A Short Guide to Creating Incredible Employee Surveys

Posted by Brandon Carter on Jan. 9, 2018

"Hey, I know you're busy, but can I take a few minutes of your time to ask you some questions?"

Remember that? You'd be walking through the mall, knocking out some shopping and minding your own business, then someone would stop you and ask you to take a survey.

Surprisingly, most of us complied with that. It was usually just a few questions, and people really like it when they feel like their opinion matters.

Employees are the same. They like to be heard and to have a say in where things are going.

75% of employees would stay longer at an organization that listens to and addresses their concerns (Ultimate Software)

Yet, most of us aren't data scientists. We're not sure how to break down statistical trends or build complex pivot tables.

We really just want to know if our employees are happy, and what they want to see happen with their workplace. That's all.

The good news: surveying employees doesn't have to be complicated. In fact, the simpler it is, the better.

As you look to invoke the voice of the employee, take a few minutes to go over these simple guiding principles for effective employee surveys:

Seven Guiding Principles for Employee Surveys

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Keep It Tight and Precise

You can send out a 70 question behemoth at the end of every year and there'll be a few employees that take it. Data scientists will even tell you that these results are more reliable and valuable because the people crazy enough to finish them take it seriously. But there's no guarantee you'll get enough people to finish the survey to even reach statistically-verifiable conclusions.

15% of organizations with 100+ employees measure the engagement of their employees more than once a year (Modern Survey)

Chances are you'll have higher participation if you do regular surveys chopped up into bite-size chunks. Perhaps you do one survey per quarter: Q1 focuses on engagement, Q2 focuses on roles, knowledge, and advancement opportunities, Q3 focuses on employee benefits and compensation, Q4 focuses on knowledge of company goals and values.

Offer Anonymity

There are some strong opinions out there in favor of making employees connect their names directly to their feedback. How else are you going to follow up and solve issues or capitalize on great ideas, after all?

The downside, of course, is that some employees will be afraid of retribution if they share opinions the company or manager won't agree with.

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There's no right or wrong answer, other than to take each survey on a case-by-case basis. Surveys that are designed to suss out future ideas should be connected to individuals. Surveys that are evaluating management or trying to identify engagement should at least have an option for anonymity.

The big caveat here is that you need ways of identifying disengaged employees long before they take your survey. That's more of a cultural question around how executives encourage managers to deal with employees.

Think Roles and Goals Instead of People

What you're looking for in a survey is actionable feedback, or at least confirmation of your suspicions. What you don't want is an all-out gripe session by employees.

They should be given an opportunity to provide feedback on their managers and executives, sure. The bigger opportunity is to find out where they see themselves with the company and the culture within.

Employees who say their organizational values are “known and understood” are 51 times more likely to be fully engaged than an employee who responds that their organization does not have values that are known and understood (Modern Survey

Focus on their roles, their comfort level, and if they're making progress toward their personal goals. If not, then you can reasonably assume there's a mismatch between the employee and manager.

Forbid Witch Hunts

The quickest way to wreck trust and shutter communication channels is to allow managers to confront employees over comments. No one likes to be told their leadership capability is a 2 out of 5, but there's no good that can come out of a confrontation over the response.

Instead, negative feedback must be seen as an opportunity to get better and open a dialog. If managers naturally expect five stars from every person under their command and get offended when employees don't comply, that's a serious top-down cultural problem that surveys won't fix.

New Call-to-actionThe key here is to make sure every manager and executive is on board before the survey goes out. They must understand the goal is to improve the company, and any criticism leveled is to be taken seriously. Vindictive behavior, or in the case of anonymous surveys, witch hunts to figure out who said what are counterproductive and shouldn't be tolerated.

50% of employees trust senior management (Modern Survey)

Always Leave Room for Comments

Give employees the chance to explain themselves as often as you can. There are no perfect questions, and sentiment can't always be expressed on a 1-10 scale. In fact, this is where some the best feedback and forward-looking ideas will reveal themselves - not in the data.

Never Let a Survey Be a Substitute for a One-on-One

Make sure your managers are meeting with their employees frequently. That's the best way to ascertain sentiment, and it just so happens to build relationships in the process.

Keep in mind, these aren't group meetings, though those have value. We're talking about one-on-one meetings to discuss action items, goals, ideas, and issues. They don't have to be lengthy or heavy, but they should be taken seriously. If a manager isn't sure how an employee would rate them, they're probably not connecting with the employee often enough, if at all.

Employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged (Gallup

The big benefit to these regular meetings is they can render surveys almost useless...

You Should Know Most of the Responses Before the Survey

No, we're not implying you need to be a pre-cog with the ability to see the future. We're saying you should have a good, realistic grasp on where most employees stand and what major issues are facing your company. If you're meeting with managers regularly, and managers are meeting with their people regularly, there shouldn't be too many surprises in your survey results.

That being said, it's important to carry them out to verify what you think you know, and learn a few things you don't.

Keep a close tab on manager and employee sentiment, and always serve as a sounding board for new ideas. You'll be able to see most of what's going to come in before it even happens.


Final Step: Report Back

employee-survey-template.pngAll the employee surveys in the world are for naught if they don't drive change. Whether anonymous or named, quarterly or annual, data-intensive or completely casual, every survey effort should result in at least one action item.

Don't just do it, though. Report back. Tell employees you heard them and are implementing what they want to see. If you're moving forward with suggestions from specific employees, single them out and celebrate their genius.

Or, tell employees why you're not going with their instructions. That's a great opportunity to be transparent about company goals and values, and explain the "why" behind your "how."

Remember that stat from the top? Listening is only half the battle.

75% of employees would stay longer at an organization that listens to and addresses their concerns (Ultimate Software)

Either way, be sincere and appreciative. The last thing you want to do is stifle discussion and the flow of ideas.

Always give employees a voice, whether in surveys or even the boring old break room suggestion box.

If you bake feedback into your culture, your survey efforts will be successful no matter how you approach them.

You may even find you don’t need surveys at all.

Topics: Employee Engagement + Loyalty

Brandon Carter

Written by Brandon Carter

Brandon is a former writer and marketer for Access Development. He's a frequent blogger on customer and employee engagement & loyalty, consumer trends, and branding. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter at @bscarter