A dozen deadly sins of conducting employee surveys

Leigh Branham
min read
A dozen deadly sins of conducting employee surveys

More than 70 percent of organizations conduct employee surveys, but many conduct those surveys in such a way that they wish they had never surveyed in the first place. Knowing these 12 most common mistakes makes it less likely you will make them.

If you work long enough for one organization or another, eventually you have a story to tell about an employee survey that went wrong.  Yet, 70 percent of all employers still conduct surveys.  Why?  The most compelling reason is the impending talent shortage--if employers intend to retain good workers, they need to know what those workers are thinking and what they want from their employer of choice.

If your organization conducts employee surveys, or plans to do so in the future, consider the following checklist of common survey mistakes:

1. Surveying too small a sample.  

One organization actually hand-picked a small group of employees to survey because they thought they would provide more positive feedback.  If you want the truth, this is not the way to get it.

2. Failure to get employee input and buy-in.

Employees are more likely to trust and accept survey results when the organization asks them to help build the survey.  A focus group of representative employees usually serves the purpose.

3. Focusing more on external benchmarking than on internal progress.  

Many senior leaders want to survey their employees just to see “how we stack up” against other employers.  When they learn that their survey results are about average compared to other companies, they find this reassuring, instead of striving to become one of the few companies that achieve excellent results.  Instead of comparing their results to external benchmarks or norms, most companies would be far better off establishing an internal baseline of survey results, working continuously to improve, and re-surveying on a regular basis.

4. Surveying without score-carding.  

Surveys are only one measure of progress in becoming an employer of choice.  If you are serious about tracking improvements, you will select hard measures, such as first-year voluntary turnover, absenteeism, quit rate, and dozens of other “dashboard” indicators that will yield a fuller picture of progress.

5. Poor survey design.  

Common mistakes include having too many questions, or too few, asking about two different things in the same question, not providing a “neutral” response option, and the failure to pilot test the survey, among others.

6. Thinking that cheaper is better.  

Low-cost survey providers often lack technical expertise and fail to provide communication and follow-up assistance.

7. Poor communication – before and after the employee survey.  

Surveys shouldn’t “just show up.”  Let employees know they are coming, what is being measured, and what the organization hopes to do with the findings.  Don’t delay when communicating survey findings, and communicate them as fully as possible.

8. Not linking questions and results to business drivers.  

Many organizations focus only on the least favorable results, regardless of their relevance to business drivers.  Others fail to customize the employee surveys to include questions that could impact key business decisions.

9. Failure to maintain confidentiality.  

It only takes one incident to lose credibility.  Without confidence that their responses are anonymous, your future employee survey efforts will be doomed--you will not get full and truthful responses, and your response rates will go down dramatically.

10. Lack of commitment to take action.  

When companies survey employees, then fail to follow through, employees grow cynical.  If senior leaders don’t intend to act on survey findings, they shouldn’t survey at all.  Commitment to action also means holding managers accountable for communicating the findings to their units and developing corrective action plans, as well as training them on how to manage that process, then providing whatever training and resources are necessary to correct the identified problems.

11. Delaying Action.

Because changes happen so fast, delaying action may lead to the loss of momentum and off-target remedies.  Remember, each survey is like a snapshot of employee attitudes and the findings have a short “shelf-life".

12. Lack of commitment to regular surveying.  

To gain maximum value from surveying, consider conducting a comprehensive yearly survey along with quarterly “pulse” surveys to track incremental progress.

Don’t let the fear of making these mistakes stop you.  Not surveying your employees at all could be just as bad a mistake as any of these twelve.

About the author

Leigh Branham helps organizations analyze the root causes of employee disengagement and turnover, and develop and implement strategies to become "employers-of-choice." He is also a frequent speaker to national and international audiences on "The 7 Reasons Employees Disengage", "Managing Four Generations in the Workforce", and "Beating the Bear Market through Engaged Employees." He is the Founder of Keeping the People, Inc.

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