Useless Employee Surveys and How to Avoid Them

Have you ever done an employee survey?  How honest were you? Did the questions even scratch the surface of the true feelings you have about your job?

Organizations increasingly concerned about the cost of turnover and lack of employee engagement often lean on employee surveys to get insights into the minds and experiences of their workforce.

This is a good thing – employee voice surveys can be an excellent vehicle for getting real feedback on the organizational cultural.  Surveys can assess attitudes and even inform strategy.

But, in many organizations employee surveys are a rinse and repeat exercise that reveals very little about how people actually feel about their workplace and jobs.

There are a few mistakes many organizational surveys routinely make.  They are:

1. Using vague language.
What does “satisfied” with your leadership really mean? It’s like asking, “Are you satisfied with your bank?”. Very few people are thrilled with their bank, but they’ll accept it because they don’t have any better alternative.

Or, how would you assess the difference between “somewhat agree” and “strongly agree”? We each have our own benchmark for these terms. Fully satisfied to you might be very different to someone else.

The challenge is, in employee surveys, responses to vague language are lumped together, making the responses even less accurate.  Instead, be more clear and specific. For example, does your manager make you feel confident? Are your coworkers collaborative and supportive? Then ask for examples.

2. Being too broad.  
When you’re trying to measure attitude, you need to be specific.
For example, people don’t always know what a good boss means, but research tells us managers who regularly meet with their employees are more effective. So, instead of “How satisfied with your manager are you?”, use more specific questions that unpack the results into actions. Like, “Did your manager meet with you on a regular basis?”. Or, “Do you feel your manager is willing to help with you with challenges you may face?”.

When you’re clear in your question, the answers will be more useful.

3. Narrowing in too far. 
Just as being too broad can hinder the accuracy of your feedback, the same is true for being too narrow. For example, if your survey focuses exclusively on leadership, you may overlook areas for improvement or leverage in peers or policy.
You can avoid this trap by leaving free-response fields. You want employees to give anonymous feedback that describes the way they experience your culture and work life in their own words.

4. Pointless questions. 
If you can’t or won’t change things, don’t pretend that you will. Asking about things for which the organization is unlikely to take action on is the biggest and most costly mistake in gathering employee feedback: all it results in is your people feeling like they are screaming into the abyss.

Specifically, there are two types of pointless topics: impossible and not likely.
Impossible refers to the things you just cannot change. For example, if you are in a highly regulated industry, asking how employees feel about regulations will not yield you much of a benefit.

Not likely feedback is feedback that probably won’t be acted on.

Employers can have the best of intentions when asking questions, but if you don’t actively use the feedback to make changes and decisions, save your breath – and everyone else’s time.

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