Asking your workforce what they really think about safety sounds like a straightforward way to begin improving attitudes and unsafe behaviour. And with online surveys now quick and easy to build at the click a button it’s tempting to send out a questionnaire and just hope for the best.

But however well-intentioned your survey is, it still faces tough competition for your recipient’s time from productivity targets and miscommunication on your quest for honest feedback.

Su Black is Group HSEQ Manager at Swire Oilfield Services, the world’s largest supplier of specialist offshore cargo carrying units. With over 700 staff working at 36 sites in Europe, the Americas, West Africa and the Asian Pacific, their culture assessment survey called for careful planning:

“You’ve got to know where you are to know where you’re going. So we wanted to ask the right questions in the right way to understand what we do well, as well as what we could do better.”

Instead of racing ahead with their survey, Swire took a pragmatic approach that increased workforce involvement and gained a 90% response rate with honest and valuable feedback.

Survey success starts with how you ask your questions

How you pose the questions you need answering is a catalyst for better survey response rates from your workforce:

“People respond differently when they’re asked questions in their own tongue… with the right intonation and in terms they recognise.”

Swire had a translator convert their survey into Angolan and Brazilian Portuguese dialects, but this principle still applies in English. People working at the front-line of risk feel more comfortable if you communicate appropriately in terms that they identify with. Like using the correct expressions to describe their equipment or job roles for example, instead of formal language that sounds corporate and out-of-touch.

Swire’s local business unit leaders also had early involvement. They approved the survey before it was published which improved the questions and promoted local commitment too.

Putting extra effort into your choice of words and adding more layers of approval might feel superfluous, but it’s a pragmatic step to improve your likelihood of more relevant responses.

where you ask your questions

People can’t respond if they don’t know or forget about your survey in the first place. This calls for well-placed and timely reminders with plenty of advanced notice on posters, in meetings and wherever else people congregate:

“We reminded people with a ‘launch countdown’ that grew more visible as the survey approached and tried to reduce the chance of people saying they weren’t aware of the deadline.”

By planning mitigation you actively address the risk of people not responding. It’s a sensible approach that sets realistic expectations when you design your survey awareness campaign. So your message is consistent and appeals to the maximum number of people:

“We helped people realise that the survey is their valuable chance to say what they really feel – anonymously and without redress.”

… and when you ask your questions

Pressure’s always on at the front-line, so how do you position your survey amongst people’s other commitments? Again, pragmatism is your ally:

“We made sure people had the time and access to equipment they needed, to capture as many people’s responses as possible.”

Especially when it comes to structuring your questions:

“…people are enthusiastic at the start of filling in a survey. So that’s where we put the questions about the highest priority issues… because other things would soon come along to steal their attention.”

By being tolerant and accommodating of a person’s many other responsibilities, you ensure as much quality feedback from them as possible within their constraints. Because a small amount of honest feedback is better than none.

Show local leadership

Origins of successful and lasting culture change come from leaders within your organisation. It’s the principle that should guide your strategy when the results of your survey arrive and you decide how to act on them:

“We look to supervisors and managers at our local business units to drive their own change.. and take ownership locally… because they know their staff best and we accept there are cultural issues that they understand more fully than we ever can at corporate level.”

Remember, just because you get a high percentage of responses doesn’t mean they’re all good ones. That’s why it helps to have culture change specialists make sense of your results, and gain you a balanced and realistic view of your organisation’s culture with support on how to move forward.

“Ultimately it’s up to you what you do with your survey results. It’s how you use them to drive change that’s most important. We’re keeping an open-mind and our survey means we’ve now got an educated outlook, informed by the people it affects.”

This article was written by Chris Kenworthy