The problem with employee survey norms

In general, the bane of custom surveys is not being able to provide norms.

That might not be as bad as it sounds.

While clients almost invariably ask for, or sometimes demand, norms for employee surveys and even 360° feedback items, we have found significant cultural impact on responses — which is to say that there is variance based solely on the organizational/regional culture where the questions are asked. In some regions/companies, people tend to be more positive than in others, which is a substantial source of bias when looking at norms.


When we do employee surveys, we do have norms; but we try to convince people not to buy them, and if they do, not to use them. Part of the problem is also that it “allows failure” in areas where others do poorly as well. Most organizations have poor communications and power distribution; a norms-based approach would allow shortfalls in those areas because other organizations also do poorly there, whereas a non-norms-based approach would address weaknesses in those critical areas.

This commentary is limited to employee surveys and the like, and is not applicable to personality assessments and such, where norming is essential and handled quite differently than in the typical employee-survey process.


David Zatz, Ph.D

David Zatz focuses on using research and data for targeted change efforts, including employee and customer surveys, linkage, process mapping, and process consulting. He has spoken at conferences and has published articles in journals (such as HRMagazine, Quality Digest, and Effective Executive), trade publications, and books. David has worked with clients such as the American Management Association, Arthrocare, BTI Americas, the Coast Guard, Enhanced Vision, General Fire & Casualty, Mattel (American Girl), Santen, and the City of New York. David holds a B.A. in psychology from Rutgers University, and an M.Phil and Ph.D. in social and organizational psychology from Columbia University.