Strategies: Survey Says

Conducting a school-wide survey may help boost morale and retention if expectations are clear and employees feel heard.

Sep 12, 2019

From the September/October 2019 Net Assets Magazine.


Article by Seymour Mintzer, Lake Highland Preparatory School

During summer 2018, the president of Lake Highland Preparatory School and I were discussing how we might gauge satisfaction among employees — faculty, staff, everyone. He had presented the board with the idea of a school-wide climate survey, and I jumped right in, thinking the idea was terrific.

The Setup

The timing was right for a new comprehensive school-wide survey. The president had been at Lake Highland for about six months, and the previous president had been there only two years. Leadership wanted to get a sense of employees’ thinking.

One of our goals in conducting the survey was for employees to feel that the administration was responsive to their needs.

I took some time to investigate previous school surveys and found a couple that were limited to advancement or strategic planning. In my research, I looked for response rates, results and how results were communicated or acted upon. This gave me a sense of how the surveys were received, their value to stakeholders and any resistance we might face in launching a new survey. We found we were starting on a clean slate, but if there had been any issues or strong successes in the past, we could have worked to overcome or build on them, respectively.

I clarified to leadership that we were probably going to hear about things that were working really well and things that were not working as best they could, as well as silence on other things. We also needed to communicate with employees that we were listening to their feedback so that they felt heard. In fact, one of our goals in conducting the survey was for employees to feel that the administration was responsive to their needs.

The Survey

We surveyed everyone across the board, from bus drivers to teachers to security officers to division directors. When choosing the survey instrument, we wanted to ensure total anonymity among respondents. We wanted people to share their feelings without any sense that we would reverse engineer the process to figure out who said what. And we wanted accurate data to establish a baseline for future survey comparison.

We decided to pay for a survey rather than build our own. It covered almost every area we could think of and offered both multiple choice and open-ended questions, in which employees could type out responses. It asked respondents to specify their primary role from the choices of faculty, administrator or staff, and adjusted questions accordingly, while delivering some common questions to everyone. We also asked about years of experience at the school, planned retirement and interest in another school role. Respondents could skip any question they liked.

The Rollout

In the fall, I attended faculty and staff meetings at the division level – we have three divisions, a lower, middle and upper school. I asked for 10 minutes to introduce the idea of the survey and encourage participation. Senior leadership would receive and analyze the anonymized results, I explained, and then I would present findings to each division as well as administrators and staff.

When introducing the survey to colleagues, I clarified that it was an invitation for thoughts and ideas, not a wish list.

Some leaders worried that employees would request specific benefits or changes that the school could not afford or that didn’t make sense, and failure to follow through would decrease morale. When introducing the survey to colleagues, I clarified that it was an invitation for thoughts and ideas, not a wish list.

It was also important for me as the chief human resources officer to underscore that I did not own the entire survey nor was HR going to fix everything. I told faculty and staff, “Look, I’m kind of like the Uber of this survey. I get told where to pick people up and drop people off.” I owned the process and served as an internal consultant, but made clear that it was the leadership team (of which I’m a member) that made decisions.

To launch the survey, the president and I crafted an email to faculty and staff that included a link to the survey platform. Respondents had 10 days to participate and could stop and return to the survey any time in that window. The survey period fell shortly after Thanksgiving, and if we had to do it over, I would have done it before the holidays. Despite the timing, the effort was highly successful.

The Results

The participation rate was close to 70 percent. What contributed to this robust response? The deliberate invitation from our president to participate, the opportunity to do so anonymously, and the promise to communicate results all helped. Another factor was the recent leadership change. The survey was also easy to complete; the multiple-choice sections were clear, and the open-ended questions allowed opportunities for personalization.

We received the data analysis just two days after the survey closed, in the third week of December. The president and I initially looked over the results and then shared them with the rest of the leadership team. A significant part of team meetings for the next few weeks was devoted to discussing the survey and developing action items. We wanted to let everyone know that we had processed the data and that they were heard, so we looked for low-hanging fruit as well as longer-term opportunities — solutions to which would require more research and understanding.

Two areas we could act on quickly involved benefits. Some staff members had asked for tuition assistance to complete an associate or bachelor’s degree. We already offered assistance to teachers pursuing a graduate degree but had nothing on books for staff. Faculty and staff were also asking for a new-parent benefit. In the new fiscal year, starting July 1, we began offering associate and bachelor’s degree tuition assistance as well as three weeks of fully paid time off for any new parent (mother, father, adoptive parent, etc.) to bond with their child or children.

I shared survey results and action plans with divisions, using slides. I didn’t share individual responses, but gave voice to general thoughts that we heard and explained how we were using that input to formulate plans valuable to the whole school.

Long-term areas that required more in-depth work included performance feedback, professional development and technology. 

We are now committed to conducting a school-wide survey every two years. We have established a baseline, and we will analyze changes and trends going forward. The morale at Lake Highland is currently high; people say it’s a great place to work and voice support for the mission and vision. We need to work on communication between divisions, which is not uncommon in schools. Perhaps in two years, when we conduct the survey again, we’ll find out if we’ve made progress in this and other areas. 

Seymour Mintzer is chief human resources officer at Lake Highland Preparatory School, a preschool through grade 12 school with 1,935 students in Orlando, Florida.
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