Employee Surveys. Are you blaming the player or blaming the game?

I was recently speaking with a senior HR professional, someone I have a lot of respect for, who was brave enough to admit that modern HR is interesting, exciting and confusing all at the same time. We discussed the tsunami of daily articles and blogs about a myriad of topics that seem to have diametrically opposed suggestions on what constitutes ‘best practice’. We both admitted to being fascinated with the unintended consequences rising from previously claimed best practices. Performance reviews, open-planned offices, and rewards programs are just a few examples.


Another is the good old employee survey. Depending on your experience and job title, online employee surveys might be described as anything from convenient, to time-consuming, to frustrating, to a complete waste of time.

1. They are convenient

If you are responsible for gathering employee feedback, do-it-yourself online surveys are highly convenient. Imagine how much time it would take to go and ask those questions to every employee personally? Instead, all that is required is to familiarise oneself with an online survey tool, collate the email addresses, and send out the questions. At the end of the survey period, you have somewhat of an instantaneous result. Brilliant.

2. They are time-consuming

Of course, conducting a successful employee survey is a bit more involved than that. One needs to check, plan, and double-check, not to mention the effort it takes to get sign-off on questions from the senior leadership team. And then the real work starts. Producing charts and powerpoint presentations for Leaders, and feeding back the information to various parts of the company is often time-consuming and can take weeks. With the modern employee survey now becoming a quarterly pulse survey, the already-full plate is now heaped quite high for most HR professionals.

3. They are frustrating

If you are an employee, the problem with do-it-yourself survey tools is that they are convenient for the person conducting the survey (see point 1). Thus, they tend to be used for every feedback situation. Culture, Engagement, Safety, Onboarding, Climate…the list can be quite a long one. If you are an employee, this can be frustrating due to the never-ending requests for opinions without ever really discovering whether the contribution was valuable in any way. One-way conversations are not necessarily pleasant.

4. They are a complete waste of time

What sort of information do surveys really collect? To answer this, we need to consider the true nature of online surveys:

  • They are self-completed, which means that one must make an important assumption – that respondents actually provided their full attention, and considered their answers. This assumption is a big one.
  • Behind every single answer is an unknown amount of context. This context is extremely important and without it, results are half-baked.
  • What is the impact of non-response? In other words, what would the results look like if 100% of employees responded? Given that most employee surveys have a response rate of way less than 100%, this is potentially a problem.

In other words, online surveys alone produce incomplete data.

So what should be done?

As someone who has been involved in online surveys for a long time now, I find it interesting when I read about the use of employee surveys. They are good, bad, and everything in between - a debate which sort of misses the point. The player (a survey) is getting the blame when in fact it is being forced to play the wrong game (create a feedback loop for the betterment of the entire company).

Surveys are just one tool in the toolbox, and should never (ever) be used exclusively.  They are great for pointing in the direction of problems and opportunities, and should always co-exist with other forms of data to form an overall program of feedback and communication.

Put yourself in the best position to add value

As an HR professional, perhaps consider giving the do-it-yourself product a miss and instead focus energy on the highest value tasks that will make the biggest difference to the Company (if this sounds appealing check out www.engaugesurveys.com).  Online employee surveys are not evil, but they have the potential to waste both time and resources. They can also be highly useful when used appropriately.

Jason Buchanan is General Manager Insight & Innovation at Optimum Consulting Group, and has recently assisted in the launch of Engauge Surveys (www.engaugesurveys.com) in Australia.

Views: 1152

Comment by Bernard Keith Althofer on November 25, 2016 at 8:59

In my view, if an organisation plans on conducting a staff survey, they should plan on using the results, or at least address the concerns raised. 

There is a risk in conducting staff surveys and not implementing the findings; or if a strategic decision is made not to implement the findings and recommendations, be in a position to justify the decision.

Given the rise of certain issues e.g. bullying, mental health, tracking surveys over a period of time can identify some issues that have the potential to increase the level of risk exposure.  For example, an organisation conducts a survey and bullying and mental health are identified as critical issues.  The survey results are 'shelved' and two years later the same survey is conducted and the same results identified, and the same actions taken.  This process is repeated every two years.  Other assessments are conducted and extensive recommendations made, and yet no action is apparently taken.

As employees perceive the surveys are a 'waste of time', some realise the futility of accuracy and enter incorrect data for various reasons including - survey is a waste of time, nothing gets done, no-one reads it anyway.

So if a survey is to be conducted, make sure you are commited to it.  By this, I mean being commited to conducting it, accepting the findings and recommendations, and implementing the findings and recommendations. 

The smart money should be on those employees who lodge claims, use legal processes to identity patterns of behaviours and decision making processes that show a lack of commitment to address work health and safety concerns e.g. bullying and mental health. Of course, some organisations will use legal resources to limit access; however it should be acknowledged that there will be employees and former employees who not only know what skeletons are buried within an organisation, but they will know what flesh should be on those skeletons.

If you think you won't like the responses provided in survey, think about other ways that you might gather the information.  Sometimes, you just have to accept that the survey results will be diametrically opposed to how think the organisation is working.

Comment by Jason Buchanan on November 25, 2016 at 10:32

Hi Bernard, I think this is all good advice.  One thing in hindsight I forgot to put in the article is that surveys are really the pre-cursor to qualitative face-to-face discussions to discover the all-important context behind the results (yes, people actually talking to each other!).  Despite the appetite for and focus on 'big data' (I am an advocate for good data), there is still no data-oriented solution that I know of that is superior to a well-conducted conversation.   Humans are not machines (yet), and there seems to be too many decisions made about humans using data that provides the illusion of context, but is actually just incomplete data.  

Have a wonderful day.

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