With the heightened concern regarding increased federal and state government requirements expanding employer risks and liabilities, as well as employee expectations, many proactive clients are asking what they can do to enhance their positive employee relations programs – and where to start. While there are many elements to be considered in building a successful positive employee relations program – supervisory training, effective communications, continued review and improvement of policies and procedures, dispute resolution processes and more – none is more important than having a program for obtaining regular assessments of employee concerns and job satisfaction.

Why Audit?

Employers have several obvious reasons to conduct employee opinion surveys and positive employee relations assessments. A proactive employer wants to know what employees are thinking, determine whether the com-pany’s employee relations programs are effective, and assess the organization’s “progress” in key areas of employee relations.

But there may be more important reasons to conduct employee relations assessments. A key benefit is opening a dialogue regarding problems and issues. In this context, less-than-desired scores can give management a reason to talk with employees about identified problems and to seek employee involvement. Involving employees in developing solutions to issues is a very effective way to build a strong positive employee relations program because this builds management credibility and opens communication channels.

Another reason beyond just scoring and issue identification is management development. It is said that adults learn through their failures. Vulnerability assessments can be a valuable tool not only to identify potential problem areas, but to force management to grade their organization on what may not be working in their employee relations program. Also, vulnerability assessments are a proactive way for leaders to keep an organization focused on employee issues and problematic operations and facilities. As with all self-evaluations, absolute honesty and candor may be difficult to achieve, but are crucial to the value of these assessments, and their benefits can be great.

Types of Assessments/Audits

There are a number of different types of surveys and assessments. Determining which is best is largely dependent on the purpose of the survey in any given situation. For example, the paper and pencil employee opinion or “attitude” survey can be a valuable tool in getting direct input on how employees evaluate various aspects of their employment experience. However, employee opinion surveys normally require time to administer and evaluate, and often it is difficult to effectively give employees timely feedback.

Another way to conduct an assessment is to interview a facility’s managers and supervisors following a format intended to reveal not only employee attitudes and satisfaction or dissatisfaction, but to identify issues among the managers and supervisors themselves. While these interviews can be handled internally, they are often more effective if done on a confidential basis by outside counsel or a consultant. Supervisors and managers are sometimes more candid with an outsider about their concerns than with internal interviewers, and, again, candor is absolutely critical to the value of the assessment.

There are a number of advantages with the supervisor interview vulnerability assessment: 1) the assessment and the results can usually be done more quickly than an employee opinion survey; 2) as issues are uncovered, there is an opportunity to “dig down” and gain a better understanding of the problem; and 3) there is an opportunity to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the managers and supervisors themselves.

Ogletree Deakins has developed another tool for making timely and cost effective assessments. Called “Trip-Wire” assessments, they are web-based surveys which audit the organization’s potential problem areas at one or more facilities without the intrusiveness of either conducting an employee attitude survey or the supervisor interview vulnerability assessment. Aside from the cost advantage, the web-based tool provides a quick, non-intrusive way to take the pulse of single or multiple sites and obtain almost instant results. The company can determine exactly who will take the survey and who will receive the results. If the company elects, the results can be simultaneously viewed and evaluated by experienced labor counsel. The Trip-Wire surveys are focused on several areas, including:

  • The external environment in which the facility exists;
  • The facility’s working conditions;
  • Compensation and benefits;
  • Employee understanding of the business;
  • Business performance of the facility;
  • Issue resolution at the facility;
  • Communications effectiveness;
  • Employee development;
  • Performance management and/or recognition;
  • Leadership and employer-employee relationships;
  • Facility culture; and
  • Composition of the workforce.

While no survey or assessment can predict whether a union campaign or significant employment-based litigation will occur at a facility, the Trip-Wire tools can quickly identify potential areas of concern which deserve a closer look. In that way, they can be a great aid in prioritizing where the responsible management team needs to apply its greatest effort and resources.

There are two types of “Trip-Wire” assessments. “Trip-Wire 1” is specifically designed for employers that have multiple small facilities, typically over a large geographic area, which may  only have one or two local managers and are managed by a regional operations manager and human resources manager. Good examples of the type of operations that could use the Trip-Wire 1 web-based tool would be banks with a large number of small branch operations, food chains with multiple stores, and trucking companies with operations or terminals in several states.

The second Trip-Wire assessment is a more in-depth survey intended for employers with facilities with larger employee populations, or larger facilities with multiple departments and operations. Identified as “Trip-Wire 2,” this web-based tool is intended for input by 5 to 12 participants, including first-line supervisors or department managers, and the facility leader and human resources manager. In appropriate circumstances, Trip-Wire 2 may be used as a follow-up tool at facilities that have been identified as vulnerable by the Trip-Wire 1 assessment, but its principal use would be in larger manufacturing plants, hospitals or other large institutions with multiple departments.

Responding to Raised Expectations

Conducting an employee opinion or attitude survey creates an immediate expectation in the workforce that issues will be addressed. Some employers make the mistake of allowing too much time to pass from the time the survey is taken to the announcement of the results. A worse mistake is failing to take immediate action to address problem areas and failing to use those problems to engage employees in the solution process. It may be as simple as informing employees of the areas that appeared to be viewed positively, but also highlighting the areas of disappointment and the company’s commitment to address them quickly and, in appropriate subjects, with employee involvement. Some companies will set up a “scorecard” so employees can monitor what is being done. Whatever the tool, involving employees shows commitment and respect for their opinions, and builds management credibility with the workforce.

While employee opinion surveys clearly give employees an expectation of a management response, other forms of assessment may lessen that effect. Third-party interviews of managers and supervisors may cause less expectation in the workforce. But, there certainly will be an anticipation and expectation among the supervisors and managers interviewed regarding the conclusions reached and the actions to be taken. Trip-Wire assessments probably fly the lowest under the radar of the workforce and depending on the tool used and those management personnel who are involved, they increase the chance that confidentiality will be maintained. That can be a distinct advantage of using the Trip-Wire tool.

Surveys and Audits When There Is Organizing Activity

Experienced labor relations professionals know that “timing is everything” in the area of labor relations – and that timing can make what would otherwise be legal, illegal. Context and communications has a lot to do with it as well. As a general rule though, if an employer has a history of regularly using certain tools to manage its workforce, it can employ those tools even during a union organizing drive.

Using good management techniques not only will pay dividends in better employee relations, but also will give management more flexibility even in the context of a union organizing drive. Of course, proactive employers that effectively use assessment tools and respond to the results stand a better chance of avoiding the employee discord and unrest that lead to organizing drives and costly litigation cases, because they will have had early recognition of, and an opportunity to address, the issues before they fester.


Knowledge of employee concerns, issues and satisfaction, as well as an honest and candid evaluation of the work environment and processes, interaction with management, and supervisory strengths and weaknesses, etc., is critical to effectively designing a positive employee relations program. As the old proverb states: To be forearmed is to be forewarned. Smart employers use a variety of tools to stay on top of issues and attitudes and then respond in ways that involve their employees in the process.

Note: This article was published in the January/February 2010 issue of The Employment Law Authority.

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