After six years of studying the issue, major corporations are attaching increasing importance to the effect that employees have on product quality. But so far their workers remain skeptical of their employers' sincerity.

That basically is the finding of a new Gallup survey of employee attitudes that will be presented this week at a conference of the American Society for Quality Control in New York.

The survey shows a credibility gap among employees when they're asked to match company talk with company action on the quality issue in their specific workplace.

For example, while a majority of the employees surveyed said their company talks about the importance of quality, barely more than a third said their employer did much to carry out that commitment. In addition, the survey shows that almost as many people are unhappy with the quality efforts of their employer as are satisfied with the efforts.

A key to the worker dissatisfaction appears to center on the issue of empowerment. Approximately two-thirds of the employees surveyed said they have been asked to become involved in workplace decision-making, but only 14 percent said they had been given the power to make those decisions.

"The movement toward making more people responsible for the quality of their own work, rather than relying on cadres of specialists, goes hand-in-hand with the growing phenomena of participative management and high-involvement workplaces," the society concluded from the survey results.

John Knappenberger, president of the society and director of quality for the automotive sector of TRW, said few company programs aimed at improving quality reach anyone but the stars of the work force.

"The problem in our industry is that we are so imbued with the superlative player that we forget that there are people supporting the organization that are not superstars, but they're good solid people," Knappenberger said. "We haven't ignited or excited the people who are the meat and potatoes of the business."

Knappenberger said employers have been concentrating only on those employees who deal directly with customers. "The next battlefield is the people in the bowels of the organization, the people you don't see every day," said Knappenberger. "They too have to become focused on customers."

As an example, he said hotels spend a lot of time working with the people behind the front desk in an effort to improve service and customer relations. But they don't spend any time with the computer programmer who might foul up customers' bills when they check out. That employee is never seen by the customer but can do a lot to hurt the hotel's image.

Until recently, Knappenberger said most efforts aimed at involving employees in product quality has been in manufacturing where success was much more easily measureable. He said the real test will be in the service industries where improvements are harder to quantify.

The movement in the service sector appears to track with another recent poll showing a majority of corporate executives believe the quality of service has markedly declined over the past decade. The survey by Paul R. Ray and Co., an international executive search firm, concluded that the recent national focus on product quality has not resulted in a similar focus on service quality.

"As the U.S. economy is increasingly dominated by the service sector, service quality will become even more significant," the survey concluded.

On the question of employee empowerment, Knappenberger said there is a big difference between the kind of involvement that draws employees into the debate but does not involve them in the actual decision making and empowerment, which gives them both the tools and the right to make the decision. He said empowering employees to make decisions often involves a culture change within the corporation and is not something generaly done with the blessing of front-line supervisors.

"If you were a first lieutenant in the Army and were used to barking out orders and having everyone jump, it's quite a change when you have to go out and talk to the sergeants and privates and say, 'Fellows, this is what we want to do. How do you think we should do it?' " he said.

As companies begin to face serious labor shortages, however, Knappenberger predicted they will be forced to pay more attention to this kind of employee involvement. Until recently, he said, there has never been a shortage of bodies for the workplace, but "now it's going the other way ... and people are beginning to understand the tremendous crisis we're going to have."

But Knappenberger said he was worried that things weren't moving fast enough. "We're still celebrating the progress of the superstar," he said.