10 Ways Engagement Surveys are Killing Engagement

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Aug 13, 2012

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.

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.

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