Cooperatives and Covid: Managing for Safety

Published May 20, 2021 By Joseph G. Van Matre, PhD, Professor, University of Alabama at Birmingham and James D. Byrd, Jr. PhD, CPA, CHFP, Assistant Professor, University of Alabama at Birmingham

Originally Published in The Cooperative Accountant, Spring 2021 Issue

Cooperatives and Covid: Managing for Safety 

“Three-quarters of the world’s CEOs say more emphasis should be placed on measuring the value of non-financial assets such as intellectual capital and customer relationships,” writes Fred Reichheld, Bain & Company, quoting from a study of the AICPA (Reichheld, 2012, p.1).  The expansion of performance measures beyond the traditional financial accounting measures was accelerated by the landmark Harvard Business Review article, The Balanced Scoreboard.  (Kaplan and Norton, 1992).  A significant component of non-financial measures now includes information on corporate social responsibility (CSR). (Perrini, 2006).  Further, the idea of integrated reporting has spread from Europe to the U.S.  This development represents a shift from stand-alone documents such as the CSR report to a more inclusive document that provides greater insight (Burke and Clark, 2016).  The CSR typically includes information concerning Human Resources, and employee health and safety are frequently addressed (Perrini, 2006). 

A focus on employees would often include meeting their needs as concern esteem and personal growth.  These needs are at the summit of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (David, 2014).  A focus on higher level needs assumes that lower-level needs have been met.  Ordinarily such an assumption is appropriate.  However, the covid-19 virus has recently negated this.  Yes, most employees are meeting their physiological needs (food and water), but the next level of the hierarchy represents safety needs.  Employees need to feel that safety measures provide sufficient protection so that they are free from anxiety and fear.  Most organizations have taken countermeasures against the virus, but such actions may be inadequate from the employees’ perspective.  This paper is going to review the need for frank, unbiased feedback from employees.  The use of a survey instrument to obtain information will also be discussed.  Covid-19 and employee safety will be used to illustrate the basic principles.   Of course, these ideas are not limited to employee surveys.  The reader can also find this information useful when is responding to questionnaires proffered by others. 

The Case of Cooperatives 

Cooperatives are owned by the members rather than shareholders as for corporations. Employees have the same type of customer interactions, only the customer and the member are one and the same.  Employee trust in the organization has an especially critical role in maintaining the trust of the customer/members of the cooperative (Jensen-Auvermanna, 2018).  The employees’ trust in the organizations interest in protecting their health in the Covid-19 will likely influence customer/members’ attitudes toward the organization.  Accordingly, managers of the cooperative have a vested interest in understanding employees’ perception of their safety so that corrective action may be undertaken as required.  By extension, managers need to understand customer/member perceptions of their safety is likely influenced by that of the employees. 

Employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction measures as well as the measurement instruments employed should be modified to assess trust in the organization with respect to health safety perceptions.  In the 1990’s Harvard researchers developed the “Service-Profit Chain” model that established the linkage between employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and loyalty, and to describe how value is created in a service organization.  According to Heskett, et al, “Profit and growth are stimulated primarily by customer loyalty.  Loyalty is a direct result of customer satisfaction.  Satisfaction is largely influenced by the value of services to customers.  Value is created by satisfied, loyal, and productive employees.  Employee satisfaction, in turn, results primarily from high-quality support services and policies that enable employees to deliver results to customers.”  (Heskett, et al, 1997) 

New measurement instruments in the days of Covid-19 are important to understand employee trust in the organization.  These measures of  trust should be linked to new measures of customer satisfaction to better understand how employee trust is affecting the co-operative’s customer satisfaction. In the age of Covid-19, we add by extension, that employee trust in the organization can only be generated by the “support services and policies” that instill employee confidence that their welfare and safety is paramount to the company.  If that trust is not present, the lower level of Marlow’s hierarchy of needs is not met. If employees trust the organization to care about their safety, they can better focus on meeting the customers’ needs. 

Assessing Employees’ Trust in an Organization During Covid-19  

Employee satisfaction surveys are good instruments for assessing employees’ perceptions about an organization. But in uncertain times, some employers may be reluctant to  survey employees  because they are afraid of bad results.  However, showing employees that you are concerned about their health and safety is important to maintain (or gain) their trust.  But negative feedback is  information that is useful and critical.  Learning gives the employer the opportunity to make changes on a timely basis. (Cannan, 2020).   According to Cannan, an employee survey conducted by Qualtrics showed that employees actually want to participate in surveys during periods of significant change, and such surveys contribute to building trust.  Informed/data-driven action will help alleviate fears and suspicions during a stressful time.  A good survey will have a high response rate and be free of bias. The cover letter should explain clearly how the responses will remain confidential and should discuss how the data will be used.  NSC recommends continuing to survey employees, and offers a survey for NSC members at  

According to Jenson-Auvermann, et al., an organization’s culture heavily influences trust within an organization.  Strength of trust is affected by the member’s commitment to the cooperative.  The long-term nature of the cooperative relationship between the customer/member and the organization suggests a need for a strong relationship.  Accordingly, a cooperative’s management should closely monitor members’ level of commitment to the cooperative while realizing that trust and commitment must also be demonstrated by management.  Since the cooperative is based on members perceptions, one avenue of inquiry would be the members’ views of equitable treatment and whether the organization is operated with respect to all constituencies. 

Transparency is key variable.  How well do members understand and have faith in the co-op’s governance?  How well does the co-op meet its obligations to its members?  Each organization will be different so key questions to be asked should relate to the specific obligations of the co-op to its members.  Another indicator of member commitment is the length of time of membership. The longer a member is affiliated with the organization, the more they appear to be committed to the organization.  In addition, whether or not the member customer is also a member of a competing organization or acquires available products and services of the cooperative from somewhere else is another indicator of loyalty. 

Organizational Culture 

When a manager seeks to gather information from employees, the managerial environment must be considered regardless of whether the encounter is verbal, face-to-face or through a written instrument.  Unfortunately, some managers are tone-deaf in this assessment or unaware of its importance.  There is a long history of anecdotes, articles, and books documenting the negative effects of a poor culture.  One could start with the pioneers of the quality movement who warned “Unless one can obtain…accurate data about the workplace, there can be no control or improvement.  But gathering facts is a very difficult task.  There are many lies and many false data.”  (Ishikawa 1985p. 134).  Or from Deming “Where there is fear, there will be wrong figures.” (Deming 1982, p. 266).  One illustration of poor data gathering is that of an owner of several nationally franchised motels.  The owner guaranteed that if a guest’s problem could not be satisfied, the guest would stay free.  The owner brags that, on average, only two stays per year are comped.  However, he also says . . . “if I do have to pay out…my managers are not doing their jobs, and I get rid of them.” (Hart, 1988, p. 58).  Such data are produced under fear and omits information or provides false information about opportunities for service improvements.  David Kearns left IBM as vice-president of marketing to join Xerox where he later became CEO. At IBM, people would speak up and debate ideas; at Xerox “meetings came to be labeled Home on the Range’ meetings.  Never was heard a discouraging word.” (Kearns, 1992, p. 56) 

The sentiment behind the phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger” was used by Shakespeare in 1598 and may even go back to the Greeks.  It has remained persistently relevant ever since.  The idea and its negative effects gained further traction around 2000, when the term “psychological safety” began to appear in the business literature and academic literature lead by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson and others.  Her case study of Prudential Financial and the accompanying teaching note each ran over twenty pages.  The company’s “Safe to Say” initiative was created to encourage people to speak frankly as opposed to the exiting culture of “Pru polite” which valued conformity over dissent.  (Edmondson, 2003, p. 6).  In a different organization she reported hearing verbatim from an employee . . . “if I tell the director…what customers are saying my career will be shot.”  Despite the presence of an ombudsperson and grievance procedures, half of respondents to a company survey felt that it was not “safe to speak up.” (Detert and Edmondson, 2007, p. 23).  In managerial environments characterized by little psychological safety, special care must be taken to obtain honest employee feedback.  With the advent of the COVID-19 virus, employees became even more sensitive to actions that might jeopardize their job security. 


An obvious method to avoid retribution for expressing a discordant view to a superior is to not reveal one’s identity.   Anonymity is not possible in face-to-face meetings, but a survey offers several possibilities.  One, the respondent may be asked for their identity in the survey instrument.  If the employee still elects to respond, the information provided may be censored, negating the usefulness of the survey. 

To provide anonymity to employees, a firm guarantee of confidentiality should be promised in the cover letter and subsequently honored.  Nevertheless, it may still be best to restrict information on the instrument so that individuals cannot be identified.  However, most surveys request demographic information so that problem units (and/or supervisors) can be determined so as to focus improvement efforts.  Problems can arise when either the organization and its units are small or when the demographic data requested are excessive.  When a unit is small, just learning an employee’s gender and age/years of employment may be sufficient to learn the respondent’s identity.  With larger units, four or five demographics could be sufficient.  Employees at a Fortune 500 firm had become concerned when employees, after providing negative feedback, learned that some superiors had attempted to learn the source of the information.  Some employees then reported that “they go to libraries and coffee shops and use public computers to complete on-line surveys – because they worry, they’ll be tracked through their IP addresses otherwise.” (Detert and Burris, 2016, p. 83).  An organization’s past history is relevant here, and some hypothesize that past negative behaviors carry far more weight that past positive behaviorsA continuing effort is required to change perceptions. 

Designing a Questionnaire 

Good survey questions are generally simple, direct, specific, and actionable. (Qualtrics).  A survey question should ask a single question instead of having multiple parts and should avoid “leading” the respondent to an answer.  Questions used in surveys for assessing employee trust can typically be divided into three categories: 1) credibility of management; 2) respect; and 3) fairness. (Great Place to Work Trust Index)   

 Examples of questions that can be used to assess employees’ perception of management credibility include: 

  • Management delivers on its promises 
  • Management makes its expectations clear 
  • Management is ethical and honest in its business practices 

Example questions regarding management respect for employees may include: 

  • Management shows appreciation for good work and extra effort 
  • I am offered training or development to further myself professionally 
  • My manager will listen and respond if I raise a workplace issue 

Example questions concerning employees’ perception of management fairness include: 

  • People are paid fairly for the work they do 
  • Promotions go to those who best deserve them 
  • An employee’s job performance is judged without prejudice 

Each of these questions could ask for a response using a five or seven point Likert scale such as 5 = Strongly agree and 1 = strongly disagree with variations in between.  

COVID-19 has heightened the need to understand employees’ wellbeing.  When suddenly required to adapt to working from home while balancing childcare responsibilities and supervising their online school activities, employees are experiencing a very stressful time.  A survey that addresses COVID-19 related concerns can demonstrate concern about employee wellbeing and increase trust.  Example survey questions related to COVID-19 concerns could include:    

  • I am provided with protective equipment that enables me to work safely. 
  • Action is usually taken when unsafe conditions are brought to management’s attention. 
  • I feel safe at work. 
  • Management is concerned about workplace safety. 
  • In my work unit people are willing to openly confront safety issues. 

This section offers some examples that other organizations have used in employee surveys.  Some may be inserted verbatim into a different organization’s survey.  A different firm developing a survey will probably wish to include new inquiries unique to its environment and/or particular informational needs. 

The following assumes respondents’ answers will be either yes/no or a choice from a rating scale such as strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree.  The latter are always displayed horizontally, but some elect to use the numbered scale (1-5) or (1-7) with only the two endpoints displaying text.  In any event, a don’t know or not applicable (NA) option should be provided for most questions (Payne, 1980).  It should be placed at the far right of the scale and be distinguishable from the other responses by space and/or a different look for marking (e.g. box versus circle).  The NA option will increase response rates.  The following illustrate some of the common pitfalls in crafting questions. 

 1.The CDC provides useful information on personal safety and the COVID-19 virus.  The respondent may not be familiar with the CDC, Cares Act, PPE or similar items.  Use of company jargon is generally permissible but consider the presence of any new hires first. 

2. The company policy of forbidding employees to wear non-company issued masks should be abolished.  Double negatives are confusing to most people and should not be used.  Simply change to “abolished to kept.” Or change “forbidding” to “insisting”. 

3. I recently saw a physician concerning COVID related symptoms.”  Recently encompasses  different periods for different people.  Instead use an operationally defined term such as “within the last month.”  Similar warnings apply to “late,” significant, serious, material, costly,” etc.  Such terms should not be left to reader-defined interpretations. 

4. The company should provide a free, onsite flu vaccine and place hand disinfectant throughout the facility.  This question (Yes/No) includes two issues that should be separated.  If the response is yes, the respondent favors both measures.  If no, are both disfavored or only one, which one? 

5. The company’s rigid views on personal hygiene are detrimental to employee morale.  Surveys often include questions relating to current or proposed policies.  However, the question should not be asked after labeling the policy as “rigid”, as this biases the response.  Similarly, don’t ask “Donald Trump’s view that wearing masks provides only limited protections is "correct”, unnecessarily invoking a controversial personality will bias the response.  Just ask about “wearing masks provides only…” 

6. Fox News coverage of the COVID-19 virus has been based on scientific evidence.  Then followed by. . . “Can you name any national news networks with COVID-19 coverage that is based on scientific evidence?” This would be a violation of the rule to proceed from the general to the specific.  As listed above, the first question plants Fox News in the respondent’s mind, biasing his/her response to include Fox News in a later question. 

The six examples above illustrate some common errors in crafting questions.  The Payne book is a classic and should be consulted for more detailed guidance.  Employees are sensitive about threats to their anonymity, so minimize demographic questions and guarantee confidentiality in the cover letter.  Also remember to place all demographic questions at the end of the form.  An early study found that placing such questions at the end improved response rate by around eight percent. (Morrel-Samuels, 2002) 


Every cooperative has concerns about the health and safety of its employees and their interaction with the customer/members.  Nationally, employers are spending an average of $3.6 million on wellness programs (Meister, 2019).   Managing for safety requires the acquisition of frank, honest feedback that informs management of the success of current initiatives and the need for further change.  Such information is difficult to solicit if there is fear in the workplace, defined as “feeling threatened by possible repercussions as a result of speaking up about work-related concerns (Ryan and Oestreich,1991, p.21).  A recent survey found that a majority of adults feel a sense of belonging at home (52%), followed by their workplace (34%), neighborhood community (19%), and place of worship (17%). (Twaronite, 2019).  This sense of belonging is a trait of a productive and motivated workforce and should be nurtured by the organization.  Offering workers an opportunity to freely express their thoughts without fear of reprisal will engender belonging.  The well-designed questionnaire can be helpful in this process. 


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