Interview: Petra Ingram

The chief executive at the horse welfare charity The Brooke encouraged employees to contribute questions to a staff survey, and used the responses as the basis for change, finds Femke Colborne

Petra Ingram
Petra Ingram

As the old saying goes, you should be careful what you wish for - not least when it comes to staff surveys.

Asking employees for their honest opinions, particularly if a survey is anonymous, can unearth some uncomfortable truths. And so it was for the equine welfare charity The Brooke, which conducted a comprehensive staff survey in the third quarter of last year.

"You have to be brave and be prepared to listen to people if you are going to ask them to tell you what they would not normally tell you," says Petra Ingram, chief executive of The Brooke. "An anonymous survey like this allows you to get feedback that is unhindered by people's positions in the organisation. As much as you would like to think people will always tell you everything, there are line management structures in place and people respect that."

When the results came through, it was clear that the organisation had a number of issues to deal with, including work-life balance. The survey found that employees were working longer hours than their counterparts at other charities and were unhappy with existing annual leave and flexible working arrangements.

But if this was difficult to hear, Ingram could hardly claim not to have asked for it. This was the first staff survey since she joined The Brooke in July 2009, and a new agency had been appointed to create a survey more specifically tailored to the charity's needs. More crucially, a consultation process led to staff being asked to contribute their own ideas for survey questions.

"I think it is important that people buy into something - that they don't feel it is being imposed on them and that they are participating," says Ingram. "So we asked employees to suggest particular questions."

The topics they raised included staff retention, flexible working, whether people were confident about the organisation's strategy and felt they had input, and the appraisals process.

Another priority for Ingram was to get as many staff as possible to complete the survey. "Participation rates had not been very high before," she says. "We wanted to get as much participation as we could, so we took the launch and the advertising very seriously." After the first week, 52 of the charity's 67 staff had responded, and all but one staff member participated by the end of the exercise.

As well as pressure and work-life balance, employees also raised concerns about learning and development opportunities, internal communications and the organisation's pay structure. "One thing that came out was that there was not enough opportunity to progress within the organisation," says Ingram.

The charity is implementing a number of changes as a result of the survey. These include new flexible working arrangements, changes to its pay structure, secondments and a system where staff can buy or sell annual leave at the beginning of each year. The HR team reports quarterly on the progress of the changes to a staff consultation group.

"The workload issue has been quite a difficult one for us," says Ingram. "Obviously, you want people to be as committed to the organisation and its aims as possible - but not to the detriment of their ability to do the job or of their health.

"It's about trying to achieve the right balance - we have to think about getting the best value out of our resources."

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