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Employee Inner Views

American workers are: a) being surveyed more than ever; b) a mystery to their employers; c) still misunderstood; d) all of the above

September 10, 2000|LISA GIRION | TIMES STAFF WRITER

American workers are proud of their jobs.

Two out of three American workers have used company time or resources to look for another job.

American workers are loyal--to a point.

Two out of three would quit if they won the lottery.

American workers want more time.

American workers want more money.

Never have American workers been more poked and prodded about everything from how much they value company values (more than money) to the prevalence of on-site dry cleaners (15% of employers now accept workers' dirty laundry).

Struggling to recruit and retain workers in this era of near-full employment, employers are eager for anything they can learn about what makes employees tick, and, more importantly, what makes them stick.

But whether the American worker is actually better understood isn't at all clear.

"Is anyone reading all of these surveys? I don't," said Lewis Matlby, president of the National Workrights Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Princeton, N.J.

"I see hundreds of surveys each year related to the workplace, and I usually have one of two reactions, one of which is, 'I already knew that.' "

The other, he said, is to dismiss a survey "because it's put out by someone with a political ax to grind and it was thoroughly bogus to begin with."

Surveys can backfire when employers fail to follow through, said Tom Terez, author of "22 Keys to Creating a Meaningful Workplace" (Adams Media, 2000) and the purveyor of a recent survey on workplace pride.

"We kill a lot of trees by doing the surveys and letting the results sit on the shelf or on the server," Terez said. "Part of the problem is you have so much data, you almost drown in it."

Surveys also are tricky when they reveal problems that are tough to fix, said Ronna Lichtenberg, author of "Work Would Be Great If It Weren't for the People" (Hyperion, 1998).

"What if you do a survey and they say, 'My boss is heinous'? That's sort of tough to do anything about," she said.

Bad bosses are a hot topic. Nearly 28,000 respondents to a recent Monster online job site poll said the boss had never said "well done." Another found that a third of respondents would describe their boss as "a nightmare."

Some surveys get things out of people that they wouldn't tell their best friends, like the one that asked workers if they'd ever had an affair with a colleague (47% said yes). And when another online poll asked which cast member from TV's "Survivor" people would least like to work with, 32% said truck driver Susan Hawk. She finally won something.

The most popular survey topic is the balance between work and everything else. A survey commissioned by FleetBoston Financial, for instance, found that 64% of workers would prefer more time over more money. (That's not surprising, given that most of them said they spent more than eight hours on the job and many of them less than eight hours a night in bed.)

Just about everybody is putting a magnifying glass on the workplace. Online job sites now poll visitors about work issues ranging from their satisfaction with the average two weeks annual vacation to employer-mandated personality tests. Interest groups such as HalfthePlanet.com, a Web site devoted to people with disabilities, have discovered the employee survey as a way to spread their messages. Many research, training and human resource companies have opened or expanded their workforce-assessment franchises.

And if you think the Gallup Organization spends most of its time polling the public about presidential candidates, the death penalty and abortion, think again. Gallup surveys employees for 300 corporations and signs up a new client almost once a week.

"It's the fastest-growing part of our business by far," said Larry Emond, chief marketing officer. "This has become a huge issue. Everyone is trying to figure out how to attract and retain good people."

That's a big change from only a few years ago, when employers' chief concern was figuring how to get more work out of people, said Rena DeSisto, a spokeswoman for Fleet.

"We've had an expanding economy and near-full unemployment that's thrown many economists into a tizzy in terms of understanding the relationship between the economy and employment," said DeSisto, whose company recently commissioned its first national worker-opinion survey.

After pioneering research in what would make a potato chip or toothpaste buyer come back for more, Indianapolis-based WalkerInformation has begun offering employee-loyalty surveys to corporate clients, who had become as concerned about keeping workers as they had customers.

"That's why you've seen the proliferation of studies on employees. Employees have choices," said Marc Drizin, WalkerInformation vice president for business alliances. "The companies realize they have to get a handle on [employee] happiness and morale."

Many companies regularly subject workers to surveys, often containing more than 100 questions, taking their temperature on benefits, pay, trendy perks and general satisfaction.

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