3 Good Reasons Why Employee Engagement Surveys Fail

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Sometimes, we need to air our HR dirty laundry.

Let’s bring into the light of day how surveys are traditionally conducted and then acted upon. Indeed, let’s stop torturing our employees with bad surveys – especially bad employee engagement surveys.

Frankly, the survey itself is rarely the problem. The questions are usually quite good in terms of defining the information you and the organization want to learn about employee attitudes, satisfaction and engagement.

Let’s look at the three most common failures of employee surveys as typically implemented today:

1. Post survey actions/reactions only further disengage

If you’re going to ask employees to take the time to answer your survey, then you better show them you listened by taking appropriate action. Take, for example, this story from Lead Change Group of an employee disgruntled by a poorly executed survey :

They did ask some good questions and we shared how to make things better, but they ignored all those issues, and made us spend extra time on task forces to address cosmetics and desk arrangements. Our reward for taking time to give them good feedback that would improve efficiency and profitability – was to be ignored and given extra work on how we would decorate the department … This is so stupid! We were ignored and punished … and we really tried to help.”

Sure, it’s easier to resolve the “cosmetic” issues than tackle the deeper, cultural aspects. But if you aren’t willing to honestly look at your organization and commit the resources to address the challenges your employees bring forward, don’t bother to survey them in the first place.

2. Most disengaged don’t bother to respond to the survey

A colleague of mine shared her story of disengagement at her last place of employment:

I was so disengaged and disgusted with the company that I didn’t even bother to respond to the engagement survey – nor did most of my teammates. Besides, we knew they wouldn’t take action on the survey results anyway, so why bother? We’d all laugh (snicker is more like it) when leadership would talk about engagement numbers because we all knew the most disengaged weren’t even taking the survey, thereby dramatically overstating engagement levels.”

You’re engagement results may actually be worse than you think, especially if you routinely don’t react appropriately to what the employees are telling you through the survey.

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3. Bad timing, especially waiting to survey until the exit interview

Our semi-annual employer survey with SHRM regularly shows that the exit interview is the second most common way companies survey employee engagement. The obvious issue is it’s far too late to do anything at that point in time. Or, as Barbara Milhizer put it here at TLNT:

As an employee, I’m wondering why no one bothered to ask me these questions over the past 18 years? It’s a little insulting to be asked why I’m leaving for the sake of good data and action planning. Is the implication that I was expendable, but heaven forbid anyone else ever fall victim to a bad manager and lack of recognition?”

The Bottom Line: Don’t bother to survey employees on engagement unless you’re willing to take their feedback, honestly evaluate what they are telling you, and take steps to resolve perhaps deep cultural issues.

If you’re not willing to make that investment of time and finances up front, you will only serve to further disengage and disgruntle employees.

How does your organization take action on employee survey results?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at irvine@globoforce.com.


4 Comments on “3 Good Reasons Why Employee Engagement Surveys Fail

  1. Bad timing is an exceptionally important point. Feedback should be given and received regularly so there are no surprises in an exit interview, or engagement survey for that matter. Engagement surveys are never going to be a perfect measure of workplace culture, so it’s crucial to keep an open dialog year-round.

  2. I agree if you don’t follow-up then the company will do more harm than if no survey was completed at all. If you are a company of 1,000 the impact may not be felt regarding a non-followed-up survey. On the other hand, a company with 50-100….big difference and HUGE potential impact.

  3. Senior management needs to be involved up front when planning an engagement survey so everyone is clear on WHY the survey is being conducted and to set expectations with them on what FOLLOW THOUGH will be necessary once the data is collected. As a talent management professional who has been conducting engagement surveys for 15 years, the will to follow through in a significant way is still gravely lacking. I agree that it is better NOT TO ASK if you don’t want to take substantial steps to make changes that will reduce your company’s turnover and charge up your employees about working for your organization so you get that discretionary effort that will drive up you RPE number. Your talent can carry the senior team’s vision to the finish line if you have the systems in place to pick the right horses and to make sure that they are groomed and fed on a daily basis with the right nutrients they need to do their best work! By and large it is more fun to work in an environment where you are motivated to do your all, so let’s create that climate in your company. The engagement survey will show you how. Don’t shoot the messenger.

  4. Great article – I heard somewhere that ~30% of such interventions have negative impacts on engagement and morale. It can be particularly frustrating coming in as a consultant to conduct employee engagement surveys and not being involved in the follow-up phase (communicating results, creating action plans, etc.) because of budget constraints. You can provide strong recommendations and regularly check up, but in the end it’s in the hand of leadership to own the post-survey work. To mitigate this, we try to work closely with HR and provide any training/pass on our knowledge and approach so that the work gets done.

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