Employee engagement seems to be on everyone’s mind lately, which is not a huge surprise given the economic malaise in the U.S. and around the globe. Gallup reports that the Net New Hire index, at -11, is the most negative since they began tracking. In the month of March, the most visited i4cp Knowledge Center was Engagement by a wide margin, and over 300 attendees signed up for an i4cp webinar on Engagement with Karen Paul from 3M. Walk into almost any firm and you will be greeted with the smell of uncertainty, a sense of isolation and, in some offices, downright panic. While experts debate the validity of different instruments, I believe what management really wants to know is, “How close to the edge are my employees?”

As a practitioner, I have my own opinions about surveys. While there are numerous vendors who can provide you with a solution, as a consumer you need to be very clear on why you are measuring employee attitudes which will lead you to the “what” and “how” of the issue.

I classify employee surveys into four types: Culture/Alignment, Satisfaction/Commitment/Engagement, Employee Opinion, and Management Assessment. I believe that for some the debate is an issue of semantics or nomenclature, while for others it is an issue of trying to create one instrument to serve many masters. I can only assume that this comes from a desire to reduce cost or address the perception of survey fatigue. What I am certain of is that employee engagement concerns are a real issue organizations are struggling to address. Below is my attempt to define the different instruments and their ideal uses.

Culture/Alignment Surveys: These should be conducted every two to five years and are used to measure the overall organizational culture. They are good for quantifying progress when an organization is attempting to change the culture and identify pockets of variant or rogue cultures (which are not necessarily bad). A Culture/Alignment survey serves corporate needs and should be reported to the board. A random sampling strategy is preferable, and respondents can be anonymous. Rewards should not be assessed based on the results. It is a backward-looking survey.

Satisfaction/Commitment/Engagement Surveys: These should be conducted annually and are good for measuring the mood of the employee base. At the core, many variants of this type of survey are derivatives of each other, with their own benefits and shortcomings. These surveys are very useful for comparing employee segments. Contrary to popular belief, it’s okay for different segments to have different opinions. Actually, if the high performers’/potentials’ answers are not occasionally different from the “fill in the blank” employees, that is a problem!

While different opinions are desirable, a difference in fundamental experience in an employee segment is a problem. Diverse employees who work in the same environment should have a shared experience. If they don’t, this is an area that could either erode the culture, harm productivity, or produce a source of potential litigation.

These surveys serve the needs of corporate, management and HR. A random sampling strategy is adequate, but individual management rewards should not be assessed based on the results. The results can be used as evidence of performance at the organizational level. These surveys are a good mechanism for measuring the effectiveness of specific HR programs and remediation. Responses should be confidential to enable employee segment analysis. These surveys also look backward, not forward.

Employee Opinion Surveys: These should be conducted frequently – daily to quarterly – and are more akin to market research. These are the surveys that an individual manager can act on because they are real-time. They should be short and specific. Some retailers use the cash register system to capture constant feedback on employee opinions (i.e., daily) from their customer-facing clerks. Either a sampling or a census strategy is appropriate for employee opinion surveys. Topics can range from the strategic (Do you believe in the organization’s mission?) to the tactical (How was lunch in the café today?).

In my opinion, organizations need to adopt an employee opinion culture that engenders no fear of survey fatigue for two reasons. First, younger employees crave the opportunity to provide feedback, and – contrary to another popular myth – surveys don’t put ideas into these employees’ heads or set expectations. Younger employees expect their opinions to matter, but most are not narcissistic enough (yet) to believe that their opinions should be law (like many Boomers do). By asking their opinions, organizations are demonstrating that employees belong and can create an emotional bond – the hallmark of an engaged workforce. Second, if organizations are going to compete on the basis of business intelligence or analytics, they need to rely on more than one source of employee attitude data. And they should collect that data more frequently than once every year. These survey results should be confidential. They are a good mechanism to measure the effectiveness of specific strategies, and they can be used for predicting future behavior.

Management Assessment Surveys: Few organizations actually call their surveys “management assessment” instruments – it is probably too scary. But any organization that reports survey results at the manager level and/or uses the results to select, develop and reward management is creating a management assessment tool.

The problem with using Culture or Engagement surveys for this purpose is that they are not designed for that, and their infrequency (annually/biannually) creates real and imagined data quality issues. The most significant issue is, “Did employees understand who management was referring to in the questions?” To get around this issue, some organizations add layers to the same questions with different labels – such as leadership, management and my immediate manager. But when the results are unfavorable, management will often use this loose definition as a shield or an excuse to not act.

A well-designed management assessment survey should be short, anonymous and conducted quarterly or biannually. Small work groups, those with fewer than 12 employees, should not receive individual results. Results should be used for the purposes of performance evaluation and goal-setting. They should concentrate on people management skills – whether demonstrative or effective. Specific questions should be designed for particular managers so they can align results with their personal development plans. These instruments should be used for selecting, developing and rewarding managers.

If organizations believe that employees, or human capital, are one of their most valuable assets, then developing a comprehensive survey and analysis strategy is critical to the organization’s long-term success. Organizations should take this economic uncertainty as an opportunity to ensure “they have the right people on the bus.” As Jim Collins notes on his Web site, “when … you start with an honest and diligent effort to determine the truth of the situation, the right decisions often become self evident. Not always, of course, but often. And even if all decisions do not become self evident, one thing is certain: you absolutely cannot make a series of good decisions without confronting the brutal facts.”