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There are plenty of articles and blog posts about the problems with employee engagement surveys. Surveys can add value, but there are inherent problems with them too. There are common problems associated with their design, use and application.

So here are my thoughts on those common problems, and what you can do about them.

Problem number one: who completes it. Or rather who doesn’t.

People who want to have a serious rant will fill it in, because they are probably past the point of caring, or just need to vent. People who are fairly engaged will complete it because they genuinely want to give you some feedback. People who are generally disengaged with your organisation won’t fill it in, as it will form part of their general ennui about their lot. Which means unless you can generate a really high response rate overall you are inevitably going to miss a good chunk of useful opinion and feeling – possibly some of the most important there is. You need to listen to all of your employee voice – find an additional way to engage with those employees who simply won’t fill it in.

Problem number two: the questions you ask.
You are in control of them. Which means that you are limiting what people can comment on. Restricting the voice to your topics, what you want to talk about. Many surveys have just one or two open text questions towards the end in which people can say what is really on their minds, which are also limited to given subjects. It’s not enough if this is only way you are taking feedback.

Problem number three: the questions you use to determine the ‘engagement’ score.
Typically organisations choose just a handful of questions to determine a percentage engagement score. Most surveys I have seen include questions about how much the employee cares about the company, their role, the future. Well who doesn’t, unless maybe you are already planning on leaving? I’d argue that the overall score isn’t the issue – you can’t turn how people feel into a percentage. But if you want to – then don’t make it easy on yourself by choosing these questions.

Problem number four: are you really listening anyway?
Running the survey is the easy bit. Listening to what is said, and then taking action is the hard stuff. Lots of companies have really good intentions when they set out to run a survey. But many just see the results, collectively ‘hmmm’ and leave it at that. It is all too easy to ignore, rationalise, deny, minimise, excuse the feedback. And then repeat. You’ve got to be prepared to face the tough feedback without an ‘ah, yes but’. If you don’t clearly show what you did with the feedback, expect people not to bother completing it next time around.

Problem number five: they all tell you the same thing anyway.
Most employee engagement surveys tell you very, very similar things. Most companies get the same type of comments and scores over and over again, year after year. The same things on most engagement surveys, wherever you work, score lower than most – like pay and benefits. And how often does your employee engagement survey really tell you anything new anyway? Or do you read them, and realise you kind of knew everyone felt like that? I always think that if you are sufficiently engaged with your business, your managers, your employees, then the survey should present no surprises to the folks in HR.

If you want to do an employee survey, go for it. But just recognise that it is only one part of listening to your employee voice. Mix it with other methods. Recognise its limitations. And for goodness sake, do something with the output. Otherwise you might as well just save your money and your time.


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