Santiago Jaramillo: Why almost everyone hates employee surveys

Everyone raves about your famous chocolate chip cookies. So when the office pitch-in rolls around, you’re excited to bring them in for your coworkers to try. Little did you know, the new guy in accounting is severely allergic to cinnamon—your secret ingredient. You’re mortified as he runs for his EpiPen.

Even with the best intentions, our actions can sometimes miss the mark—or worse. That’s why it’s so important to have a well-constructed plan and good communication around initiatives.

When it comes to employee surveys, there are about a million off-ramps to failure. Asking the wrong questions, not taking action, not communicating well, etc., can not only waste everyone’s time, but can even be harmful to your cause.

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!” And 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 HR’s time, and without a plan, won’t result in any real improvement.

Most of us have been on the receiving end of a bad survey experience at one point or another. It’s because of this past baggage that people often feel distrustful of employee 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 reason, we as leaders have a responsibility to our employees to create a better experience.

Surveys diagnose problems; leaders prescribe solutions.

If you’re sick and go see your doctor, you wouldn’t expect her to ask you a bunch of questions, 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 then diagnose problem areas and prescribe actions.

Here are five qualities of an effective survey:

1) It measures the right things. Focusing on employee engagement is more impactful to business outcomes than something vague like satisfaction or happiness. (Of course, we want employees to be happy, but we also want to know they’re motivated to do great work.)

2) The 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, they lose the ability to track trends and improvement over time. Look to put a proven, data-driven survey into 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 not only asking Likert-scale or yes/no questions, but also giving employees a place to share focused and thoughtful open-ended feedback.

4) It’s timely. People are an organization’s most valuable and most expensive asset, yet many are only getting 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 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 it plans to take action. (The more employees feel their voices being heard, the more likely they’ll be to participate in the future.)

When launching any kind of 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 work experience as sweet as one of your famous chocolate chip cookies.•

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Jaramillo is co-founder and CEO of Emplify.

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