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Why employee surveys might not represent how people really feel

Employee surveys have taken on new significance for organisations trying to improve performance and drive better outcomes for their business. Yet when insufficient thought is given to how they are perceived by employees, surveys may result in nothing more than a load of “lies, damn lies and statistics”. So how can that be avoided?

In an era of tough economic conditions and worrying mental health trends, employee surveys have taken on a new level of significance for organisations trying to improve performance and drive better outcomes for their business.  Surveys to assess and understand employee engagement, employee well-being and job satisfaction are becoming more commonplace, and in many cases have become an annual event within organisations in a similar fashion to performance appraisals.  However, as a leader have you ever stopped to think about or ask yourself what your employees think of employee surveys? And if not, should you?

Absolutely!  I am not suggesting that you survey them to find out, because that would just be weird…but here’s the rub; a survey can only be effective if sufficient thought given to how it will be received by employees and if it is well-designed.

In a society driven by data it would appear that everything has to be measured, including employee engagement, well-being and job satisfaction. Don’t get me wrong – I am, and always have always been, an avid supporter of employee surveys in the belief that “what gets measured gets managed” to quote the well-known phrase attributed to management guru Peter Drucker.  Employee surveys provide a vital health check of an organisation and play a huge role in shaping a positive company culture, attracting and retaining talent, and driving better business outcomes. But when the focus is primarily on data gathering, with little thought given to how it is perceived by employees then the integrity of the data might be questionable and not representative of how your workforce really feels, rendering the entire process a costly waste of time for everyone involved!

Take the example of United Parcel Service (UPS) in 1997 when it was hit by a costly strike ten months after receiving impressive results on its regular annual survey on worker morale. Although the survey had found that overall employee satisfaction was very high, it had failed to uncover bitter complaints about the proliferation of part-time jobs within the company – a central issue during the strike which led to effectively shutting down operations for 15 days, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. It is unclear how and why the sentiment in the survey was so clearly misaligned with the reality.  However, what is clear is that numbers and statistics will never tell the whole story.  Qualitative data is always needed to provide more colour around numbers and even then, as a leader it is important not to hide behind survey outputs as an indicator of how things are going.  Your most important role as a leader is a personal one so make sure to have human-to-human conversations to stay connected to your employees and get a feel for when things may not be as the statistics would indicate.

So how should organisations approach employee surveys to ensure they provide valuable insights and potentially uncover issues and challenges that may not be obvious through other channels with the view to creating a better, more productive and inclusive work environment? Two key points to consider when undertaking employee workplace surveys:

1. Put as much thought into the ‘why’ of the survey as the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ and communicate that ‘why’ to your employees. Leaders and survey designers need to honestly ask themselves what are they really listening for in a survey. Do you really want to change something or are you just looking for validation that there are no issues? Surveys need to be regarded as a genuine opportunity for employees to get their voices heard, raise concerns and improve the workplace, and not just a tick-box exercise for management to be seen to do the right thing or a PR exercise to show how great things are. Things can always be improved (think marginal gains) so you need to think of each survey as a conscious campaign to listen to your employees to uncover something that can be improved – and then action that. Lack of visible action by the organisation to address concerns is likely to create a perception that the survey is merely a tick-box exercise of no real benefit to employees, jeopardising any future survey efforts.

2. Ensure the survey is well-designed to collect the right information across a representative sample of employees, with the risk of potential bias or distortion minimised as much as possible. Some particular things to keep in mind include:

(a) Confidentiality – if employees do not feel that responses are anonymous and confidential participation rates and honesty in responses is likely to be compromised so they need to know that personal anonymity is guaranteed. However, a balance needs to be struck between this and the ability to identify responses at department or operating unit level as that is how business performance will always be assessed.

(b) Are all questions positively worded? When surveys are long, respondents’ answers become automatic and overly positive, especially if questions are worded positively. Ensure the format includes a mix of negatively and positively worded questions to minimise the risk of automatically replying to get to the end of the survey as quickly as possible.

(c) What’s the response rate for questions in free-text format? A low response to these questions can indicate a lack of willingness for employees to share opinion or a lack of time spent on the survey, neither of which is an encouraging scenario.

(d) Avoid questions that ask respondents to choose a word or phrase that fits their attitude. For example, words such as ‘too often’/’not enough’/’about right’ will mean different things to different people, making it difficult to apply informative statistical tests to the resulting data. Using a numbered scale is better.

In the current climate of heightened awareness around employee well-being and the recognition that employee engagement and motivation are key bottom-line contributors, employee surveys play a huge role. They can provide valuable insight to help companies change and grow as well as potentially uncover issues and challenges that may be simmering underneath the surface.  Yet the positive impact of an employee survey as a pathway to a better, more productive and inclusive work environment doesn’t happen by chance, and jumping on the bandwagon of employee surveys in the belief that any measurement is intrinsically good is somewhat misguided.  To truly amplify the impact of employee surveys leaders need to be clear about why they are doing an employee survey and whether or not it is critical to performance and operations.  They then need to understand how it is likely to perceived by their employees as well as commit to taking action based on any insights gained. Only then does it have the potential to deliver actionable insights and demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement. Otherwise it may be nothing more than a time-consuming project resulting in a load of faulty statistics – or what Mark Twain would class as “lies, damned lies and statistics”.

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