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6 Reasons Employee Engagement Surveys Fail...

...and how to fix it.

Posted on September 09, 2016

Ask any worker what words come to mind when talking about the annual employee engagement survey, and chances are they aren’t positive. More likely they’ll hit you with words such as painful, lip service or resentment.

To some, the annual employee survey has been the gold standard for assessing employee engagement. Theoretically, they were designed to gather tidbits of useful data and feedback about a company, its employees, strengths and challenges.

Yet there’s a growing sense they haven’t met expectations. How often should we do them? Is the data accurate? How do we ensure data we receive is actually used? Do they cause resentment in the long run? Is this a complete waste of time?

In fact, more likely they’ve often caused more problems in the long run.

Some of the key issues

While the employee survey was originally a well-intended tool to give front-line employees a voice in the organization (and to give management data to make better decisions), they have shortcomings that have leadership either questioning the frequency of use and/or looking at other ways to connect with employees.

Some of the problematic elements of annual surveys include:

1 They are just too darned long

When the annual engagement survey was first implemented, it was a bit of a novelty. Respondents were willing to invest the time because they were pleasantly surprised management was actually listening.

“If my feedback might actually add value and improve the company and they’ll listen to my needs, sure, I’ll take the time to fill it out.”

But as more and more were implemented, many individuals have become jaded. The surveys often cover an ambitious amount of territory and require a devoted a chunk of valuable time to respond (time many don’t have with increased demands). As a result, overall survey response rates have dipped.

There is a suspicion that this is particularly true for companies who haven’t been able to mount a timely and credible response to employees (in other words, are organizational changes made based on the feedback?).

2 Confidentiality

Most annual surveys are intended to be confidential. This is good in theory because it minimizes fear of repercussions. But if you dig a little deeper, are confidential surveys really a good thing? They have problematic elements, such as:

if you work in a culture where you’re afraid to speak up, is that really a healthy organization? Is it an organization that’s going to benefit from any form of feedback, confidential or otherwise, if the employees feel threatened about sharing their candid opinions and suggestions?

Skewed results.
How constructive is feedback when it’s confidential? Just as an employee suggestion program can simply devolve into a negative, employee grievance board if confidential suggestions are allowed, it’s possible for a minority of disgruntled employees to skew survey results when empowered by the veil of secrecy in a confidential survey. Better, more accurate results might be obtained by using a non-confidential annual survey and pushing the disgruntled employees towards the HR process to manage their issues on a more personal, confidential manner.

Difficulty in taking corrective action.
When good feedback comes from employees, a healthy and natural organizational reaction is to have a conversation with the employee(s) responsible, dig deeper to understand what’s driving their experience and involve them in crafting the solutions. None of this is possible with a confidential survey.

3 They are often too broad in scope to be actionable

The amount and variety of questions asked produces an overwhelming amount of data on a wide variety of themes. It can be difficult to target the right actions. The delay in getting corrective actions started can reduce credibility of the survey process and overwhelm managers who are already dealing with their day-to-day responsibilities. As this article from SHRM points out, if your organization isn’t committed to a timely response to the survey’s findings, you may be doing more harm than good.

4 Getting timely data can be difficult

Face it, the pace of change in business is blazingly fast. New technologies, product launches, shifting market realities and client expectations can make it hard to keep up. The sheer volume of data from many annual surveys takes time to analyze, and timely delivery of data and recommendations is a challenge. As with the issue of scope above, the delay in getting data leads to delays in taking swift action which can put your company at a disadvantage with both employee and client retention.

5 Local, department level data

Since many of the positive changes that impact a company’s bottom line take place between local managers and employees, surveys that don’t pinpoint critical issues to local managers and markets are ineffective to helping an organization respond with effective corrective actions. Often, large annual, confidential surveys are not able to deliver such relevant, local feedback.

6 Too much focus on feedback from current employees

Much of what you may need to learn about your organization’s opportunities for improvement can be gleaned by getting a better understanding of why employees leave the company and what your new hires are experiencing during their first critical months on the job. An effective survey process needs to be able to blend that data into the analysis of organizational strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement.

Strategies for a Successful Employee Feedback Initiative

So what are some effective strategies for a balanced approach to employee feedback? Try these on for size:

1 Small Bites

With year over year, consistent, employee engagement focused questions, short pulse surveys can give you a recurring snapshot of how your company is doing, without having to wait until end of the year survey data is available. Consisting of a series of rotating weekly (or monthly) questions in small bites, pulse surveys are easily responded to via a survey platform or in email notifications and can give you both relevant data in the here and now as well as comparative data as time goes by.

2 Target

Target monthly (or quarterly) surveys that address current themes and challenges facing the company.Much like using a “Kaizen” process for surveys, where ongoing, actionable feedback is continuously sought, your organization should plan out highly focused monthly survey curriculum and after each month’s targeted data is in, take decisive action to address findings. Like a CQI survey methodology for surveys, this process can demonstrate to your employees that feedback is not only welcomed, it’s acted upon in a timely, relevant fashion. Not only will this be more confirming and engaging to your employees, it will help your organization be more competitive in the marketplace through faster innovation and the attracting and retaining of employees who embrace an engaged, collaborative and responsive work culture.

3 Listen to The Door

By running surveys for both new hires and during exit interviews, you can share macro data with senior leaders and micro data with front line managers. Share and discuss these surveys as part of your monthly management agenda so that timely and effective decisions and course changes can be made to influence the hiring, training and mentoring processes in your company.

4 No Repercussions

Consider rolling out a non-confidential survey. This can't be done effectively unless leadership is genuine that there will be no repercussions for feedback that’s responsibly shared. This approach needs the wise guidance of your internal communications team as well to help craft the rollout of the new survey approach and the reasons why feedback needs to be provided in a transparent, accountable fashion so the organization may thrive. Also, if your leadership promises no negative repercussions for any feedback that’s responsibly shared, they need to absolutely deliver on that promise 100% and be sure that all their reports do the same. To do otherwise will lead to a destruction in trust from which your organization will not soon recover.

5 Suggestion Program

Launch an employee suggestion program supported by technology and workflows. Earlier, we mentioned that the confidentiality of many surveys can hinder them with respect to getting skewed, negative results because the questions themselves, answered confidentially, do nothing to encourage employees to provide constructive feedback they they can help implement. An employee suggestion program is a perfect opportunity to allow employees to share process improvements, best practices and game changing innovations in a transparent forum where elements of collaboration, evaluation, implementation, recognition and celebration all inspire colleagues to actively engage in the organization’s success.

If you don’t have an employee ideas program currently, or you have a legacy program that’s hampered by uninspired, boring technology and lack of c-level championship, it may be time to look at this option again. By providing a program that’s backed by management, driven by a fun, engaging technology that’s focused on creating solutions that benefit the enterprise--this program, properly championed and promoted, can become a centerpiece of your employee feedback strategy.

Are you considering changes to your employee feedback initiative?

If you are at the point where you’ve begun to see some of these issues in your annual survey: the burnout; the delays in getting meaningful, actionable data; the disconnect in time between when surveys are run and when decisions are made to address findings, it may be time you considered some of these alternative strategies to supplement or replace your annual survey.

There are many excellent technologies available on the market that can provide you with survey functionality and analytics. Similarly, there’s a wide range of innovation software available to help you innovate and collaborate. There is at least one company that looks at your employee feedback and communications strategy holistically and provides a software engine that’s designed to be the focal point for all employee feedback--Vocoli. If you’re interested in learning more, we’d be thrilled to share the leading edge tech we’ve been building for forward thinking companies like yours.

To learn more about how to give your employees a voice contact the Vocoli team at 888-919-5300.

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