The Mistakes Organizations Make When They Survey Their Employees

May 26, 2017

Employee surveys are an essential part of any HR or learning and development strategy – if done correctly.

With organizations becoming increasingly concerned about employee engagement, HR and learning and development leaders are leaning on employee surveys to get insights into the minds and experiences of their workforce.

This is a good thing – employee voice surveys are perhaps the best way of getting real feedback on your culture, a great way to assess attitudes and they can even inform strategy. But, 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, try to be clearer. 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 challenges you may face?".

"Satisfied" and "agree" mean different things to everyone. 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. We 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.

Lisa Earle McLeod and Elizabeth McLeod work with organizations to improve competitive differentiation and emotional engagement. Check out their LinkedIn Learning courses here.