Employee Attitude Surveys in
employee attitude testing in American industy
as an example of how behavioral science has been used by management
as a tool
solving industrial relations problems. Developed in the
twenties, worker attitude surveys were widely used during the late thirties
and after World War
to improve employee relations and employee
loyalty. Problems associated with surveying, including the inexperience
the survey takers, led industry to form close
academic behavioral scientists.
RESEARCH HAS VERIFIED THE IMPORTANT ROLE
by applied behavioral science in the post-1960 growth of industry’s nonunion
sector. Kochan and Cappelli (1984, p. 149) argue that
set of “psychology-
based, individud-oriented personnel policies” became available after 1960
and that nonunion firms were the first to adopt these and to demonstrate
their labor relations potential. In fact, however, much of this behavioral
science technology was available before the sixties and was applied in both
union and nonunion settings.
particularly long history is employee attitude testing:
surveys and other methods to assess employee attitudes toward
management and its policies. Attitude testing began in the twenties and,
despite fluctuations in its popularity, remains in use today. This paper
industry’s use of attitude testing prior to the sixties,
period that researchers have not examined adequately.
Employee attitude testing is based on
complex mix of scientific methods
and concepts, including attitude constructs, scaling theory, interview
methodology, and statistical methods like sampling and factor analysis.
*Anderson Graduate School of Management, University of California at
‘Due to space limitations, many references have been omitted.
complete version of this paper is
available from the author upon request.
Employee Surveys in Historical Perspective
Indeed, one could argue that attitude research constitutes the intellectual
core of the behavioral sciences. Thus, the history of employee attitude
testing provides an example of how behavioral science has been applied by
management as a problem-solving tool.
Early Years: Employee Surveys Through
The pioneering practitioner
employee attitude testing was
Houser of Houser Associates. After training as an educational psychologist,
Houser began his career in the early twenties conducting consumer attitude
studies for large public utilities. His work was notable for going beyond
mere description and was praised for its careful causal analysis and its
reliance on sampling theory.
Houser’s studies of employee attitudes were similarly sophisticated. Others
had published journalistic accounts of worker attitudes (Williams,
but Houser was the first to take a quantitative approach and to demonstrate
its utility to employers. Prior to World War
most American managers
were more concerned with their employees’ actions and behavior than with
their attitudes and inner states. Wartime strikes and labor shortages forced
companies to adopt more systematic and scientific forms of personnel
administration. According to Slichter
this new emphasis
reflected “a growing realization by managers of the close relationship between
industrial morale and efficiency.” It also created an environment favorable
to studying employee attitudes for knowledge as well as for profit.
Interviews with top executives in
convinced Houser that few
of these men had accurate information on their employees’ morale and
attitudes toward management. This ignorance was unfortunate, he observed
since low morale caused employees to “express resentment
through sabotage, soldiering in their work, wage demands, and strikes.”
gauge employee morale, Houser had interviewers ask employees a set of
standardized questions about various factors in the work environment.
Responses were then coded on a scale from one to five, ranging from
enthusiasm through indifference to hostility. In this way, Houser was able
to compute an overall “morale score”: a single number that, when averaged
over all employees in a unit, allowed for comparisons across departments or
The publication of Houser’s book,
What the Employer Thinks,
followed by a steadily growing number of academic studies that analyzed
employee morale and job satisfaction. Some studies, concerned with broad
social issues like occupational maladjustment, sampled employees across a
given community. But most focused on the employees of single organizations
and were conducted under employer auspices. They were marked by what
was to become a characteristic feature of academic research
attitudes: the blending of theoretical concerns with practical suggestions for
The industrial and social psychologists who conducted much
research relied heavily
standardized questionnaires and morale scales.
They were, however, more inclined to supplement these sources with
interviews than were psychologists conducting research on other kinds of
attitudes. There were several reasons for this proclivity. First, industrial
psychology had its roots in vocational guidance, a field with a tradition of
educational counseling. Second, surveying employees in the workplace posed
special difficulties. Workers were often suspicious of attitude surveys, fearing
that they might suffer unpleasant consequences if their replies were too
negative. Interviews added a personal touch that eased these anxieties and
allowed for “free and frank expression, with no fears
doubts that personal confidences will be absolutely respected” (Kornhauser
and Sharp, 1932, p. 395). The final factor was the considerable influence of
the Hawthorne studies, which began at Western Electric in 1927.
Between 1928 and 193 1, the Hawthorne researchers conducted over 2
interviews with employees. Originally intended to provide material for
supervisory training programs, these interviews soon became an end in
themselves because of their cathartic effect
employees. Workers enjoyed
this form of “participating jointly with the company in its endeavor to
improve supervision and working conditions”; they got
“expressing freely their feelings and emotions” (Roethlisberger and Dickson,
1939, p. 227). The interview technique used at Hawthorne was nondirective:
The employee was allowed to choose the topics and speak without any
substantive interference from the interviewer. Like the projective techniques
developed in later years, nondirective interviewing was manipulative in that
penetrated a person’s conscious barriers and brought out latent or
Roethlisberger and Dickson acknowledged,
their interview method owed much to the depth orientation of the sociological
and anthropological strand in attitude research, as well as to the free
association techniques widely used by psychiatrists.2
By the end of the thirties, the issues that would inform employee attitude
research for the next 20 years had become clear. Among them were human
relations concerns such as the importance of supervision and the relative
2The Hawthorne experiments-though more extensive than anything done previously-were not the
industria1 application of these techniques. Earlier, Leonard White had used “free interviewing” to
assess employee attitudes; in the mid-twenties,
hired psychiatrists and social workers
to run an interviewing and counseling program
unimportance of pecuniary factors as determinants of employee morale; the
consequences of high morale, particularly individual productivity; and the
development of conceptually refined and psychometrically sensible measures
Despite this growing body of research, employee attitude surveys were
not widely used by industry prior to World War
A handful of progressive
firms adopted the technique during the late thirties, when private consultants
(such as Houser Associates, Stech Associates, and Opinion Research
Corporation) began to promote attitude testing as a tool for avoiding
unionization or for mitigating the impact of recently organized unions.
Sounding a common theme, Houser
warned that “the gates are
open wide to a flood of unionization” because of management’s “dangerous
and costly misconceptions and oversimplifications concerning the motives of
men in their work.” More specifically, he and others believed that managers
overestimated the importance of pay and promotion in determining morale
and underestimated the importance
such nonpecuniary factors as
participation in management decisions, fair supervision, and interesting
work. With attitude surveys, said Houser
business could get
“a true picture of workers’ motives and desires,” thereby avoiding “the
dangers inherent in complete unionization.” These arguments were bound
to appeal to employers, for they suggested, first, that union demands for
wage increases did not reflect employees’ true desires, and second, that less
expensive and more effective ways of deterring unions could be found.
Of course, managers had other reasons for conducting attitude surveys.
Imitating Western Electric, firms such as Westinghouse (one of Houser’s
clients) used survey results in their foreman training classes. In addition,
many managers now took it as an article of faith that productivity could be
raised by improving employee morale. Nevertheless, their dominant motive
was the desire for a solution to the complex labor relations problems that
In unionized firms, attitude surveys allowed managers to bypass the union
as a source of information on worker attitudes and thus stay one step ahead
in the competition for employee loyalty. Moreover, the surveys gave
management a negotiating advantage during collective bargaining, since the
company could safely reject any union demand which employees did not
support or did not care about deeply. Finally, they could function as a
subtle form of communication. For instance, in a questionnaire booklet
and again in
Armstrong Cork (which was partially
unionized) reminded employees of the company’s largesse by asking them
detailed questions about its various welfare programs.
Attitude surveys were also a useful device for firms seeking to avoid
unionization. By identifying issues, departments, or employee groups that
were potential “fuel for the fire of revolt’’ (Moore, 1941, p. 363)’ they
enabled management to improve its policies and programs. They allowed
large firms with many unorganized facilities to monitor the success of local
managers in maintaining employee loyalty to, and satisfaction with, the
company. The largest prewar survey program was run by Sears, Roebuck
and Company, which hired Houser Associates to conduct attitude surveys
at its predominantly nonunion stores and warehouses. Between 1939 and
1942, Houser surveyed over 37,000 Sears employees, using
that asked for opinions on specific workplace practices. The questionnaire
also contained a ten-item scale that measured the employee’s overall attitude
toward the company and provided the basis for computing an employee
“morale score.’’ The findings for each local unit were discussed with the
unit’s manager, who was then expected to devise a written plan for remedying
the problems uncovered (Jacoby, 1986).
The outbreak of World War
temporary halt to the Sears
survey program. In aircraft manufacturing, shipbuilding, and other defense
industries, however, attitude surveys flourished. With labor scarce and wages
frozen by the War Labor Board, firms in these rapidly growing industries
had to be especially attentive to worker complaints; attitude surveys aided
in this endeavor. These firms also hired employee counselors to help defense
workers resolve housing, child care, and other problems.
Electric, which started a model counseling program in 1936, wartime
counselors were expected to raise morale by listening sympathetically to
complaints, thus giving workers an opportunity to “let off steam.” The
workers’ complaints were then summarized (with care taken to preserve
anonymity) and reported to management.
Corporate survey activity was overshadowed by that of the federal
government, which hired
large number of behavioral and social scientists,
including over a fifth of the nation’s psychologists (Viteles, 1945).
civilian morale, the Office
War Information (OWI) employed public
opinion pollsters like Gallup, as well as a more academic group of social
psychologists headed by Rensis Likert. The OW1 was especially interested
in the morale
the nation’s defense workers and its relationship to
productivity and absenteeism, issues that Likert’s group studied by surveying
workers in shipyards and other defense plants.
1947 1954 1963 1981 1982
Type of firm
Number of employees
“Personnel Activities in American Business,” National Industrial Conference Board (NICB), Studies in
“Personnel Practices in Factory and Offices,” Fifth ed., NICB,
55, 109; 1963:
Factory and Office-Manufacturing,” NICB,
Harriet Gorlin, “Personnel Practices
Employee Services, Work Rules,” Conference Board
New York Stock Exchange, Office of Economic Research,
Note that the
whom were employed in manufacturing.
data are for manufacturing
Employee attitude surveys jumped in popularity toward the end of the
war and spread throughout industry during the following decade. Each year
saw a steady increase in the number of firms using surveys. By
when the growth curve began to flatten out, about
in five large
firms had conducted at least one survey (see Table
The most common
users were large firms and firms that had previous experience either with
consumer surveys or with psychological selection testing; hence, the
surveying in nonmanufacturing industries like public utilities
What accounts for this surge in popularity? First, because
1947, nonmanufacturing firms were twice as likely as manufacturing firms to use attitude surveys
per cent vs.
per cent) and selection tests (32 per cent vs.
per cent). Within the manufacturing
sector, attitude surveys were most prevalent in the aircraft, instruments,
glass, and paint industries;
all, with the exception of paint, were
heavy users of selection tests (Raube, 1947).
contributions to the war effort, the behavioral and social sciences enjoyed
great prestige outside the university. Employers were more eager than ever
before to hire technical personnel specialists to design training, selection,
and compensation programs, as well as to conduct attitude surveys. According
to one psychologist, employers had become “psychologically minded”
(Canter, 1948), ready to embrace the notion that “the whole question of
efficiency and productivity boils down to one thing: understanding the
MOTIVATIONS of your employees and taking steps to SATISFY them”
(Research Institute of America, 1949). By 1948,
per cent of large
corporations had a psychologist on staff, while others employed sociologists,
psychiatrists, and anthropologists (Bennett, 1948).
was the rapid growth of corporate personnel departments during and after
the war. To justify their larger budgets, these departments needed some
quantitative measures that would prove their effectiveness, and surveys of
employee morale levels provided one such indicator.
Second, labor relations concerns fueled the interest in attitude surveys,
much as they had in the late thirties, except that now managements were
more confident and were ready to launch a well-financed offensive against
organized labor. Although unions had grown in size and stature during the
war, a wave of strikes in 1945 and 1946 damaged their public image.
Perceiving “a window of opportunity,” employers set about the task
reclaiming their authority in national affairs. On the legislative front, they
pushed for passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, at the same time embarking on
a campaign to convince the public of the virtues inherent in the free
enterprise system, an effort that continued even after the Act was passed.
To guide this campaign, companies relied heavily on surveys of public
opinion, just as the government had relied on polls to shape its wartime
propaganda. Opinion Research Corporation (ORC), for example, conducted
polls for industry on topics such as “Collectivist Ideology in America” and
“Collectivist Ideology and Economic Ignorance.”
The workplace itself was the vital center and chief target of this public
relations campaign. Both unionized and nonunion firms bombarded their
employees with films, magazines, pamphlets, and personal letters, all
designed to convince them that management was a generous, friendly, and
trustworthy guardian of their interests. Attitude surveys played a crucial
role in this effort, since they provided the data necessary to plan “downward”
communications and to gauge employee reactions to them. Consultants like
ORC and Psychological Corporation did a brisk business, conducting attitude
surveys to evaluate communications programs at companies like Alcoa,
Pittsburgh Plate and Glass, and General Electric. Often the survey itself
became an instrument of propaganda, as when workers received glossy
Employee Surveys in Historical Perspective
postsurvey brochures announcing that “97 percent of employees think this
an above-average plant”
by giving employees “an outlet for their dissatisfactions,” surveys were
widely acknowledged to be a direct and relatively inexpensive way for
companies not only to measure but to raise employee morale. For this
reason, four out
five companies surveyed all the employees in a given
unit, rather than selecting a representative sample (McMurry, 1946; Raube,
Attitude surveys also had more specific labor relations functions, just as
before the war. Those firms that had managed to remain nonunion were
well aware that, as one manager put it, “Unions would have far less control
and influence in this country if industry had been listening, and once having
developed the art of listening, reacted as
should have to what it heard”
(BNA, 1951, p. 12). One prominent nonunion company, Thompson Products
(later TRW), fended
several organizing drives during the forties by
combining a pugnacious communications program with periodic employee
opinion polls that were used
debunk claims made by union organizers.
At Sears, which renewed its survey program in 1946, attitude testing
became the critical element in a “firefighting” strategy whereby units thought
to be especially vulnerable to union organizing efforts-because
management, employee complaints, or location in a heavily unionized
community-were targeted for surveys. Those in charge of the program
claimed it could accurately forecast union activity in a particular department
or division. According
Burleigh B. Gardner, an anthropologist who served
as a consultant to Sears, “You could see it coming clear as day
predict trouble in six months unless you acted.” In these surveys, employees
at the store completed a questionnaire designed by Gardner and David G.
Moore; then, selected employees were followed up with nondirective
inter~iewing.~ Managers of units whose average “morale score” fell below
(the questionnaire scale ran to 100) were advised to “start looking where
your trouble is and start figuring out how to do something about it”
4After the war, a growing number
companies besides Sears (including clients of ORC and of
Michigan’s Institute for Social Research) supplemented their writfen questionnaires with nondirective,
“depth,” or “open-ended” interviewing.
few companies also experimented with projective interviewing
techniques such as incomplete sentences. Proponents argued that this kind
interviewing helped to
reveal the deep feelings and meaning behind an employee’s questionnaire responses; critics charged that
it was expensive and unreliable. Similar debate occurred-and still continues-in other branches of
5Recent research done by Sears bears out these claims: a correlation of
was found between a unit’s
scores on certain survey items and subsequent unionization attempts (Hamner and Smith,
predict union activity is not surprising, given that Sears identified high-morale
employees as those who made “positive and willing adjustments to the demands of the organization”
and had “ideological sentiments” akin to management’s (Moore and Gardner,
Although some managers argued that attitude surveys were unnecessary
at heavily unionized firms, this was a minority point of view.
period, managements of heavily unionized firms made determined efforts to
contain union inroads
their prerogatives while at the same time aggressively
competing for the rank and file’s trust and loyalty. According to several
what was called the “dual loyalty” issue, even in
situations where union solidarity was high, workers could have very positive
attitudes toward management, though a conflict of values existed. Among
other things, this suggested that the proper managerial response to a popular
union was not fatalistic quiescence but, instead, the kind of sophisticated
aggressiveness displayed by firms like General Motors, General Electric,
Ford, and Monsanto, each of which made attitude surveys part of
relations strategy. Surveys provided
undercut the union’s
the workers’ exclusive representative, thus making it possible for
managers to “give” before the union “demanded and won,” and to “separate
a demand by a union business agent from a request by the majority of
workers” (Irwin, 1945, p. 42). Three prominent psychologists summarized
the logic behind this approach:
the competition between employers and
unions.. .whichever side achieves a more accurate and deeper understanding
the motivations involved to that extent improves its ability to accomplish
its own purposes” (French, Kornhauser, and Marrow, 1946, p. 10).
Exceptionally effective in this regard was General Motors, the first of the
Big Three companies to develop a coherent labor relations strategy. GM’s
approach was Janus-like: The unions were faced with a tough adversary in
bargaining and contract administration, while the employees saw a more
human visage as the company sought to establish direct and personal ties
with them.6 In 1947, the company announced a contest in which employees
were to write essays
“My Job and Why
Like It.” The contest had two
objectives: to raise morale directly by encouraging employees to reflect
GM’s positive attributes and to ascertain employees’ attitudes toward the
company. The latter information would aid management in dealing with the
union and in modifying personnel policies to improve morale. GM prepared
special manuals to code the content of the essays, gave the results to local
managers, and asked them to prepare action plans to correct problems.
addition, GM hired
to find out what employees thought of the contest.
Although the contest itself was never repeated,
in subsequent years
carry out the latter objective,
established an Employee Relations Department in
lead-as usual-by replacing its notorious Service Department with a new
Industrial Relations department which immediately established a “human engineering program” and
surveyed the firm’s employees.
later years, Elmo Roper conducted regular employee opinion
Employee Surveys in Historical Perspective
conducted periodic attitude surveys at GM plants around the country (Evans
and Laseau, 1950).
The United Automobile Workers (UAW) was quick to condemn both the
contest and some of the company’s later surveys. Walter Reuther called the
contest “an attempt to conduct a one-sided opinion poll”
and local union newspapers also criticized it. In some plants,
contest posters were torn down, and handbills were distributed saying that
the contest was part of an effort to destroy the union. The next union attack
on GM’s survey program came in 1955, in response to interviews conducted
at GM’s Flint plant; ORC interviewers asked participants there several
questions about the guaranteed annual wage (GAW). Because the union was
planning to demand a GAW in its upcoming bargaining sessions with GM,
Reuther claimed that these questions were “designed to elicit answers that
could be damaging to the union.” He added that the UAW was not opposed
to attitude surveys per se,
long as they were “properly and honestly
Indeed, the following year the UAW
cooperated with the management of a small Illinois auto parts firm in
conducting a survey.
Such cooperative endeavors were, however, the exception rather than the
rule. While most union leaders favored the joint survey approach,
managements usually rejected it. In fact, nearly half of all companies studied
the Conference Board did not even inform the union beforehand about
their plans to conduct a survey, and 60 per cent did not share survey findings
with union officers (Raube, 1951; McMurry, 1946). As one manager
explained, his company did not involve the union in its survey program
because of fears that the union would “attempt to control the views of the
membership and thus defeat the true purpose
such a survey” (BNA,
few academic researchers (e.g., Michigan’s Institute for Social
Research) refused to conduct a survey that did not have union approval;
but most consultants did not share this inhibition (Kornhauser, 1961).’
Hence, it is not surprising that union leaders were suspicious both of
attitude surveys and of the people conducting them, namely, industrial and
social psychologists and professional pollsters. Although this suspicion did
not always erupt into outspoken opposition, an underlying fear remained.
one union spokesman explained, attitude surveys could undermine the
most fundamental aspects of unionism by “stealing the prestige for the
problems [from the grievance and bargaining mechanisms] and
arrogating it completely to a management-controlled device” (Barkin, 1952,
’In the early fifties, two-thirds
all surveys were conducted by outside consultants; this figure held
steady through the early sixties and only recently
p. 82). The unions themselves made little use of the survey technique to
study their own members: Neither the
knew of any such
studies conducted prior to
and only a handful were done during the
fifties.’ The reasons for this lack are not clear, but it is likely that union
leaders thought of surveys as a tainted rather than a neutral device and
viewed survey consultants in a similarly unfavorable way.
Practical and Professional Problems
corporate survey takers and the expedient nature of
their surveys, which were often little more than a “potpourri of items thrown
together by harried personnel workers” (Taylor,
made surveying less
than an exact science. Attitude surveys purported to measure something
termed “employee morale” or “job satisfaction,” yet this key concept was
neither carefully defined nor operationalized.
result, the term took on
a plethora of meanings. The
have been that morale was
a unidimensional continuum reflecting an employee’s attitude toward the
company and hidher identification with its management.
Another problem was that those conducting the surveys were naive about
termed the “bias of the auspices”: the fact that employees
were less likely to speak truthfully to their employer or to someone
representing him than to a more impartial and less threatening person.
While many employers took steps to encourage a sense of
anonymity-including locked “ballot boxes” and the omission of coding
numbers on questionnaires-such efforts were not always enough to overcome
suspicion and bias.
cite one egregious example:
Westinghouse in the
late thirties, some employees signed their questionnaires even though they
were told not to. Rather than being skeptical about the validity of these
responses, the manager in charge boasted that this behavior proved that the
employees “felt sure that the questionnaire would not be misused” (Burke,
The questionnaires themselves were often poorly constructed, used leading
questions and emotionally toned words, and encouraged a rigid patterning
of responses. Few were designed to systematically measure relationships
between variables or to assess causal relationships. Although some of the
more sophisticated surveys collected demographic and other factual data,
most failed to take account of the age, occupation, and other salient
XSome postwar studies found that union leaders were no better able than managers to predict employee
responses to attitude surveys: both groups overemphasized pecuniary factors as determinants of employee
morale. Researchers said that this resulted from a lack of “empathy” between leaders and workers and
that it demonstrated the need for more attitude surveys and human relations training on both sides.
characteristics of the surveyed employee groups. Moreover, because the
questionnaires were customized instruments containing firm-specific rather
than standardized questions, survey results were rarely comparable across
firms. The lack of external norms meant that companies had no way of
knowing how closely their employees’ responses resembled those of workers
in similar firms.
One consequence of these problems was that employee attitude surveys
contributed little to scientific research. Given the absence of careful controls
and of systematic research designs, it is not surprising that behavioral
scientists tended to ignore the vast quantities of data collected by corporate
serious researchers, the typical survey represented little
more than a mere “counting procedure” (Katz, 1950, p. 212).
the extent that these problems led to trivial or biased results, they
reinforced management’s doubts about the practical value of the surveys.
Almost a fifth of all firms questioned by the Conference Board admitted
that they learned little or nothing about their employees from attitude
surveys (Raube, 1951). Another study found a significant minority who
faulted attitude surveys because of poor design and because employees
systematically lied on them (BNA, 1954). Of course, employers had other
reasons for their dissatisfaction. Some feared that surveys might give the
union ammunition with which to attack the company, while others felt that
they would awaken “sleeping dogs” by suggesting complaints and misgivings
to employees. As a result, companies were often wary of reporting survey
results to their workers, and survey follow-ups were poorly done.9 For all of
these reasons, attitude surveys were less widespread than other psychological
techniques (such as selection tests) and usually were unique events rather
than being part of a continuing program.
At the same time that attitude testing was growing popular in the corporate
world, research on employee attitudes was burgeoning among behavioral
and social scientists in the universities. Three times as many studies relating
job factors to employee attitudes were published between 1950 and 1954 as
had appeared between 1940 and 1944 (Herzberg
military-through agencies like the Office of Naval Research-heavily
supported research in this area, including the Ohio State leadership studies
and the employee morale studies done at the University of Michigan. Private
’Of the companies conducting attitude surveys, only a fifth shared all findings with their employees,
usually in the form of a special report
per cent did not report any
their nonsupervisory employees (Raube,
companies also funded many of these studies by hiring university researchers
to survey their employees and by contributing funds for the development
of new survey instruments. These ties between government, universities,
and industry were not unprecedented. A similar research nexus had developed
during and immediately after World War
What was new was the large
volume of subsidized research and the extent to which behavioral scientists
became dependent upon it.
The relationship between industry and academia was symbiotic: Both
sides profited from it. For behavioral scientists interested in employee
attitudes, industry provided research issues, research sites, and support for
themselves and for the new industrial relations institutes established after
the war. To take advantage of these opportunities, academics had to learn
a new etiquette for establishing cooperative research relationships with
business clients. For industry, forging ties with the universities had two
advantages. First, these links conferred legitimacy on attitude testing and
other personnel techniques, casting them in a neutral, scientific light and
allaying the suspicions of workers and union leaders. Thus, when Pitney-
Bowes hired researchers from Dartmouth’s Tuck School to conduct an
attitude survey, the employees were given a brochure describing the Tuck
staff and containing photographs of the school,
cartons being loaded into a car headed for Dartmouth, and of the Tuck
researchers tabulating the survey data (Raube, 1951). The second and more
important benefit of the academic connection was technical assistance in
solving the various problems that beset employee surveys. This can best be
understood by examining the activities of several key university groups
involved in employee attitude research.
The Industrial Relations Center (IRC) at the University of Chicago was
headed by Robert
Burns and supported by a number
including Sears. In the late forties, Sears became dissatisfied with its existing
survey instrument because, like other questionnaires then in use, it was
difficult to administer, lacked psychometric rigor, and provided no basis for
external comparisons. Sears turned to the IRC for help, and in 1950 a group
of Chicago faculty members including Burns,
Thurstone, and David
Moore, a former Sears manager, joined forces under the aegis
to develop a questionnaire that Sears (and other companies) could use. By
applying item analysis, factor analysis, and other statistical techniques, the
Chicago group developed a sophisticated, self-administering instrument
known as the Employee Inventory (EI). Science Research Associates (SRA),
a testing company founded by Burns, published the EI and sold it, along
with scoring and analysis services,
survey their employees.
Easy to use and well credentialed, the inventory soon became industry’s
most popular employee attitude questionnaire (Burns,
many firms purchased the EI, SRA was able to develop national norms for
the inventory, thus allowing firms like Sears to compare their EI scores to
those of other users.
More research-oriented than the Chicago IRC was the Institute for Social
Research (ISR) at the University of Michigan, which conducted a series of
landmark studies examining the relationship among morale, supervision,
and performance. Using questionnaires and structured interviews, the
Michigan researchers studied workers at major companies, including
Caterpillar Tractor, Studebaker, Detroit Edison, Prudential Life Insurance,
and the Chesapeake
Ohio Railroad. Not only did the ISR group contribute
significantly to an understanding of the determinants of employee morale,
but it also blazed a methodological trail by demonstrating that employee
attitude surveys could yield valuable generalizations for the behavioral
sciences and at the same time produce useful results for the companies
sponsoring the research.
While conducting surveys for Detroit Edison in the late forties, the ISR
group also developed the technique known as “survey feedback,” an
interesting blend of theory and practice. On the surface, feedback appeared
to be no more than a modest device for improving survey follow-ups and
for ensuring the dissemination of survey findings, both weak spots in survey
practice. But in actuality, feedback turned the survey into a powerful tool
for changing, as well as monitoring, employee attitudes.
for instance, survey findings were presented to employees through an
interlocking chain of group meetings that took place over a two-year period
following the survey. First the company’s top executives discussed the
findings and planned remedial actions, and then they held similar meetings
with their subordinates. The process was repeated down the managerial
ranks to the first-line supervisors and their work groups. According to the
ISR researchers, this consultative approach deepened employees’ interest in
the survey, helped them to identify more closely with it, and made them
readier to accept and support corrective measures introduced as a result of
The ISR studies were also among the first to employ factor analysis to
more precisely define employee morale. Four dimensions of morale were
identified: intrinsic job satisfaction, satisfaction with the company, satisfaction
with supervision, and financial and job status satisfaction. Other university
researchers also experimented with factor analytic definitions of morale.
Some, such as the Chicago group working on the EI, received support from
private sources, while others were funded by the Air Force. Though this
research helped to refine the definition of morale statistically, critics
contended that researchers and managers still used “high employee morale”
as a euphemism to describe workers who were “happy, contented, but
typically docile” (Wilensky,
While the “fit” between industry and academia was generally good, each
group had its own agenda and did not always provide what the other side
wanted. Employers were dismayed by researchers who insisted that the
union be involved in any survey, and researchers were confronted with
clients who were indifferent to, and ignorant of, a survey’s contributions to
the theoretical literature. Thus, even though numerous studies failed to
confirm any direct causal link between morale and performance,
of managers polled in
asserted that such
relationship existed (BNA,
Surveying Since the Mid-Fifties: An
After more than a decade of rapid growth, the number of new users of
attitude surveys began to taper off after the mid-fifties (see Table
the proportion of firms conducting surveys of hourly or
salaried employees changed very little; while surveying became more common
among medium-sized firms, the proportion of large firms using the technique
remained constant. Fewer articles on surveying appeared in business-oriented
magazines and journals.” These trends failed to register in academia: The
research studies dealing with employee attitudes did not decline
These trends may be illusory, the result
faulty data. But a more
plausible explanation for the appearance
stasis is that by the late fifties
and early sixties, managements were feeling more secure
with the public, the unions, and their employees than at any time during
the previous three decades. In the realm of public relations, business had
regained much of the prestige eroded by the Great Depression. In politics,
it bested the unions in the battle over Taft-Hartley and won a smaller,
though still significant, victory with the passage of the Landrum-Griffin Act
Confident of their ability to control industrial relations problems,
unionized firms adopted a “mature” view by finally accepting
the environment and by concentrating
their energies on stabilizing industrial relations. In the unorganized sector,
‘“0verzealous consultants were partly to blame
its advertisements for the Employee Inventory,
made the unsubstantiated claim that “high morale
almost invariably means: high productivity,
absenteeism and turnover, confidence in management,
harmonious and creative atmosphere” (Taylor,
Publishing trends were ascertained
counting citations in rhe
in Historical Perspective
unions posed less of a threat because they had lost their organizing
momentum: After the mid-fifties, unions represented a declining proportion
of the labor force. Thus, employers throughout industry felt less pressure
to experiment with esoteric techniques like attitude surveys.
This is not to say that companies with existing programs disbanded them.
They did not. In fact, in the late fifties some firms began to include
managerial and professional employees in their surveys; others experimented
with high-speed computers. Using machine-readable forms, Sears was able
to survey all
of its employees in 1959, while AT&T in 1960
conducted factor analyses of thousands of employee questionnaires. But
those companies that had never previously utilized attitude surveys were
now less willing to adopt them than in the immediate postwar years.
The situation changed again starting in the late sixties and early seventies.
The proportion of manufacturing firms conducting employee attitude surveys
rose from 21 per cent in 1964 to 45 per cent in 1981 (see Table 1). One
reason for this change was industry’s growing reliance on behavioral science
tools to solve workplace problems. These tools included the innovations in
work organization associated with the “quality of work life” movement as
well as a variety of organizational development
techniques, such as
participative problem solving, task forces, team building, and employee
involvement programs. While the precise mix of techniques has varied from
company to company, once a firm uses some of them,
is more likely to
adopt others, including attitude surveys. Thus, according to one study which
distinguished between companies that were heavy and light users of
group was more than twice as likely as the non-OD
group to have survey programs; the former group also made more extensive
use of participatory mechanisms like survey feedback in conducting these
programs (Rush, 1973).
A more important cause of the proliferation of attitude surveys and other
practices based on behavioral science was the change occurring in labor
relations. Union organization among private firms declined steadily during
the sixties and seventies; at the same time, a dynamic nonunion sector
emerged, comprising both unorganized firms like those in “high tech”
industry and new, nonunion divisions within older, unionized companies.
These firms employed large numbers of white-collar technical and professional
workers, a highly educated group with special needs. Managing these
employees required personnel policies that promoted communication and
group decision making-precisely the outcomes that could be achieved
through the use of attitude surveys, survey feedback, and other personnel
techniques grounded in behavioral science. Today, managers in some
nonunion firms remain wary of surveying because they regard
group-oriented (like unionism), but this is
minority view. Modern managers
tend to be more educated than their predecessors. Hence they are less
reluctant to interact with behavioral scientists. They also understand that
attitude surveys can function
a “voice” substitute for unionism, keeping
an organization responsive to employee problems which, if ignored, could
provide an opening wedge for unionization (Sherman, 1969).
president of one large nonunion company said, “Management is convinced
the survey is an effective tool of remaining nonunion.
allows us to keep
our finger on the pulse, and we don’t have to justify the budget request for
the survey” (Foulkes, 1980, p. 263).
These developments have not been limited to the nonunion sector. During
the past 15 years, as the union-nonunion wage gap has widened and
unions have declined in popularity, managers of unionized firms have
adopted a more aggressive posture and have shifted their priorities from
maintaining stability in union-management relations to confronting weak
unions, and, where possible, undermining or even eliminating them. Today’s
managers are less likely to accept the inevitability of unions and are less
skeptical of behavioral science techniques than were their predecessors.
Management’s greater reliance on attitude surveys in unionized firms has
weakened the union’s position as the employees’ representative. In 1964, 96
per cent of the managers in unionized firms reported that they depended
on the union to supply them with information on employee concerns; by
1975, this figure had fallen to 56 per cent
One important conclusion to be drawn from this study
reliance on behavioral science is neither a recent phenomenon nor one that
has developed in a linear fashion, gradually becoming more prevalent over
time. Rather, the diffusion of behavioral science throughout industry has
followed a rational pattern not unlike that of capital-embodied innovations,
in which the rate at which an innovation spreads is positively related to its
perceived profitability and inversely related to the size of the initial investment
required to implement the technology.
In the case of employee attitude testing, which can be used to repel or
to weaken unions, managerial perceptions of profitability have been influenced
by shifts in the expense of dislodging or deterring unions relative
benefits of operating without them, including lower relative wage and strike
costs. Thus, managers in organized firms perceived the technique to be most
profitable during periods when unions were regarded as vincible (the late
thirties), costly (the immediate postwar years), or both (the early seventies
through the present). During the fifties and sixties-the heyday of mature
collective bargaining-managers in unionized firms were able to absorb or
pass along the costs of unionization; they also realized that their bargaining
partners could not easily be dislodged and reluctantly accepted them as part
of the status quo. In the nonunion sector, managers perceived attitude
resting to be most profitable when the threat of organization was high
(during the thirties and forties when the labor movement was expanding)
or when the cost of unionization was high (during the recent period when
union-nonunion wage differentials began to widen, a factor that also affects
the union sector).
In contrast to these shifts in perceived profitability, the cost of implementing
attitude testing has fallen steadily since its introduction in the twenties.
First, the growth of the behavioral sciences in academia and their support
from government and military sources has created a social infrastructure
that serves to reduce the private cost of implementing applied behavioral
science programs. Second, out-of-pocket implementation costs have fallen
over time because of improvements in the technology, such as machine-
readable questionnaires, and because of scale economies associated with the
growing use of other behavioral science techniques. Finally, the rising
managers, including their exposure to behavioral science
in business schools, has made it easier for behavioral scientists to interact
with them and to “sell” them the virtues
techniques like attitude testing.
The net result of these cyclical (union cost) and secular (implementation
cost) factors is the diffusion pattern traced in this paper: increasing incidence
over time, but with alternating periods
rapid diffusion and relative stasis.
Is employee attitude testing
neutral technology or a form of communi-
cation that is inherently less democratic than other available channels, such
as those provided by union representation and similar participatory
mechanisms? The development
the modern concept of attitude, and the
spread of public opinion and attitude surveys over the last
coincide-not by accident-with the incorporation of the masses into public
affairs. Along with mass political democracy, this period also saw the rise
of industrial democracy, as a workforce increasingly insistent on its rights
forced organizations to become more sensitive to the thoughts and desires
of their employees. Employee attitude testing represents one response to
this development. Although the technique benefits employees by bringing
their problems to the attention of management, it also encourages employee
passivity and enhances top-down, expert-led solutions. Thus, rather than
neutral technique, attitude surveys tend to foster a hierarchical and
technocratic approach to problem-solving. Moreover, they have proven to
be a powerful device for deterring or weakening unions. For these reasons,
American unionists have been and continue to be suspicious not only
attitude surveys but
behavioral science more generally (Gordon and Burt,
198 1). Although impressionistic evidence suggests that unions presently are
conducting more surveys
their members’ attitudes than were done in the
fifties, survey usage remains relatively uncommon within the labor movement.
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