What Co-op Employees Think

How do co-op employees feel about the co-op as an employer? How satisfied are they with their compensation, their working conditions, their supervision, and their co-workers? How effective are communications systems, reward systems and employee involvement programs at the co-op? If there is dissatisfaction, is it localized in certain departments or widespread throughout the organization?

When properly conducted, employee surveys can be an effective tool for understanding employee perceptions and the factors that influence those perceptions. In an earlier article (CG #40, May-June 1992), we discussed employee surveys in general -- why they are conducted, what they do and don't reveal and recommended procedures for conducting them. Since that time we have collected data from surveys at eight different consumer co-ops around the country, all with at least 50 employees. While there are variations in each case, there are also some common trends among employee opinions at co-ops.

Survey scoring

First a few words about scoring and interpretation of scores. All the surveys we are comparing provided statements to which employees were asked to respond with a number score: 5 for "strongly agree," 4 for "agree," 3 for neutral or "partly agree/partly disagree," 2 for "disagree," and 1 for "strongly disagree." Although there were some slight variations on the meaning of a "3" (some used it to mean "I don't know"), we assume that such minor differences in terminology don't affect the outcome of the survey in major ways. Employee scores were averaged for each questions -- the higher the score, the more positive employees felt about the specific area covered by the statement.

Although we focus here on average scores, averages don't show the complete picture. To really understand employee responses, it is also valuable to look at standard deviation, a measurement of the differences among employee responses. High standard deviation indicates there is a wide diversity of opinion among survey participants, while low standard deviation shows that there is general agreement on a response --that is, there is a smaller range among employee ratings.

Finally, at the co-ops where we conducted surveys, we randomly selected about 20 percent of the participating employees for follow-up interviews. In these interviews we asked questions designed to reveal some of the reasons behind the survey scores. We compiled these interview comments with any written comments that employees volunteered on their surveys. These interviews provided us with key insights concerning employee scores on particular questions and form the basis for much of our analysis of trends.

The most striking commonality is that most co-op employees disagree with the statement, "Everyone at the co-op is working toward the same goals."

Trends in employee opinions

The opinions of co-op employees have striking commonalities. In every co-op we've surveyed, employees tend to have very high expectations of their co-op as an employer and indicate strong feelings of disillusionment or disappointment when the co-op doesn't live up to high standards. At the same time, employees consistently give high scores to questions related to job satisfaction. They tend to score their stores low on operational performance, while questions about their own departments elicit some of the highest scores on the surveys.

Lack of common goals

The most conspicuous similarity is that the lowest or second lowest scoring question on all the surveys is the same one. The statement, "Everyone at the co-op is working toward the same goals," is universally rated very low by co-op employees, with a majority disagreeing or strongly disagreeing. Typically there is also low standard deviation on this question, indicating consensus among employees that there is a lack of common goals within the co-op. Follow-up interviews revealed several reasons for this perception.

One issue is the ambiguity of purpose of many natural foods co-ops. Is the co-op primarily a natural foods store or primarily a member-owned co-op? Employees often express confusion over a perceived contradiction between a co-op's (stated or implied) mission to promote healthful foods and some of the products it carries. We frequently encounter co-op employees who feel that there is an inherent contradiction between making a profit and being a co-op and who complain that their co-op "sacrifices its principles to make money." In this area, employees also cite disagreement or lack of organizational clarity over the future direction the co-op should take. Whether or not employees feel the co-op should he growth oriented, many feel left in the dark about the board's and management's intentions.

This question also seems to elicit reflection on a more individual level. Some employees see the lack of common goals more as a function of the fact that they and their co-workers don't all have the same personal goals. Some see the co-op as a possible long-term career, while others think it's a neat place to work while preparing for or looking for work in their chosen fields. These employees say things such as, "Some of us work here because we believe in what the co-op stands for, but for others it's just a job."

Differences in individual goals are probably inevitable for any retail business with part-time employees. However, the lack of clarity about the co-op's purpose or direction is much more troubling. This issue is of central importance to the long-term survival of any consumer co-op and has consequences in many areas -- from member relations to product choices to employee morale. It is critical for boards and management to clarify their co-op's values, mission, and goals, and to ensure that these items are clearly and effectively communicated to co-op staff.

Employee communications

Employees almost always see room for improvement in communications at their co-ops. In some cases, they rate specific methods of communication highly (e.g., an employee newsletter, suggestion programs, department meetings) but still express disappointment with overall communications. Frequently we hear a call for more two-way communication between staff and management, including more listening on management's part. Not surprisingly, we find a link between employee frustration with communication and the lack of clear organizational goals. Where there is the most discouragement about the lack of goals, there is also the most dissatisfaction with communications.

Another trend in this area is a recurring pattern in the scores of two questions, one concerning management encouragement of employee ideas and suggestions and the other about management's actual use of employee input. We often find a significant drop in score from the first question to the second. In most co-ops surveyed, employees don't believe that their input makes a difference in management decisions. In some cases, this is due to a perception that management has its bias and just goes through the motions of asking for input. In others, a lack of management response to employee ideas leads to a sense of futility about making suggestions. Some employees noted, "Any response would be better than none, even if the answer is no."

Conflict resolution

Another area of consistent employee frustration is the handling of conflicts; scores in this area tend to be in the lower quartile. Commonly, employees feel they have no recourse when they are dissatisfled with a management decision. Even when co-ops have a grievance procedure spelled out, employees are often unfamiliar with it or not confident that the procedure will work fairly. At some co-ops, employees expect that the board of directors should serve as arbiter for management decisions -- indicating a misunderstanding of the board's role.

Another factor behind low scores in this area seems to be that a lot of co-op managers are uncomfortable with conflict and avoid it until the problem becomes too serious to ignore. This can be just as true of an unresolved conflict between co-workers as one between an employee and a supervisor. Frequently conflicts develop around unclear or inconsistently applied work standards. Employees are quick to see favoritism in different treatment of different employees for the same behavior.


In the area of compensation, survey scores tend to reflect the specific practices of individual co-ops and don't form clearly recognizable trends (see item #5). Like employees everywhere, many co-op employees would like higher pay. When employees compare their co-op's pay rates to that of grocery chains they tend to be more dissatisfied; when they compare their pay rates to those of other co-ops or natural foods stores in their area, they tend to feel fairly compensated. Sometimes the issue is the fairness of pay increases or compensation decisions. As a whole, co-op employees we surveyed are very appreciative of their benefits.


Overall, the highest scoring area on co-op employee surveys tends to be in the area of department operations. Questions related to quality of department work and to the level of cooperation and support by co-workers receive high scores. When asked in interviews what they like best about the co-op, employees consistently respond, "The people I work with!" They take pride in the work of their departments. In contrast, responses to questions about the efficiency and quality of the co-op's overall operations are generally low. In this area, we often get numerous specific comments for improvements. Interestingly, one of the lower scoring questions on most surveys is about the quality of on-the-job training employees receive.

Job satisfaction

At almost all co-ops, questions concerning overall job satisfaction receive some of the highest scores of all survey questions. Most employees feel that their jobs make good use of their skills, would recommend the co-op as a good place to work, and are proud to work for the co-op. In the context of some ofthe answers to other survey items, this is quite remarkable. Despite the frustration and disappointment employees may feel when the co-op doesn't live up to their ideals, they still care deeply about their jobs and about the organization. As a whole, co-op employees are a dedicated group. They are an important asset for their co-ops now and in the future.

Conducting the survey

For surveys to be an accurate source of information, they must be conducted properly. We have several recommendations from our experience:

  • Confidentiality must be guaranteed. Employees must have complete confidence that they can answer honestly without the possibility of repercussions or retaliation.
  • Sorting scores by departments is worthwhile, but small departments may need to be combined to protect confidentiality.
  • All employees must be surveyed, not just those who want to take part. Self-selection skews the results, usually toward the negative.
  • For the same reason, if some of them will be interviewed to gain
  • insight into the ratings of the entire workforce, they must be randomly selected.
  • Written comments tend to be more negative than overall scores; keep them in perspective and review them in the context of scores.
  • Remember that surveys only measure employee perceptions, not necessarily what is actual practice.
  • Remember to look at areas that score well in addition to low scoring areas.
  • A second survey at the same co-op tends to show higher satisfaction.
  • Most importantly, to get the true benefit from an employee survey it is vital that the results of a survey are communicated to employees and that management takes action in response to those results in a timely fashion. Management must be committed to communicating both survey results and follow-up action and must follow through, or employees will be skeptical about the value of their participation.

A final note: In the past year, three retail food co-ops that we know of have unionized or are in the process of unionizing. In each case, it was a shock to management to learn that employees had been organizing and were so discontented. A timely employee survey can alert management to the extent of employee dissatisfaction and point the way to improving employee relations and workplace practices. It's an invaluable tool for all responsible employers.

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