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How to find out what employees really think

Mark Rowh | Nov. 10, 2011
In the past few years, savvy companies have been using text analytics software to analyze positive and negative phrases appearing in social media and other electronic posts to figure out what customers think about their products, service and policies.

Vendors point out that once the software used to analyze employee sentiment is in place, it automatically gathers key data and prepares reports without taking up staff time. In eliminating manual processes and removing dependence on structured surveys, the software increases efficiency while providing useful info on a routine and dependable basis. In the process, insights can be drawn from a variety of complex data across the entire enterprise, including multiple locations and different languages.

In addition to fostering employee engagement, the insights gained from front-line employees who have direct contact with customers can be used in revising sales procedures or developing training programs.

Jeff Catlin, CEO of Lexalytics, a provider of text and sentiment analysis software based in Amherst, Mass., notes that while some companies monitor employee communications on external sites such as Facebook, few take a "watchdog" role in this process. The ultimate purpose is not to keep tabs on individuals, but rather to assess attitudes reflected by multiple employees, and in turn use the data in promoting positive attitudes.

The challenge at present seems to be determining how best to use this emerging technology.

"Many companies are interested in doing it, but are trying to find the appropriate line in the sand," Charnock says. "That is, no one cares about an employee having a bad day or being in a cranky mood. But broad and/or deepening morale problems over a specific policy, for example, are a different matter."

'No One is Singled Out'

She says that analyzing such information is good practice and doesn't infringe on individual privacy.

"If the majority of your employees really disapprove of something, it is to the advantage of both the company and the employees for management to be aware of that," she says. "And, by definition, no one is singled out in such a scenario."

An important distinction is the degree to which information is public in the first place, according to Catlin. He points out that tweets on Twitter are clearly external and public-facing, but internal email lists and wikis are less so; while information posted there can potentially make its way anywhere, it is primarily intended for internal audiences.

Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the "Privacy Journal" newsletter in Providence, R.I., says that a major consideration with employee sentiment analysis is whether information is gathered on an aggregated or individual basis.

"Be very careful about respecting individual privacy in reviewing employee sentiment," he says. Aggregated analysis should be less threatening to all concerned, but even then employers should be open about their practices, he notes. "It's the employer's obligation to make it clear that this is being looked at on a cumulative basis," Smith says.


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