simultaneously brilliant and profoundly limited.

What are some of the experiences you’ve had that have helped shape your vision?

I guess I would have to say that coming within a hair’s breadth of flunking out of second grade is right up near the top of the list. In my second year of grammar school I flunked 13 out of 15 grades—only managing to pass recess and manners. Actually, the grades were appropriate for me—as far as I could tell, everything was a game, and I had no reason to treat people with anything other than friendly interest and polite respect. I still value that worldview and believe that it represents a suitable goal in many circumstances. For example, I still think that work should be a source of pleasure and the workplace a center of polite egalitarian cooperation.

What do you do in your spare time?

My favorite pastimes are learning and creating. Right now I’m learning to read music and play clarinet. I’m also working on my fourth patent, an article for HBR, and (if I’m really lucky) will manage to get my shop cleaned up before I become too senile to recognize the difference between a hammer and a hamster.

What is your number one philosophy that you try to teach all of your clients?

I run a company that is dedicated to one central idea: Our goal is to make the world better while we generate profit for both our clients and ourselves. (Note that this is similar to, but very different from, having generation of profit as the primary goal.) What’s the connection between the betterment of society and workplace assessments? A good assessment makes society better by improving working conditions and profit simultaneously. If it doesn’t do both, we’re not interested, and we routinely turn down contract offers that don’t hold out the promise of letting us do both.

Moreover, teaching is a critical component of our work. At my company we teach our clients how to do what we do, so they can take on as much or as little of those responsibilities as they choose. As a result, many of our clients see our invoices decline over time until we finally make ourselves unnecessary, just as any good teacher does. This is, of course, not the conventional business model that most consulting companies follow; however, it has worked well for us and has allowed our company to provide assessment services to more than 3 million employees during the last decade.

Although our approach is unusual in the business world, it is entirely consistent with our social and educational goals—if you were free to choose any teacher in the world, wouldn’t you pick one who had the good sense and humility to educate and serve you only until you could do for yourself what at first you could only do with his or her assistance?

Interview by Jessica Livingston

First published on Human Resources IQ