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Opinion: Avoid these mistakes when doing employee surveys

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Employee surveys are one of the most common tools used by companies to try to boost retention and engagement. However, many employers use these tools badly, resulting in a decrease in engagement. In fact, these tools are so commonly misused that many employees cringe when they come out.

The first common mistake is not giving feedback to the employees. Closing the loop on survey feedback helps your employees to feel heard. Not sharing the feedback creates frustration and disengagement – actually, that’s an understatement. Not sharing is literally disengagement.

Some companies don’t share the results because they simply get busy and forget. It’s hard to share information to all your employees in a healthy and effective way. Many companies don’t share because of what the results say.

Most employee surveys we’ve seen indicate that employees would like to make more money and get more help. Executives panic when they see this feedback when they don’t plan to pay more or hire more people.

Is it OK to tell your employees no? Sure, but don’t just stop at no. The attitude shouldn’t be, “Those darn employees always want more money and more people, but I have a business to run.” The attitude should be, “We are all on the same page because I want us all to make more money, too, so let’s talk about how we can do that or what challenges we face that are preventing us from getting there.” This gets your employees on the same page.

The second common mistake is when management takes the results and tries to do everything on their own. We worked with one CEO who called us after they had just completed their own survey. He showed us a list of 65 suggestions to help to improve the company. He was excited because they were good suggestions, but he was also frustrated. He was a very busy executive who didn’t have time to implement 65 improvements.

When companies view surveys as a wish list that becomes the executives’ responsibility to deliver on for employees, they they are missing a key opportunity to earn employee engagement. If the goal is to increase employee engagement, then why not engage the employees in executing the survey feedback?

There is an additional benefit when companies engage their employees to execute on improvements after a survey. When executives do it all for the employees, we see the employee requests become unrealistic and disconnected from reality.

When employees are tasked with executing the results, they focus on realistic opportunities that align with company goals.

The third mistake we see in employee surveys is that they are often too darn complex. I have to confess that we used to do an employee survey for clients that had 70 questions on it. The last question was something like, “What else do you want to say?” We consistently found it to be the most insightful feedback. We have found that simple, open-ended surveys allow employees to tell you what they are thinking. Great questions include “What do we do well?” and “What can we do better?”

We also recommend gathering additional data on engagement levels. Surveys can measure the percentage of employees who identify as engaged, disengaged or toxic. Survey administrators can also measure the employee net promoter score, which indicates how difficult or easy it will be to recruit new employees to a company. Gathering this data periodically helps companies to track their progress. It’s important to keep in mind that outside factors – for example, a pandemic or inflation – can influence the numbers significantly.

The last mistake is making employees feel unsafe. I’ve heard stories of managers following up on individual responses or asking groups of people, “Who said this?” It is human nature to want to know, but it is better to take individual results with a grain of salt and to focus most of your energy on trends. Using a third party to administer a survey is a great way to help your employees feel safer in giving open feedback.

Employee surveys are a powerful tool for engaging your employees, but they only work when you engage your employees with the results.

When your survey is too complex, you don’t engage employees in the improvements or results are not shared, you are better off not surveying at all. 

Don Harkey is the owner and CEO of People Centric Consulting Group. He can be reached at


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