Getting Actionable Information from Climate Surveys | Executive Voices | Corning

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Climate surveys can be vital tools for building strong organizational cultures where employees thrive. Yet many companies treat them like routine exercises… and some have dispensed with them altogether. Here are five tips for creating climate surveys that yield meaningful and actionable information.

There is a fair bit of skepticism surrounding the use of climate surveys these days. Some organizations question their overall value. Others are concerned about the investment of time and resources they require. There is even some debate about whether anonymity does more harm than good.


I am a big fan of climate surveys and personally spearhead this initiative each year at Corning. We conducted our first corporate climate survey in 2004, when the company was recovering from its “near death” experience in the wake of the telecommunications industry crash. The survey was a critical feedback mechanism during that difficult time and provided such useful information that we decided to conduct it every year. Our annual survey has enabled us to gauge employee morale during business ups and downs, ensure that we are maintaining our culture following large acquisitions and growth surges, and – most importantly – assess how effectively we are living our corporate Values.


I believe the value of climate surveys more than justifies the time and effort involved. And their value is increasing as Human Resources departments wrestle with new challenges. For example, Forbes recently reported on a study conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, which concluded that climate surveys were one of the most effective and easiest-to-implement strategies for reducing sexual harassment, because they provide an earlier and more accurate assessment of any such activity, versus the formal complaints on which organizations currently rely.


Here are some critical success factors to help ensure your surveys yield useful – and actionable – information.


1. Be consistent


Decide on a schedule and stick to it. At Corning, we conduct a corporate-wide survey each year and business unit surveys every other year to ensure that we are identifying issues early. A different schedule might work better for your organization. The important thing is to make it standard operating procedure. If you think you don’t need to survey your people during a particular timeframe, you are already making assumptions about the state of the organization that could be incorrect. Moreover, random surveys can raise red flags by indicating that something out of the ordinary is prompting the survey.


2. Make the surveys meaningful and help employees feel invested


Employees should not hear about the survey for the first time when it arrives in their inbox. Lay the groundwork for a good response rate by alerting your people in advance that it is coming. Underscore the importance of their input and their voice, explain how the information is used, and make it clear that the objective is to build a stronger organization. If you’ve conducted prior surveys, provide a couple of examples of past findings and the action that the organization has taken as a result. 


I always communicate personally to my organization that the intention is not to generate data for the management committee; it’s information for all of us to understand how we are working together as a community and where we can improve.


You should also evolve your survey to ensure its relevance. For example, four years ago we renamed Corning’s corporate climate survey the “Values Survey” to better reflect our objectives. Words matter, and the name change helped make it clear that the survey was not a separate initiative, but something tied closely to our culture and priorities. It reinforces the fact that our Values are not just a feel-good slogan, but a way of working that we expect people to honor every day. Finally, it underscores the fact that the leadership team holds itself accountable, by giving employees an opportunity to assess how well we are all living up to Corning’s Values.


3. Be thoughtful about questions


Of course you want to get the most out of your climate survey, but this is one of those cases where less is more. If you include too many questions, employees may find the process too arduous and you won’t get a good response rate. I believe 30 – 50 is a reasonable amount of questions. Employees should be able to complete the survey within 15 minutes.


I also strongly recommend creating a core list of questions that will remain consistent from year to year. It’s certainly appropriate to customize some questions each year based on key developments or topical issues, but core questions allow you to analyze performance over time. At Corning, we’ve centered questions on the corporate Values, and as a result, we now have 15 years of longitudinal data.


Finally, resist any temptation to deliberately solicit data to support an agenda. Mark Twain wryly observed, “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.” It’s easy to exploit that notion, whether it’s deliberate or unconscious. Your objective with a climate survey should be to get meaningful, actionable information – not lead your respondents to a desired answer. Engage an objective, third-party organization to develop your questions to ensure that you avoid bias and leading phrases such as “Do you agree...”?


4. Set parameters that ensure confidentiality and encourage candor


I’ve read a couple of recent articles where the authors argue that providing anonymity is a red flag – i.e., an acknowledgment that employees don’t feel safe providing candid feedback. I agree that we should actively create cultures where people can express themselves openly and where managers and direct reports exchange feedback on a regular basis. Yet no matter how healthy your culture is, how open a manager’s door is, and how many different forums you provide, there will always be situations where people cannot be as candid as we would like – either because of the thorniness of the situation, the culture in some of the countries where you operate, or the personality type of the individuals involved. Providing anonymity to employees helps encourage their candor and reassure them there will be no retaliation.


No one within Corning has access to individual response data. We work with a trusted third-party supplier who maintains strict guidelines for protecting data confidentiality and integrity. We conduct external benchmarking to keep up with best practices for protecting employee confidentiality, and we capture ongoing feedback from our employees as well. For example, employees from smaller work groups told us they were concerned that their identities could be extracted or deduced, so we raised the minimum number of responses needed to generate summary results.


I also believe it is critical to keep the survey process separate from compensation planning. Some companies use climate surveys punitively. While Corning believes strongly in performance-based compensation, we have more effective – and appropriate – tools and forums for assessing that.


You want your managers to be champions of the climate survey and not fearful of what might happen if employees indicate problems or raise concerns. If managers worry about negative repercussions, they may be less likely to encourage participation or send signals that influence responses and compromise the integrity of the findings.


To that end, think carefully about how granular you need to go when slicing the data and who has access. For example, general managers need to see data specific to their business, but senior leaders can generally get the information they need by viewing the data and trends overall, by region, and by pay grade.


5. Be transparent and take action


Conducting a corporate survey is a reciprocal relationship. Employees do their part by contributing their feedback. Leaders have a responsibility to report the survey results, provide context, and – most importantly – take action to address issues or concerns.


Some additional homework may be necessary to diagnose problems. For example, Corning’s 2012 survey revealed a relatively high level of employee dissatisfaction in our Environmental Technologies segment, which produces emissions-control technologies for cars, trucks, and off-road vehicles. The work done by these employees makes the air we breathe cleaner – vital work that impacts all of us. Yet only about half of respondents said they felt valued! No HR professional wants to see numbers like that, but it was better to identify the problem than to go on conducting business-as-usual.


We conducted focus groups to learn more about what was going on. The discussions revealed some issues that were relatively simple to address. For example, when asked what would make them feel more appreciated, the number one answer from employees was “when my supervisor personally thanks me.” But understanding what was happening was just the beginning; we knew we needed a cultural change to truly resolve the issues within the organization.


We created a global team of business managers, plant managers, HR professionals, and other staff to lead the effort to make Corning Environmental Technologies (CET) a great place to work and let employees know how much they are appreciated. The team developed a comprehensive training programs for managers on how to provide recognition, set clearer budgets for “rewards” programs and events, and launched a campaign to instill employee pride in their life-enhancing work. One particularly popular component was the slogan, “You can breathe easier because I work for CET,” which employees displayed on T-shirts and jackets. The efforts paid off. For climate surveys, a 3% change is considered significant. The employee overall satisfaction scores improved 12% within two years, with some related scores increasing as much as 20%. Of course, we understand that cultural change is a process that takes years and we are continuing that journey.


In the past two years, Corning has received its highest-ever scores for overall employee satisfaction – 75% for both 2017 and 2018. We’re proud of those results, but we don’t take them for granted. Our climate surveys help us preserve our culture, diagnose issues early, and earn the trust of our people every day.