10 Ways Engagement Surveys are Killing Engagement

Over lunch, my friend Susan asked what she probably thought was a harmless question, “What do you think of employee engagement surveys?”

After my answer, she may never have lunch with me again.

I think employee engagement surveys have become wonderfully efficient at wasting time, resources, and make great excuses for being unforgivably lazy, and here’s why:

10. Overused and abused

One can’t make a trip to the third floor break room without receiving a survey on the feng shui of the coffee bar. Unless you can ensure yours is the only survey game in town, you are unlikely to get traction with a survey-weary public. Apathetic employees make for terrible engagement stats.

9. One size fits none

Most engagement surveys assume all engagement drivers are equally important and constant from one employee to the next. Nothing is worse than the post-survey communication touting the biggest jump in engagement in the area of least interest.

8. Get to the point, already

I’ll be brief. Your survey is too long. Always.

7. There is such a thing as a stupid question

As a compensation professional, I always pleaded not to have questions about compensation in the annual survey. Why? Because the question about whether or not a person feels paid fairly is the ultimate set up.

Who in their right mind would say “yes” to that? It is in your best interest to say “no” because what is there to lose? It’s also a stupid question because if 100 percent of employees say they aren’t fairly paid, are you really going to do something about that?

6. Don’t ask; don’t tell

Which brings me to my next point: don’t ask what you don’t want to know, or what you can’t or won’t do anything about.

5. Think locally, act globally

Survey respondents are giving you their very self-centered, micro view of what a jerk they have for a manager. Aggregated results support macro action, which is great, but Joe still has a jerk for a manager and now doesn’t feel heard.

4. No context

Most engagement surveys are annually run and are an incredible feat to pull off in a large, global organization. The problem is surveys give a point in time response and companies extrapolate that into a zeitgeist.

You can’t correct for an immediacy bias, good or bad with an annual survey. It may be very tempting for an employee to use the survey as a virtual punching bag on a bad day.

Article Continues Below

3. Too little, too late

I’ve spent a lot of time pouring over engagement responses of people who ended up leaving the organization and trying to develop predictive indicators. Termination profiling, if you will. The problem is by the time someone gives a last-ditch, soul-baring plea to an electronic database, it is far too late.

2. Breaking bad

So much common sense is sacrificed at the altar of percentage point improvements. I have seen companies time the survey so it precedes bad news, eliminate employee groups from the respondents because, well, they were disgruntled anyway, and managers who threaten retaliation if the numbers come in lower than their expectations.

1. It’s just that we don’t talk anymore…

Most importantly, surveys have become a convenient excuse for not connecting with employees. They have supplanted the conversation and attempted to apply math to a mercurial and emotional state of being.

If you need a survey to tell you how your employees are feeling, you have missed the point of being a manager.

I know, I know — complaints come cheap but solutions are fewer and far between. So before you dial up your survey vendor canceling your contract and quoting me, notice that I did say surveys “have become” all of these things. Like many ideas with good intentions, too much of a good thing has rendered them over-used crutches. And we’ve allowed our talent management muscle to atrophy as a result.

Making surveys really work

Here’s how to make surveys work for you: Keep the surveys, but change your approach.

  • Keep them very short but in frequent, pulse bursts.
  • Instead of an annual all-hands survey, consider triggering them on key milestone events: promotion, 1-year anniversary with the company, return from a leave of absence.
  • Be honest about what actions you are and are not willing to take before you decide on the questions.
  • Don’t fixate on the numbers as the whole enchilada; instead view the numbers as an opening to a meaningful conversation.

This was originally published on PeopleResult’s Current blog.

Barbara Milhizer, CCP, SPHR is a partner at PeopleResults, a human capital consultancy focusing on change, organization, talent and communications/new media. Barbara’s background includes over 15 years of HR with key leadership roles in rewards & recognition and talent strategy at both Accenture and PeopleResults. Contact her at bmilhizer@people-results.com.


14 Comments on “10 Ways Engagement Surveys are Killing Engagement

  1. So true – and especially like the point about not asking unless you are willing to listen to the naswer & act upon it. Also agree that almost all are too long. Great post and good advice on what to do when you are in this situation.

  2. While surveys are important the best  way to create engagement is to make it happen. Talk is cheap and managers are often puzzled by how to do it.  Asking people to participate by offering them opporunities will make it happen. Unless managers take the lead, all the surveys and ‘programs’ to create engagment will fail.  Living engagement by being an example (managers working with other managers) will create a template for encouraging employees to do the same.  But, in the end, engagement has to have a payoff for employees. If it becomes “HR program” or categorize it as such is a killer.  Relax and do what comes naturally.

  3. Another suggestion… team-based surveys, where the team works together to identify issues/barriers as well as actions and resolutions. Since managers drive most of what people like/don’t like about their jobs, it seems that focusing efforts at the manager/team level is the best place to start.

    Great wisdom, Barbara. Thanks!

  4. A short and actionable survey – wouldn’t that be nirvana!  I always find it frustrating when surveys just go on and on and you feel like you’re answering the same items over and over.  Great post!

  5. I couldn’t agree more. 
    Surveys give the numerical “proof” to what everyone in the organization already knows. Spend an hour asking thoughtful questions to a few employees and you’ll save yourself a lot of time and money. And probably come to the same conclusions.

  6. Totally agree Barbara – and nothing is worse for apathy than conducting a survey, summarizing the fine points of data, and having nothing acted upon for employee morale…

  7. Very insightful! I think this is one of those “habits” that organizations fall into. Taking time to really think about what you want to accomplish and figuring out then the best way in which to get feedback from employees will typically yield much better results. Thanks for sharing!

  8. All good and valid points. Surveys can be long and tedious, badly constructed, and the whole process often lacks inspiration. All these factors lead to bad (if any) follow up and that, in turn, adds to scepticism towards this kind of survey. All avoidable errors.
    But what counts most are points 1 and 2:
    (1) the survey should act as (and be intended as) a springboard for discussion at team level as well as for management. Survey quality doesn’t even have to be that good for this to occur (but it helps if it is…). I agree this is often not the case so it’s good that you point that out.
    (2) I’m sorry, but the survey is not to blame if management lacks integrity.I can go out and beat someone up with a baseball bat and it could still be a good bat. If this kind of thing happens in your place of work, forget about surveys and just get out as soon as you can.

    1. Very good points. I do think good management can be fixated on results so much that it drives some bad behavior.

  9. All great points Barbara, I think companies get into a routine and forget why they are taking time and resources to ask for feedback.  Surveys timed with team projects, individual milestones are a good idea. But any kind of employee engagement survey should be the starting point to opening up real conversations among teams and managers.

  10. Nice article. I really appreciate the concept here. I was wondering what your prospective is on Customer feedback/exit surveys that we are all being prompted to do after we visit an eatery, or shop a boutique?

  11. Well written indeed. Organizations link employee engagement to survey results. While what is written bold on the walls and on the employees attitude is so often ignored. I liked Employee High Touch point, One organization I know,GE has it in the HR Scorecard.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *