3. Ask the wrong questions

There is no better source of intelligence about how to improve a company than employees who are in the thick of the action each and every day.  But many companies fail to tap into this wealth of knowledge by asking the wrong questions.  World-class survey systems ask employees for their insights and ideas about key organizational strengths and opportunities for improvement, not simply what they expect from the company. Employees will be engaged and have high morale if they embrace the senior leadership’s vision and direction and feel they can contribute without being hindered by inferior systems, policies, procedures, supervisory styles, organizational culture issues, etc., that interfere with and diminish the value of their efforts.  Although compensation, benefits and work-life balance are essential employer-of-choice issues, they are not the key drivers of engagement and should not be the centerpiece of a quality engagement survey.

11. Tackle too much

Almost as bad as doing nothing … is trying to do too much.  When an organization attempts to tackle every issue surfaced by a survey, energy and resources get diffused across so many initiatives that nothing much gets done.  A well-designed system should help senior teams identify the three or four most critical company-wide issues that demand their attention and those they can afford to push to the back burner.  They should manage employee expectations by being crystal clear about what will, and will not, be addressed.  The most effective follow-up efforts are focused.  Be a high-powered rifle, not a munitions wagon!

7. Poorly package the product

If employees see the survey as solely a Human Resources activity, it is the kiss of death!  The most successful efforts are three-way partnerships between senior leadership, the Communications staff and a Human Resources team that is the catalyst but does not occupy the spotlight.  Not only should the executive team spearhead the project, pre-survey communications should emphasize the importance of the survey for improving the organization and include a direct appeal from the CEO to employees for their help.  Some companies unwittingly reinforce a parent-child relationship with employees by how they brand and market the effort.  Names such as Pulse Check, Voice or the traditional Employee Opinion Survey imply that the purpose is to monitor vital signs, provide an opportunity to vent or identify sources of discontent.  In contrast, Insight, Perspectives or Viewpoint underscores the objective of harnessing employee thoughts about improving the enterprise.  Don’t doom a brilliant survey system with a less than brilliant internal marketing strategy.

The Dirty Dozen
Twelve Ways to Undermine an Employee Survey!

10. Take no action

A company is most likely to stumble once the survey results are in hand.  If the news is good, executives may let out a collective sigh of relief and see no reason to act – complacently thinking, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  If the news is bad, they may fear they have opened Pandora’s Box and instinctively slam the lid, vowing never to repeat their mistake.  Short frequent surveys that provide a morale indicator on the executive dashboard are particularly at risk of being ignored – receiving attention only if the light is flashing bright red.  Since the most sacrosanct principle of surveying is the most often-violated, it bears repeating:  Don’t conduct a survey if not prepared to act!

6. Over-engineer the system

“Keep it simple, stupid!” should be the mantra of every survey design team.  There is one, and only one, measure of success for a survey system:  its impact on the organization.  The best systems surface important organizational issues – the need for more emphasis on new product development, better organizational support of marketing efforts, increased synergies across the business units, etc.  Many survey teams lose sight of the big picture and get preoccupied with mechanics, logistics, theoretical models, statistical intricacies, etc., building in unnecessary layers of complexity that bring an organization to its knees each time the survey is conducted.  The most effective systems are simple, transparent and focused.  Good survey systems make good sense and stand the test of time.

4. Drill too deep

In an attempt to hold individual managers accountable for taking action, some companies break down survey results for every possible work unit, even if there are only four or five people.  Groups this small do not provide employees the “safety in numbers” protection they need to be open and honest.  Lacking a shield of anonymity, many will create one by playing it safe and inflating their responses to the questions.  Don’t undermine the quality and integrity of the information being gathered by drilling so deep into the company that employees feel exposed and vulnerable.

1. Focus on morale

It may sound like utter heresy, but the secret to engaging employees and achieving high morale … is not to focus on morale!  Doing so can turn the entire survey process into a numbers game. Managers accountable for driving up an engagement or morale index may decide to “pick low-hanging fruit” rather than address critical issues that would have the greatest impact.  And high morale is not always a good thing.  A picture of contentment when the company is in dire financial straits or has lost its competitive edge is a sure sign employees are indifferent or out of touch.  Don’t start at the wrong end of the equation.  Clear the obstacles to engagement and effectiveness – the primary source of employee frustration – and morale will take care of itself.  Success breeds success … and high morale.

12. Go it alone

Internal survey systems designed with no assistance from external professionals can suffer from a number of inherent problems.  The survey may have poorly worded questions, inappropriate response scales and inadequate issue coverage.  Although the design phase should include input from employees and managers, it is difficult for insiders to conduct the most effective focus-groups or interviews – not for a lack of skill, but simply because employees will open up more with an individual from outside the company who can ensure their anonymity.  Managers also may harbor concerns about sharing sensitive or privileged information with anyone at a lower level in the organization.  Internal survey teams are often at the mercy of too many stakeholder “chefs” who inadvertently “spoil the broth”.  Pride of ownership can make an internal survey team overly protective of the system it built, resisting constructive critiques or suggestions for change.  And when it comes time to walk the executive team through the survey results, objectivity is imperative.  Executives need someone who has no internal agenda, can cull the most important messages from the data, can put the results in perspective relative to other organizations, will not soft-pedal even the toughest issues and will provide the guidance necessary to decide on next steps.  Don’t build a system in isolation.  World-class companies rely on experts who can design a world-class system that will not only leverage an organization’s intellectual capital, but also adapt and evolve as the company and its environment change.

8. Entice participation

Some companies use prizes or giveaways to reward employee participation and then proudly celebrate a high response rate as if it were a meaningful measure of engagement.  Such tactics trivialize a survey effort.  They imply that employees neither care nor are adult enough to offer their insights without a material or monetary incentive.  Mandating participation is also ill-advised, except in those countries where compulsory systems are an accepted part of the culture.  Encourage, encourage, encourage … but never force participation.  Survey systems that focus on important issues, are embraced by the executive team and have visible impact on the company will yield voluntary response rates of 70 percent or better with no need for coercion.  If participation is low, don’t focus on participation.  Fix the reasons why employees feel it is not worth their time and participation will take care of itself.

5. Avoid tough times

Some companies shy away from surveying their employees during challenging times.  Years may pass as executives wait for a “good time” to survey.  In the days when surveys were little more than morale monitors, surveying during a period of significant change was considered a cardinal sin.  But that was then and this is now.  The most effective surveys are broad-scope, organization-focused, strategically-aligned, intelligence-gathering vehicles that engage employees in transformation efforts – providing them an opportunity to be active participants, not just passive observers. Getting an organization through a change curve requires strong and determined leaders – but they cannot do it alone.

9. Sugarcoat the results

When survey results are less than flattering or, worse yet, harshly critical, executives may be so concerned about breaking the “bad news” to employees that they positively spin the story or decide not to share the results at all.  Although the leadership team may be shocked by what they learn, employees are unlikely to be the least bit surprised since they are the source of the information.  Having bravely shared their views, employees will be waiting to see if their leaders are equally courageous about acknowledging what they heard – the good, the bad and the ugly.  If employees have high expectations about hearing the truth from management, don’t disappoint them.  If they are cynical or skeptical, surprise them.  Regardless of their expectations, put all the cards on the table in order to gain their trust and be well-positioned to answer their next, most important, question: “Now what?”

2. Ask too little … too often

Short surveys of only a dozen or so questions yield precisely what one should expect:  little information.  And if a short survey is conducted quarterly or monthly, the company learns very little … very often!  Short frequent surveys have enormous appeal with executives who are accustomed to receiving frequent financial and performance updates.  But employees have a different perspective.  Most are quite willing to roll up their sleeves and answer an array of questions if, and only if, they see action before being asked again.  The implicit message of relentless surveying is that management wants to see the numbers go up.  Employees may throw up their hands, surrender to the pressure and simply tell managers what they want to hear.  Frequent surveys also exhaust an organization and sooner or later are abandoned in favor of a less frequent intelligence-gathering approach.  There are no hard and fast rules about the length and frequency of a survey, but don’t engage the entire organization in much ado about nothing.  Ask enough questions to surface important organizational issues and don’t let the frequency of surveying outpace the company’s ability to act.