Are Co-op Employees More Satisfied? Surveys Say So

Ten years ago Karen Zimbelman and I conducted our first employee survey. In 1996 we shared the trends we observed in surveys we'd done (Cooperative Grocer, No. 63, March-April 1996, "What Co-op Employees Think"). We have continued to collaborate on surveys, and since 1999 I've conducted more on my own. Some of the trends we noted in 1996 are still with us, and some new ones have emerged. In a nutshell, it appears that co-op employees on average are more satisfied in their jobs than they were five to ten years ago.

A word about methodology: All the surveys I'm comparing here provide statements to which employees are asked to respond by circling a number score: 5 for "strongly agree," 4 for "agree," 3 for "partly agree/partly disagree," 2 for "disagree," and 1 for "strongly disagree." If a survey-taker has no opinion on a statement, s/he is asked to not circle any answers. The survey software calculates the average score, based on the total scores divided by the number of responses for each question. The higher the score, the more positive employees feel about the specific subject covered by the question.

Although I will focus here on the average scores, averages don't show the whole picture. To really understand employee responses to a question, we also need to look at standard deviation. High standard deviation indicates that there is a wide diversity of opinion among survey participants, while low standard deviation shows that there is general agreement on a response. In addition, I randomly select about 20% of the participating staff for follow-up interviews where I ask questions designed to reveal some of the reasons behind the survey scores. At small co-ops I interview all the survey-takers.

A trend toward higher scores

In 1996 we wrote that co-op employees tend to have very high expectations of their employers and indicated strong feelings of disillusionment when their co-ops don't live up to their standards. This still appears to be true. However, starting about 1998 I began to notice a trend toward higher scores. Initially we considered an average score of 3.50 or more to indicate an area of relative satisfaction and a score below 3.00 to indicate an area of marked dissatisfaction. An average score of over 4.00 on a question would be noteworthy.

But in the last 4 years a score under 3.00 has become rare while many questions average over 4.00. As a result, I've had to raise the bar for what I consider relative satisfaction. Instead of focusing on a particular score as a dividing line, I point to the 10 or 15 highest scoring questions as areas of achievement by the co-op as an employer, and focus on the handful of lower-scoring questions as areas where the co-op could improve.

"What Co-op Employees Say"
Table 1: Comparing Results of First Surveys

Year of First Surveys:19921993199419941995199619981998199819992000200020002001
 
1. Everyone at the co-op is working toward the same organizational goals.
2.202.642.232.532.622.812.722.812.862.733.633.003.303.50
 
2. I see a clear link between my work and the co-op's goals.
2.623.093.102.683.033.172.733.383.813.334.303.924.264.19
 
3. Management is sincerely interested in the needs and welfare of the employees.
2.793.383.22----3.133.643.583.313.733.40----3.864.004.00
 
4. Employees are treated fairly regardless of age, sex, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation.
3.473.573.683.443.574.514.16----4.124.104.334.364.564.00
 
5. When conflicts arise at the co-op, they are effectively resolved.
----2.772.742.852.683.062.892.533.102.773.543.213.263.41
 
6. I get timely feedback from my supervisors about my strengths and areas for improvement.
3.55----3.423.573.533.473.61----3.76----4.003.234.114.22
 
7. I received well-planned and useful on-the-job training.
2.79----2.893.032.973.423.323.253.202.813.633.003.783.29
 
8. I am fairly paid for the work I do relative to other local opportunities.
2.673.242.633.53----3.593.732.813.143.072.553.074.073.78
 
9. Employee ideas often result in changes at the co-op.
2.602.933.033.363.003.043.072.803.503.244.003.773.703.94
 
10. I get all the information I need to do my job.
3.343.543.153.493.133.383.423.003.523.403.663.234.003.94
 
11. I get the cooperation I need from my co-workers.
4.044.103.683.753.913.874.103.693.794.03----4.364.374.29
 
12. Work between departments is well-coordinated.
3.743.513.40--------3.313.262.693.193.383.002.833.853.88
 
13. I am proud to work for the co-op.
3.553.833.933.703.824.233.863.814.243.79----4.254.704.56

 

Table I (above) shows scores on selected questions for 13 retail natural food co-ops where surveys were conducted for the first time. I selected these questions from among 60 to 75 asked in a survey, based on whether I had a fairly complete set of data over the past 10 years. The scores are placed in chronological order. In most questions, the scores tend to increase over time. Even low-scoring questions such those on training and common organizational goals still are perceptibly higher in the later years.

Table II (below) shows scores for the same questions for co-ops that have held more than one survey. Co-op A has had four surveys, while B, C and D have had two each. It's clear that survey scores increase with successive surveys, although more in some co-ops than others. It's interesting to note that of the four co-ops in the sample, three have had the same management in place at the time of each survey. But in all the repeat surveys, there were significant numbers of employees filling out the questionnaires for the first time, since all these stores experienced turnover typical of our industry. Even though credit is due to management in each of these co-ops for consciously striving to address issues raised in previous surveys, the fact that so many participants are new in the subsequent surveys supports the same trend noticed in Table I -- that co-op employees tend to be more satisfied than they used to be in the early to mid '90's.

"What Co-op Employees Say"
Table 2: Comparing Results of Repeated Surveys

Co-op Surveyed: Co-op A: Co-op B: Co-op C: Co-op D:
  1993199519982001 19942000 19951999 19961999
1. Everyone at the co-op is working toward the same organizational goals. 
2.643.093.283.55
 
2.232.64
 
2.623.23
 
2.813.26
2. I see a clear link between my work and the co-op's goals.
3.093.553.794.03
 
----3.54
 
3.033.80
 
3.173.89
3. Management is sincerely interested in the needs and welfare of the employees.
3.383.893.824.03
 
3.223.34
 
3.133.78
 
3.644.23
4. Employees are treated fairly regardless of ability, religion, sexual orientation.
3.573.974.184.25
 
3.683.69
 
3.574.11
 
4.514.67
5. When conflicts arise at the co-op, they are effectively resolved.
2.773.233.583.75
 
2.743.05
 
2.683.43
 
3.063.46
6. I get timely feedback from my supervisors about my strengths and areas for improvement.
3.553.533.734.19
 
3.423.23
 
3.613.89
 
----3.80
7. I received well-planned and useful on-the-job training.
----3.363.603.83
 
2.893.27
 
2.973.44
 
3.423.91
8. I am fairly paid for the work I do relative to other local opportunities.
3.533.953.693.75
 
2.633.01
 
--------
 
3.593.93
9. Employee ideas often result in changes at the co-op.
3.364.233.823.93
 
3.033.08
 
3.003.41
 
3.043.60
10. I get all the information I need to do my job.
3.493.753.803.98
 
3.153.11
 
3.133.74
 
3.383.77
11. I get the cooperation I need from my co-workers.
3.754.054.024.14
 
3.683.90
 
3.913.98
 
3.873.98
12. Work between departments is well-coordinated.
----3.513.603.78
 
----3.08
 
3.143.65
 
3.313.62
13. I am proud to work for the co-op.
3.834.244.114.41
 
3.934.10
 
3.824.09
 
4.234.66

 

The data in both tables beg the question: What factors have led to these increases in scores? Although I would like to collect and analyze more data before going out on this limb, I will hazard a hypothesis that it is the improvement in the quality of co-op management that makes co-ops better workplaces for employees. Almost all these questions directly point to management's ability to lead. Also, questions #7, 9, 10 and 12 (especially in Table II) show that workplaces are better organized than they used to be, perhaps leading to less frustration and more satisfaction on the job.

From my interviews with staff as well as responses to other questions not included in this sample, I get the distinct impression that non-management staff in the aggregate seem to be less suspicious toward management than they used to be. There are of course many sociological factors such as changes in values and attitudes among generations, and these could lead to juicy speculations that are outside the scope of this article.

Still room for improvement

Even though employees appear to be happier in their relations with management, there are definitely areas for improvement across all co-ops. Based on scores and interviews from surveys, here is my take on the trends:

  • Training is still a weak area for most co-ops. On-the-job training is not systematic enough and/or lacks follow-through. Questions on training tend to have low standard deviation--broad agreement that training needs work.
  • Pay is still not satisfactory for most employees, either because they perceive that they aren't making as much as other opportunities in their area, or they don't feel their pay raises are based on their performance and responsibility. Questions about pay tend to have high standard deviation, with much variation between departments and seniority levels.
  • Conflict avoidance is still a cultural norm at many co-ops, and staff perceive their managers as having a hard time biting the bullet. Nevertheless, there is improvement. Like question # 5 in the sample, a survey question about management's timely response to performance problems is getting higher scores now than it used to get.
  • Operations could still be better organized. Departments don't always work smoothly together. (Interestingly, when I ask employees in interviews for the factors that lead to conflicts between departments, most mention the antagonistic relationships between individual department managers.)

Note that all the co-ops in the sample tended to score low on the first question, "Everyone at the co-op is working toward the same organizational goals." Consumer co-ops seem to have a hard time defining organizational goals, perhaps because they have so many stakeholders to satisfy. I don't encounter such low scores on this question when I conduct surveys in other types of co-ops or in privately-owned businesses. It may be that this question will never achieve a "4" in a food co-op survey but scores do tend to increase when management makes a point of articulating the co-op's mission and goals at every opportunity.

A word of caution: The way that surveys are conducted has a bearing on the quality of the results. Employee trust can be broken and the data compromised by breaches of confidentiality, by misuse of the results to serve some personal agenda, or by expectations raised and then not met. Please refer to "Employee Attitude Surveys," by Carolee Colter and Karen Zimbelman, Cooperative Grocer #40 (May-June 1992) and "Making Co-ops a Great Place to Work," by Carolee Colter and Marilyn Scholl, Cooperative Grocer #88 (May-June 2000) for information on how to properly conduct a survey.  These articles also may be accessed at www.cooperativegrocer.coop.

See other articles from this issue: #101 July - August - 2002