When I managed the employee relations function in Human Resources, one of my responsibilities was to implement the company’s employee satisfaction survey. My employer had a twenty-year history of using one particular vendor, which conducted a survey of more than 100 questions. We switched to the Gallup Q12 Engagement Survey, with only thirteen questions. And still later, we moved to yet another vendor with more flexibility than either of our earlier vendors.
Throughout all these survey processes we debated the pros and cons of doing a survey at all. There were common themes to our debate, regardless of the tool we used. This post describes some of the issues of employee surveys.
Setting Up an Employee Survey
- What Do Your Employees Really Think?
The primary reason for undertaking an employee survey is to discover your employees’ concerns that you cannot learn through direct personal contact. If you knew all your employees’ problems, you wouldn’t need a survey. But people being people, some employees will not tell you their concerns, out of fear for what their supervisor might think, out of worry for losing their job, or out of simple reticence.
Most often, the reason they won’t talk to management directly is because of some prior problem with a manager or Human Resources. “It won’t do any good,” is the prevailing attitude.
An employee survey, then, is only as good as its ability to identify those latent concerns that you won’t hear about otherwise. If that isn’t the purpose of your survey, then maybe you need a different tool.
- Are Your Issues Broad or Narrow?
Decide upfront how broad to make the survey. You may have only one or two issues on which you need input, or you may want a broad assessment of your employees’ satisfaction with their workplace and/or management policies.
Surveys can focus on pay, benefits, working conditions, relationships with co-workers, management communication, quality of supervision, morale, and company reputation. Some of these are easy to ask about directly. Other areas require a lot of interpretation.
If there are trust issues between your employees and management, perhaps you should start narrowly and develop a successful response on a particular issue before taking on the broader issues of employee engagement.
On the other hand, perhaps you want a baseline assessment of your employees’ feelings about work, and you are committed to making changes in a broad array of programs, if the survey data warrant.
- Survey Methodology
These days, with SurveyMonkey and similar tools, most employee surveys are conducted online. This certainly makes data collection easier. However, if you want verbatim responses, you will need a way to review and interpret the data. Moreover, this can be time-consuming, so don’t take on more than your staff can handle.
Also, even if your survey is easy to complete online, you may get a low response rate, particularly if employees do not trust their managers. You cannot force employees to take it, nor to respond accurately. If trust is an issue, start with a survey on objective topics asking for limited responses, rather than verbatims.
You might also set aside work time for employees to complete the survey in a group. You still need to make sure the responses are kept confidential (see below).
Potential Pitfalls in Employee Surveys
- Poorly Drafted Questions
Poorly crafted questions can leave managers with little to go on in developing a response. Particularly where the survey is broad, it is important to write the questions carefully. Working with a vendor that has experience writing questions and interpreting data is helpful.
Confidentiality is another concern. Employees worry that their individual complaints will get back to their managers. The survey process and the follow-up communications must be unequivocal that the surveys are anonymous and that individual employees cannot be identified in the results. Even then, if your workplace has serious trust issues, some employees may not complete the survey.
- Management Expectations
Sometimes management thinks their workers are satisfied because they haven’t heard of any problems. But often, they’ve heard nothing because employees don’t feel there are good channels of communications. Top management needs to be prepared to deal with whatever is learned in the survey.
- Follow-up and Action Planning
Sometimes small group meetings are needed to expand on the survey data and turn the information into a meaningful action plan for a particular work unit. Conducting those meetings requires more facilitation skills than some managers have, which means that upper management or HR will need to supplement what some supervisors can do.
Developing meaningful action plans is also difficult. How do you build trust between managers and employees, when that is the issue? Is it simply a matter of lack of communication, or is there a fairness issue underlying the distrust?
But doing nothing in response is the greatest problem with undertaking an employee survey. As Shelley Freeman states in Employee Satisfaction: The Key to a Successful Company,
One caveat about employee surveys, suggestion boxes and the like: affirmatively asking for employees’ feedback and then ignoring it is worse than not asking at all.
You don’t have to take action on every point raised in the data, but you do have to address the major issues that employees have surfaced in their responses.
Conclusions and Best Practices
- Before you even begin the survey, be sure senior management is committed to dealing with the results—whatever they may be.
- Some preliminary investigation would be helpful. Talk with first-line managers to see what they think employee concerns might be. Exit interviews with departing employees might also be helpful.
- Focus the survey, particularly if it is your first. Narrow the topics and state the questions clearly, so that you are focusing on what is most critical for management to know.
- After the survey, communicate the results.
- Do something with the results. Develop action plans. And most importantly, follow through on the action plans.
- By the time of the next survey, you want to show positive changes in response to the last survey.
- Decide on how long to go between surveys based on how long a reasonable action plan will take. There are organizations that survey employees every six months, but most employers find that a one or two year cycle works best.
For more on employee opinion surveys, see
What has your experience been with employee surveys?