Campus & Community

Staff satisfaction survey shows big gains

4 min read

At Harvard, academic success is measured in many ways. We look at things such as admissions yield, research breakthroughs, alumni achievements, Rhodes scholarships, global name recognition, and yes, rankings in US News and World Report to tell us how we’re doing. But when it comes to measuring Harvard as an employer, the markers are less clear.

“Large employers like Harvard who are competing for top talent use employee surveys as a key indicator of success in attracting and retaining a talented workforce,” says Henry Ryan, Harvard’s director of Workforce Initiatives. “It’s a common practice in corporate America, where worker satisfaction can be linked directly to productivity.”

Three years ago, Harvard took the unprecedented step of conducting The Great Place to Work® Trust Index©, a survey widely used in the private sector that is the basis for Fortune magazine’s selection of 100 “Best Places to Work.”

According to Ryan, “Harvard chose this survey because it has been shown to improve organizational performance in ways that are important to nonprofits that do not evaluate success primarily on the basis of a financial bottom line. Companies who score well on this survey also do better than others in attracting qualified job applicants, sustaining lower levels of turnover, reducing health costs, and fostering innovation.”

The survey, which measures employees’ trust in the people they work for, pride in what they do, and enjoyment of their colleagues, was conducted first in Central Administration in the fall of 1999. Thirty-four percent of those employees opted to fill out the questionnaire. Subsequently, the survey was administered at the Divinity School and the Kennedy School of Government. The overall results and specific scores for each work unit were shared with employees, and action plans for improvement were implemented, with a commitment to repeat the survey after a few years in order to measure the effect of those efforts.

Last spring the survey was again conducted in Central Administration, the Divinity School, and the Kennedy School, and for the first time at the School of Public Health (where faculty and outside contractors were also surveyed), the Radcliffe Institute, the Graduate School of Design, the Dental School, the Credit Union, and the art museums. Sixty percent of the nearly 6,000 employees who received the survey responded to it — an impressive increase that Ryan attributes to better pre-survey communication and improved credibility resulting from Harvard’s track record.

“Employees who may have been skeptical before can see that the University paid attention to what was said on the last survey and that we took steps to improve and tested our progress. In Central Administration, 700 more employees filled out the survey this time. The participation rate there nearly doubled.”

More impressive to Ryan was the fact that in areas where the survey had been conducted before, Harvard’s scores went up dramatically. “These survey results strongly support the notion that we can improve our performance if we make the effort,” he says.

Trends in Harvard’s results

Survey results, providing information about overall school or area performance as well as comparative performance by work units, were recently distributed to leaders in the schools and units that participated. Results were also sorted according to demographics. Managers can use these data to identify pockets of employees who feel less positively connected to Harvard than others, and target their efforts to improve.

Though there were differences in performance along school and department lines, there were some clear trends across the Harvard units. Most respondents are proud of their association with Harvard and of their own work. They value the benefits and opportunities for professional growth and development the University provides. They consider Harvard a safe and friendly place to work where employees can be themselves and a just place where people are treated fairly. They regard management as competent, honest, and ethical, and believe that management generally provides the right level of oversight.

On the other hand, communication and certain other aspects of management were identified as areas that need improvement. Management’s communication of a vision for the future and two-way communication between employees and senior management were perceived as weak. Many respondents would welcome more opportunities for collaborative decisionmaking and a stronger sense of University community, saying that they feel left out of what community does exist. They don’t believe they have opportunities for recognition, and would like senior management to demonstrate more appreciation for their work. There are also concerns about the fairness of pay.

“We have a great opportunity to tackle these issues,” says Ryan, “many of which were also identified by the last survey. This summer we will be working with schools and units to develop their plans to improve.”