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Employee taking an employee feedback survey
6 Min Read

Why Everyone Hates the Annual Employee Engagement Survey (and How to Do it Right)

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Ian Illig

Most of us have been on the receiving end of a lousy employee survey experience at one point or another. When it comes to surveys, there are about a million off-ramps to failure: asking the wrong questions, not taking action, not communicating well, etc.

Because of this past baggage, people often distrust employee engagement surveys or, at the very least, feel they’re a waste of time. Maybe they’re worried about confidentiality or that their thoughtful responses will fall on deaf ears. 

Whatever the reasons for survey disdain, people leaders have a responsibility to their employees to create a better experience.

Sending a poorly-executed survey is worse than not surveying at all

Sending an employee survey just to check a box is a mistake that too many leaders make. Someone in a meeting says, “Morale is down. We need to send out a survey!” Suddenly, HR is tasked with figuring out what questions to ask, how to score responses, what tool to use, and more. This isn’t a strategic use of your time, and without a plan, it won’t result in any real improvement.

When your survey results do come in, they may confirm a few hunches and uncover a few blind spots. You can’t believe how much input you received from employees but are overwhelmed with the wide range of topics the feedback covers. How the hell are you supposed to know where to start?

Between the good, the bad, and the ugly, there’s also a lot of random complaining and expensive ideas. You have to decide where to start and somehow recap survey results for employees. Instead, you start questioning the validity of the survey itself. 

Did we ask the right questions? Did enough employees respond? Should we have waited until after the holidays? How do we compare to others in our industry? 

Meanwhile, you have payroll to run, employees to onboard, enrollment to prep for, and a million other plates to keep spinning.

So, what makes for an effective employee survey?

If you’re sick and go to the doctor, you wouldn’t expect her to ask you a bunch of questions and then send you home with no diagnosis. And on the flip side, you wouldn’t want her to just throw a bunch of pills at you without asking you about your symptoms first.

An employee survey can help you get a general understanding of the health of your workforce. A good employee survey will then allow you to dig further into areas of concern. With the feedback you gather, you can properly diagnose problem areas and prescribe the best actions. 

The five qualities of an effective employee survey

  1. It measures the right things. Focusing on engagement is more impactful to business outcomes than something vague like satisfaction or happiness. (Of course, you want employees to be happy, but you also want to know they’re motivated to do great work.)
  2. Questions are valid and standardized. Unless there’s a data scientist and behavioral psychologist on staff, questions executives or HR teams make up on their own likely aren’t statistically valid. And if the questions change from survey to survey, you lose the ability to track trends and improvement over time. Look to put a proven, data-driven survey in place.
  3. It includes quantitative and qualitative questions. A valuable employee survey gives leaders insight into areas of focus for the organization and provides context around how to best take action. This is accomplished by asking Likert-scale or yes/no questions and also giving employees a place to share open-ended feedback.
  4. It’s timely. People are an organization’s most valuable and expensive asset, yet many companies only get employee feedback once a year (or less). Imagine if you only measured something like cash once a year or asked your partner how the relationship is going every two years. That would be crazy, right? Find a more frequent survey cadence that aligns with other critical business operations and metrics.
  5. It’s well communicated. To maintain trust, employees should clearly understand why they’re being asked to take a survey, what leadership hopes to learn from it, and most importantly, how they plan to take action. (The more employees feel their voices are being heard, the more likely they will participate in the future.)

How often should we survey employees?

If you’re still polling your employees just once a year, you’re missing out on what genuine feedback is all about.

Do you remember last year’s company meeting? How about the open enrollment process eight months ago? It’s probably hard to recall what was going on that long ago, and you’ve likely moved on to more current priorities and concerns.

Waiting an entire year to collect feedback may be more convenient from a logistical standpoint, but it can be frustrating for employees. An annual survey tends to become a “catch-all” for all the missed opportunities throughout the year. 

Here are a few reasons why an annual employee engagement survey cadence isn’t practical:

  • Employees receive little to no value from an annual employee engagement survey.
  • Less frequent surveys often equate to lower participation rates.
  • Feedback isn’t timely and is, therefore, less actionable. 
  • Without a way to express their opinions throughout the year, employees may leave the company before you realize they’ve become disengaged. 

Prioritizing 1-on-1s between employees and managers and surveying employees regularly — at least once a quarter — allows you to respond promptly and make relevant improvements in the organization.

Gather ongoing feedback with 15Five

When launching any survey initiative, the most important thing leaders can do is deliver on promises and take meaningful action. This requires all hands on deck in the organization, from executive leaders to mid-level managers. 

Buy-in from the team and a plan for operationalizing feedback creates a path to real business results. Perhaps then employees will start looking forward to surveys because they know a few minutes of their time can result in a better work experience.

Need help? Leave it to the experts at an employee survey company that knows how to measure true engagement and can guide your team throughout the process.

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