The Problem With Employee Surveys

Every year an increasing number of employers compete to be named among the best places to work in their market. Attaining the coveted awards can be a boon for an employer’s reputation, its recruitment capabilities and employee morale. That is, if it truly is a great place to work.

When an employer applies for such an award for the wrong reasons, it can backfire. Misguided motives and ignored results tend to disengage and disappoint employees. Most awards require all employees to take an award survey, offered by the sponsoring organization — perhaps a local publication — to assess all applicants equally. The employees take the survey and the sponsoring organization assesses the results based on its own criteria that would rank the organization as “best place to work,” “healthiest organization” or a similar accolade.

If employee responses result in winning the award, leaders are thrilled. If they don’t, it may indicate work needs to be done to improve the culture or opportunities. Leadership may not have committed to the time and hard work upfront when it decided to pursue the award. The survey results also might mean another employer looked better to the award sponsor.

Anytime someone raises the “Let’s have employees take a survey” suggestion, employers need to examine why they want a survey, what they are going to do with the information and how big their appetite is for the inevitable work. A lack of commitment to post-survey work can result in wasted time and opportunity as well as disillusioned employees.

By avoiding the following common problems with employee surveys, leaders can gain the value that is possible — high-quality and confidential employee feedback. Feedback provides a pulse to guide better leadership and organizational decisions.

The Validity Problem
Technology is available today via online survey software that enables organizations to easily conduct short surveys with speedy results. Often, internal employees design the questions and sometimes the internal IT department develops the survey online to keep costs down. There are drawbacks to this approach.

First, one must consider survey questions’ reliability and validity. Established surveys use psychometric experts to ensure questions produce valid answers and that answers are cross-validated for consistency. Surveys built by psychometrists collect and measure specific responses. They ensure the results position the organization to draw valid conclusions regarding engagement and morale.

The questions’ phrasing and format are critical to avoid misinterpretation, inconsistencies and lack of completeness. Questions will be different for each organization based on its specific goals and concerns.

Second, there’s the question of employee candor. If the survey results are returned to an in-house source, employee comfort decreases significantly and the results can be compromised.

Internal surveys have their place, however. Tight, specific goals to uncover things such as employees’ preferred means of communication are good candidates for internal surveys. Complex topics such as measuring employee engagement are best addressed by an outside party, both in terms of the survey tool and the supporting data interpretation and consultation on remedies. This is mainly because outside consultants have neither a personal nor a professional stake in the feedback and recommendations.

The Communication Problem
Once a survey is under way, the project has only just begun. If talent leaders plan to read the results and then place them on a shelf, they shouldn’t conduct a survey. Employees expect something to happen once they share their opinions with management. They like being part of the conversation and seeing action from their feedback.

Imagine, for example, a comments box provided in the employee break room. If employees never received feedback or saw a change based on their suggestions, how likely are they to continue to make suggestions? At a minimum, talent leaders should choose a few comments regularly to provide a written, signed response to and post the responses in the break room to ensure employees see them.

A survey is a more comprehensive and sophisticated process for employee feedback. Similarly, it is only effective when leaders take time to review, analyze and act on the feedback.
However, according to the “SHRM/Globoforce Employee Recognition Tracker Survey,” released in June by the Society for Human Resource Management, 71 percent of 700 HR leaders and practitioners said they only measure employee engagement through exit interviews — when acting on feedback might be too late.

Worse yet, other leaders fail to share survey results or talk about action plans for the organization based on those results. With the survey results falling in a black hole, employees feel further disconnected from the organization.

Here is a simple process to include employees in survey results’ analysis:

1) Analyze the survey among leadership with the help of a consultant well-versed in employee surveys and engagement.

2) Share results as quickly as possible with employees.

3) Set up means to ask employees for their reaction to the data, additional feedback and “color” commentary.

4) Create recommendations based on their feedback and input from leadership.

5) Ask for reactions to the recommendations and build plans that have buy-in.

The Emotions Problem
Leaders can take data personally or become annoyed by feedback they didn’t expect and as a result may rationalize poor survey results. This may generate irrational reactions such as ignoring the results or inflating positive answers, which leads to poor conclusions and irrelevant actions.

Guiding leaders as they face tough feedback takes special empathy skills and the ability to place feedback in context, particularly pertaining to the common survey question “I trust senior leadership.” If the responses indicate low trust, this piece of data is often a hard one for senior leaders to accept without taking it personally.

Data offers clues to deeper issues within the organization. Therefore, talent leaders shouldn’t be afraid of negative feedback at first glance because it can signal opportunity for change. It points leaders toward areas where they can seek more information. Employee honesty through a confidential survey process, while tough to receive, offers insights that shouldn’t be dismissed or drowned in emotional reactions. When results come back as red flags, it’s time to obtain direct feedback to understand the nature of the problem. This can be done through one-on-one confidential conversations between employees and managers or through focus groups facilitated by an outside consultant.

In 2009, The Wedge Community Co-op, a grocery cooperative in Minneapolis, engaged The Bailey Group (Editor’s note: the authors work for The Bailey Group) to conduct an employment survey unlike any they had done before. Because members and staff already have a great passion for The Wedge, past employee surveys reported a high level of engagement. However, the organization still experienced challenges with supervisor and employee accountability, interpersonal conflict, communication, scheduling, customer service and turnover.

Consultants worked with general manager Lindy Bannister and the human resources director to define survey objectives. Bannister was looking for a baseline of employee feedback that would back up her instincts about managing the co-op. She didn’t want yes or no questions, but open-ended questions tailored to the co-op’s concerns.

Employees had convenient access to the survey electronically during their breaks. To avoid perception that management adjusted the results, answers went directly to The Bailey Group, which interpreted the results, then facilitated a presentation to management and employees. Consultants worked with management on action steps based on the results.

The Action Problem
There are many challenges to turning employee feedback into action, and leaders should ask the following questions before they prepare to respond to feedback: What will truly bring about the desired change? What steps will be worth the effort? Who is going to drive and champion these action steps? How do leaders keep the focus on these efforts while running the business and addressing conflicting priorities?

A low score on professional development should not be immediately addressed by scheduling a few lunch-and-learn seminars. It’s an easy solution, but it may not move the organization toward a culture of professional development.

The best approach is for talent leaders to select three or four actionable goals — tied back to survey results — that can be monitored and measured during the next 12 to 18 months. Assign champions for the action steps, create milestones and make sure the milestones are achieved. In 12 to 18 months, talent leaders should conduct another survey to see if these actions brought improved results in the areas targeted. The two surveys should be similar to ensure reliable and valid comparisons.

The goals also should align with organizational goals. Even though employee engagement is a hot topic, it’s not always the primary need in an organization. Employees may be highly engaged but overworked. They may feel disconnected from senior leadership. Get to the heart of their concerns through the survey, then develop action steps that address those concerns while aligning talent with overall goals.

The Wedge Co-op implemented communications strategies that helped supervisors take ownership of their roles, explain expectations and handle conflict more effectively. For example, before assigning a task, now supervisors will outline who is responsible, review the steps with that employee and provide a timeline. They will confirm understanding before the employee begins the task. If a question or conflict comes up, the supervisor can circle back and correct missing information or reaffirm the responsible employee’s accountability.

The changes at the co-op over six to 12 months resulted in some employees leaving the organization. The result was a more cohesive group of employees who could commit to change and a common vision.

“It’s been a struggle with some changes,” Bannister said. “But the employees are also fired up that we took initiative based on their feedback. One of the biggest things I learned is that we are not responsible for everyone’s personal happiness, but we can give them a great job. It’s up to them if it’s a fit.”

The Wedge will conduct another survey in the next year, using the same questions, to determine if the changes made since the last survey have improved management effectiveness. Although new employees will take the survey, the co-op expects results to show progress from two years ago.
Winning an award is fun, but awards often come anyway to organizations that have a clear vision and talented employees who are aligned with that vision. Surveys show what’s missing and what can be improved — whether the goal is to be the best place to work or a best-in-class manufacturer.

With good information in hand — award-winning or not — good things can happen.

Jan Dick is an organizational development practice leader and consultant with The Bailey Group, Minneapolis. Barb Krantz Taylor is a licensed psychologist, co-principal and executive coach with The Bailey Group. They can be reached at