We’ll Never Do That Again: Taking the Temperature of Your Family Business Culture

We thought we had pretty thick skin until we received responses from our Employee Opinion Survey.

When was the last time you asked your employees how they thought things were going? We had just come off an unsuccessful union organizing drive in our family business by a small faction of disgruntled employees. Even though the union wasn’t voted in, it made us aware of some employee issues that needed attention to improve the culture of our company.

When the labor issue was over, part of the healing process was how to move forward and mend relations with the affected employees. We had hired an outside labor management firm to guide us through the unionizing campaign. The management firm used two tools to evaluate the employee sentiment. The first was a comprehensive wage survey to benchmark our wages against other companies in the area. 

The second tool was an Employee Opinion Survey. This survey was sent to employees to solicit their opinions on a wide range of factors in the business. Some of the categories included were; communication, benefits, work environment, and company leadership. The responses were kept anonymous.

We held our breath when the results came back.

Expecting pretty high grades in most areas, we weren’t prepared for the negative feedback. The majority of the results were favorable. But there were a few very negative, personal comments that hit us hard. As thick-skinned as you thought you were, you can never be prepared for personal criticism. You realize for the first time that the view from the owner’s perspective can be quite different from the employee’s perspective. You think you’re well accepted outside of the family, but some of the responses help put your ego in check. Even thought it was only a handful of unfavorable responses, they stung. We took the comments very personally, and it took a long time to cope with the criticism.

After the initial shock was over, we identified the areas that needed improvement. In our company the biggest issue was improving communication. Specifically, the employees in some of our branch locations felt they weren’t getting enough attention from the family. They were right. As our business grew, we moved from everyone working out of a single location to several branches. Our family wasn’t taking the time to visit the branch locations often enough. This actually was the reason cited for attempting to unionize the company in the first place.

What did we do?

  • We moved the entire company into a larger facility and kept everyone under one roof.
  • Our family made a special effort to genuinely get to know all the employees by walking through every department every day
  • We formed committees to involve more employees in the plans and decision-making.

In hindsight, we probably wouldn’t have done the Opinion Survey. Not because of the negative feedback we received, but when you ask people a laundry list of things, they usually answer yes to everything and it opens up Pandora’s Box. The Opinion Survey did show we were interested in their concerns. Don’t just leave it with the Opinion Survey, follow it up with regular company wide employee meetings to address the issues and show your progress. Gradually as you work down the list, the meetings become shorter, less frequent, and take place more within departments. We did that and wish we had started these meetings much earlier to avoid the difficult issues.

5 Takeaways

  1. Opinion surveys are a good tool, but like many feedback surveys the results are often skewed toward the favorable side. Think: I don’t want to lose my job if I say something bad.
  2. Be prepared to take action with the results. If you ask it, be prepared to fix it.
  3. Have an outside firm conduct the survey. It helps lend some credibility to the process.
  4. Be prepared for negative feedback, no matter how great you think your culture is. Asking for feedback is like asking someone if they want a pay raise. They will respond.
  5. Don’t take the negative feedback personally. Turn it into an opportunity to improve things.

It’s very easy for family business leaders to be somewhat isolated and lead the business with a select few top people. As entrepreneurs we’re accustomed to making decisions on our own. We also aren’t always the best communicators, even within our own family. Delegating and pushing decision-making down to others is hard to change. This close call with the union organization attempt was a real attention-getter and opened our eyes to improving communication. The best thing, it happened early enough in our business, that we made changes and benefited from them earlier than most companies.

Sometimes your business just needs a crisis like a union organizing drive to get your attention. Kind of. Sort of. Not really.