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Best Practices for Employee Surveys

November 08, 2021 Employee Experience
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By Sarah Fister Gale

Employee surveys used to be a once-a-year event used to get a baseline on employee satisfaction. Employers used the results to tout their engagement scores and impress shareholders.

Today, employees expect more. They want to see real change occur in exchange for their honest, and often anonymous, feedback. When employers don’t deliver the changes they expect to see, these surveys can actually cause more harm than good.

“Employee surveying has gotten better in the past several years, but there are additional things can do to get even more value,” said Adam Zuckerman, employee engagement software product leader for Willis Tower Watson in Chicago.

Why Annual Employee Surveys Aren't Enough

Employee surveys can offer a goldmine of data to proactively address workplace problems, improve retention and drive better employer reviews that will attract new candidates. But that kind of data can’t be found in an annual survey.

While asking the same 100 questions every year provides a baseline measure of general employee satisfaction, it fails to track changes in the culture or the impact of current events.

“The pandemic taught us that the surveys don’t provide enough data to answer questions about big issues, like the murder of George Floyd, the impact of remote work or the return to the office,” said Brett Wells, director of people analytics for Perceptyx, an employee survey and people analytics company.

Companies need more real-time insight to adapt to changing trends and make sure their culture continues to reflect their values and the needs of employees. This is especially true in the current labor market, where employees have a lot of options and consider company culture a key part of their decision-making process.

According to a survey from RippleMatch, a New York-based college recruiting job platform, 68% of Gen Z candidates said company culture is a top reason they accepted a job offer, and 73% of professionals said they left a job due to poor cultural fit, according to a report from UK-based recruiting consultancy Robert Walters Group.

In this environment, companies can’t afford to lose great talent due to a bad company culture, or to suffer the negative backlash resulting from angry reviews from past employees.

Related Article: Why Employee Listening Matters So Much Right Now

The Elements of an Employee Listening Strategy

An effective employee listening strategy that includes targeted surveys can ensure this doesn’t happen. Here's advice on how to do it:

  1. Don’t abandon the annual survey completely. Annual surveys provide great benchmark data that can be used to monitor changes over the year, communicate improvement and identify chronic issues that need to be addressed. “It is a useful reporting tool, but it’s just one piece of your listening strategy,” Zuckerman said.
  2. Integrate "point-in-time" pulse surveys to track real-time issues. Zuckerman encourages companies to survey employees at key milestones, like 60 days on the job, after a promotion, and during performance reviews. That also applies to any time the company experiences significant events, like a mass exodus to remote work due to a global pandemic. “These pulse surveys can provide rich and relevant data to help you focus on what’s important to your people right now,” he said.
  3. Align questions to business goals. Before creating a survey, determine what you are trying to discover, what you plan to do with the data, and how the survey will add business value, Zuckerman advised. Establishing a goal will determine the right questions to ask, and avoid wasting employees’ time answering questions that don’t add value.
  4. Don’t ask for more than you can handle. Employee survey data can become addicting, but if you don’t have the time, resources or interest in doing something with that data, don’t waste employees’ time. “There is no greater mistake than asking for feedback and not doing anything with it,” Wells said. “It sends a message that you don’t value their time or their opinions.”
  5. Report back quickly. Once survey data is in, compile it, share it with leaders and then communicate back to employees as soon as possible, in days, not weeks. Even if you don’t yet know how you plan to respond, let them know what you found and what your next steps are, Wells said. Then keep them updated. “That positive feedback loop can be a  great driver of engagement,” he said.
  6. Don’t sugar coat results. Share the good and the bad data, and be honest about what you are going to do, how long it will take and what results you hope to achieve. “Don’t try to spin the data,” Zuckerman said. “Employees want candor and transparency.”
  7. Look for buried trends in the data. In larger companies, it can be easy to lose sight of small problems hidden in larger data sets. For example, if you conduct a survey on the perception of diversity, equity and inclusion in the company, your overall employee population may give you high scores, but when you break the data out by race and gender, women or people of color may have a different opinion. Parsing data out by department, team and demographics can also uncover hidden problems within leadership, or pockets of the culture that require immediate attention but may go unnoticed in big picture reviews.
  8. Don’t expect to solve everything. A survey may identify a dozen issues that could be improved. That can feel overwhelming. Instead of investing a little time and money trying to address all of it, pick one or two issues that are the most impactful and focus resources there, Zuckerman said. “If you do one thing and make a tremendous impact it is much better than doing a lot of little things that don’t drive much change,” he said.  

Employee surveys provide employers with valuable data about what’s going on today, and what employees need from the business to be productive. Survey data can also ensure corporate leaders' perceptions of the culture are aligned, and what needs to change to keep everyone happy.

“Employees are the drivers of the business, and your success or failure is based on their experiences,” Zuckerman said. 


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