Employee Surveys: The Dos and Don’ts

EPISODE 69 | Guests: Elizabeth Williams and Andrew Brown, founders of the Academy of Business Communications

Employee surveys are a longstanding tool in the management and communications arsenal. By getting direct feedback from your workforce, you can find out what’s working, what’s misunderstood or unclear, and what improvements your employees feel you need to make. But asking vague questions, crowding surveys with lots of junk and not updating your surveys to reflect current realities can do more harm than good. Also, if your surveys are too infrequent or employees don’t see any action afterwards, you can weaken the employee engagement you were trying to boost.

In this episode, employee communications experts Elizabeth Williams and Andrew Brown walk through the potential and pitfalls of employee surveys, what can happen when they’re done well and the dangers of doing them badly.

  • Find out when employee surveys are a good idea, and when they’re not
  • Learn how to focus surveys and avoid “might-as-well-itis”
  • Find out how often to survey employees (it’s more often than you think)
  • Understand the importance of focus groups and middle managers
  • Discover how to set and meet employee expectations around surveys

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Get more advice and free tools on the Academy of Business Communications website


Derek DeWitt: In order for organizations to fully engage their employees and members, and the audience that they’re targeting with their communications, it’s important to know what those people would like to see and hear. One of the ways that you can find that out is to conduct surveys. Ask them. So we’re going to talk about employee surveys and how they can help you craft and target and finetune your organizational communications to better engage your audience. I’m here today with Elizabeth Williams and Andrew Brown, founders of the Academy of Business Communications. Hello folks. How are you?

Andrew Brown: Excellent Derek. Thanks for having us on.

Elizabeth Williams: Good. Thanks Derek.

Derek DeWitt: Thank you. And thank you everybody out there for listening to this episode.

So, Elizabeth and Andrew, one of the things we write about a lot is, hey, if you’re kind of wondering what you should be communicating to your students if you’re a university, to the general public, and especially to your employees for companies and organizations of all types, we’ve often said, Hey, why don’t you just ask them. Just stick a survey or a quick questionnaire out there. Is that in fact a good idea or is it a stupid idea?

Andrew Brown: Well, you know, I think it’s fair to say that it depends. And I’m sorry if that’s going to sound frustrating to you and to your listeners, but that’s the reality. Because employee surveys done well can be a blessing, and employee surveys done poorly at the wrong time by the wrong people asking the wrong questions or with the wrong purpose can be absolutely miserable as well as potentially dangerous.

Elizabeth Williams: I don’t think anybody’s going to bring a gun to work because of them, although there have been days, I must say.

Well, I think the first thing that I always ask when someone says, Hey, we’re going to do a survey, it’s like, why? What is it that you think you don’t know? Because I think surveys are wonderful things, but often they get what we sort of call might-as-well-itis, right? What you really want to know is how do employees feel about the benefits program. But since you’re doing a survey, you know, you might as well ask them, do they feel like they have a good career path? And if we’re going to ask them about that, well, we might as well ask them about their willingness to recommend us as an employer. And then the might-as-well-itis turns into a miserable survey experience for the employees and a ton of data that you now, as an employer, need to go through.

And I think that people underestimate the complexity of surveys and the amount of time it takes to do something meaningful with the data just so you can understand the answer to the question that you didn’t really intend to ask, but you did because while you’re there, you might as well just keep asking questions.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s for sure. I mean, I could understand that it would almost seem like, I’m sorry, am I being asked to take a loyalty oath here? Like, what is this?

Andrew Brown: Well, you can understand that why there’s so much enthusiasm when someone announces a survey is going to happen everyone wants to have certain elements understood better. I love the fact that there’s an enthusiasm for employee surveys.

As Elizabeth says, essentially, you really have to focus, right? Identify a central topic. I suggest even going a little further. Do you have a specific hypothesis that you want to determine? Hey, our employees are unhappy right now. Then you can sort of tease out and generate some questions below that. Or, you know, we’re going through an office move. How are people reacting to that, planning to it? Or afterwards, how did they perceive it? What do they think about their new physical location? But choose something, but really focused. And sometimes the best way to determine what that is by starting with observing, right?

When you do an employee survey, we generally tend to think of these big monoliths, these things that happen once a year or semi-annually or quarterly. But the truth of the matter is that employee surveys don’t have to be that one-and-done situation. They need to be peppered, deployed throughout the year in different formats. And it’s very much a cumulative exercise with the greater intent of trying to build an understanding of something in particular.

Elizabeth Williams: I think too, the issue with surveys is fundamentally they’re quantitative instruments, right? And so, they give you all kinds of great ass-covering data that you can stick on a slide and go, See, this is why we did it. But it doesn’t necessarily give you any real insights.

And so, I just want to build on Andrew’s point about there are different ways to get information. So, one of the other things that we always recommend if you’re doing these surveys, follow up with some focus groups. Because the numbers don’t necessarily mean anything, right?

So, if you’re trying to find out things like how do people feel? It’s really hard to put a lot of dimension around that from a bunch of numbers. On a scale of one to five, how much do you hate our office move? It’s much more productive to say, Well, on a scale of one to five people scored our office move a -22, and let’s get into a room and find out why and, more importantly, what we can do about it.

So, I think that surveys used to inform decision-making are great. Surveys used to stick numbers on the slides or surveys done because it’s March and that’s what we do in March are not necessarily helpful.

Andrew Brown: And I would just build on that. When I said dangerous, some people have used results from surveys to booby trap or attack their own colleagues, kibosh certain initiatives, get budgets for themselves and torn away from others. So when you weaponize a survey or the results, that’s when you’re going to have a world of hurt for all employees at the end of the day,

Derek DeWitt: Right. It shouldn’t be a fearful sort of experience. There are people going, Oh man, it’s that survey time again. They’re going to get me.

Andrew Brown: Yeah. It’s a survey.

Elizabeth Williams: Well, and the people who should be most afraid of surveys are not the employees, it’s managers. And so, you then get these unintended behaviors around surveys where managers – it’s a bit like election time – so suddenly pizza’s showing up and managers are having meetings again, and then they’re giving feedback and they’re starting to take better care of their personal hygiene, just because most employee surveys ladder up to a manager somewhere, and those managers are accountable for those results. And I’ve sat in the room where vice presidents are actually like talking about who lost this year’s employee survey because they had the lowest cumulative scores. So, it can create some fairly strange management behaviors because managers at the end of the day are, I think, the ones who get punished in surveys. Because in many cases, surveys are the only meaningful feedback that employees feel that they can safely give.

Andrew Brown: And employees aren’t oblivious to the fact when they see a whole bunch of pizzas showing up. They know that the survey’s around the corner, right? So, there you can build in a healthy amount of skepticism, and you can discourage authentic comments, even though it may be one of the only times that managers are actually looked upon or asked how did they do.

Derek DeWitt: Right, sure. I mean, it’s interesting that you said especially for decision-making. I think that’s an interesting point because, yeah, you may be sort of at a crossroads. Like, well, the example that comes to mind right now because we’re in the middle of it all is the work-from-home culture and the work-from-home trend that’s happening. And we saw during lockdown, obviously most people worked from home if it was at all possible. It was mandated from on high.

And now that those restrictions are being lifted, the studies seem to say that a lot of employees would like to work from home, at least some of the time. And a lot of these companies are kind of doing the whole cracking the whip and saying, No, you will get back here, and you will be physically here so I can stand over your desk and watch you work and blah, blah, blah. And it’s creating this kind of disconnect.

So, using that as a kind of a, the decision-making process here, what do you think about like, should a company ask their employees, Hey, what do you guys think? Because we’re, the management team is split 50/50. Some of us think everybody should come back and some of us don’t. So we don’t really know what to do, so why don’t you tell us?

Elizabeth Williams: Yes. It’s always, always a good idea to involve employees in big planning things like this. But at the end of the day as managers, you don’t get off the hook just because you, you know, I don’t know, we can’t make up our minds, you figure it out. And we’re seeing a lot of that.

I think it’s more important to understand what is the impact of different scenarios to your workforce. So if you go fully remote, who are you going to lose, right? Who is like, just ready to kill their children and needs an office? If you go fully in office, who are you going to lose? You know, who moved to a cabin on a mountain top and has no intention of putting on pants ever again? And then if you go hybrid, well, then what is a workable solution? Because I think everyone’s talking now about, you know, the, what we call the big quit.

People are moving and so workforce retention, I think, is the big issue as we scoot into the back half of 2021. And workplace design and workplace rules are going to have a lot of impact on who you keep and who you don’t keep and maybe who you can steal from somewhere else. So, a survey’s a good starting point. But I don’t think you get to abdicate responsibility for how you want to run your workplace to your employees. At the same time though, I think it would be spectacularly tone-deaf to just go, Hey, here’s what we’re doing. Have a nice day.

Andrew Brown: The interesting thing is that we’re seeing the nature of employee surveys being rolled out by companies that perhaps hadn’t done a lot of surveying before, which I think is interesting. And those organizations that regularly listen to their employees, again using different mechanisms, not just the annual, but perhaps have those town halls and allocate some time during those town hall meetings to actually ask questions of their employees and employees have an opportunity to ask questions of their leaders. Using apps to check in with employees. You know, there are a number of different ways to listen.

But if you’re going to rely on one survey for everything, that I think is a symptom of an organization that might just be getting comfortable with the idea of trying to get input from employees. And again, can’t be one-and-done.

Elizabeth Williams: I would also say the thing that we need to be asking employees about a lot right now is how they’re feeling, because we know that that something like 60% of the workforce says that their mental health has suffered during the pandemic.

And we’re also seeing some data around people are afraid to come back to workplaces, or at least they want a lot of really specific information about how are you keeping me safe if you’re making me come in even a couple of days a week. So, I think right now would be a great time for employers to be checking in to see how’s everyone doing. Like, do we have people who are coming back with new anxiety issues? Do we have people who are still really struggling with the effects of isolation? All of that.

So beyond just, you know, pizza on Friday or pizza on Thursday, I think that employers need to get a really good sense of the mental wellness of their workforce, especially the people who stayed, right? So, what, 60% of workers didn’t get to work from home. And so how are those people holding up after 18 months of this? And I don’t think the workforce we had in February of 2020 is the workforce we have in the fall of 2021.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s probably true. And whether people are actually actively afraid or not is up to discussion, but I think there’s certainly a wariness, regardless.

I myself find it even just in my social life. I’m normally a very social person. I’m out four or five times a week. And, we just went out the other day for the first time in honestly, a year and a half in a large group of people, and we were like, man, it’s weird. Like, I didn’t realize how much it had affected me.

And that brings up another issue of doing surveys, like you said, especially if it’s a one-and-done. First off, it’ll be ridiculously long and no one will want to do it. And second off, at the moment that you ask me these questions, at the moment you give me the survey and say, Okay, you have until Friday, or You have a day to do it, or whatever, I might not know the answers to a question, especially something intangible, like how do I feel? Because frankly, I don’t know how I feel. I have to think about it.

Andrew Brown: Well, that’s just it. Some stuff is great to be surveyed through a formal format and some surveys, those insights that you would gather, would be maybe one-on-one with your manager. Maybe it’s you need a third party.

I mean, again, if you’ve got an organization that hasn’t done well in asking and listening to their employees, the people who are asking may not have a great deal of credibility. There may be a trust gap. You know, can I answer that information, as you say? Do I intrinsically have the ability to? But even if I did have the ability, am I really going to give the answer? Because I’m feeling worried because I don’t know how it’s going to be used, if it is going to be acted upon.

So, one of the other elements of good surveying is, again, using multiple data points and making sure that the people who are asking have some kind of credibility. And we know that middle managers, of all people within an organization, are more likely to have that degree of credibility because they are engaging with employees. They should be listening to them, understanding their workload, understanding the kinds of stresses that they have. So, credibility is really important and that’s why sometimes big annual or semi-annually distributed surveys don’t have that credibility and people are, rightfully I would say, skeptical.

Elizabeth Williams: And, you know, some of those surveys, especially the annual ones, are eligible for pensions they are so old. And I have personally twice worked in organizations where they’ve been using the same survey for, I kid you not, 20 years. And they have the same company that comes and they roll it out and they send the same emails and they send the same updates and they ask the same questions. And the reason they do that, because I have been on the inside of that is, Well, it costs $500 if we want them to add and code a new question. And it’s just so much cheaper to just, you know, keep up with the same survey.

So some employers, quite honestly, have just been asking the same damned questions for decades. And as long as the numbers are going up and to the right, nobody actually cares. So credibility is one thing, but is your survey even being designed by somebody who was trained in this century? And is it adding any value at all? You know, I trust the senior leadership team to make good decisions. What does that even mean? And maybe it’s meaningful, but maybe it’s not. But if you’ve been asking the same questions for more than a couple of years, throw it out, go hire a different survey company and do a little bit of research into what you should be asking.

Andrew Brown: Yeah. I’d just build on that, Derek, and say because when there are those recurring surveys annually, the same questions, the argument sometimes is we’ve established a baseline. And so, we want to make sure that way we can demonstrate that we’ve moved the needle.

But to Elizabeth’s point, sometimes the needles that those questions refer to are no longer relevant or don’t have the same weighting as they used to have. So yes, having someone come in and take a look at questions and refresh. And yeah, so you may have to establish a new benchmark, you know, a new baseline rather. Well, welcome to the world, right? The world changes and you cannot ask the same questions all the time.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And of course your workforce has changed too. I mean, much has been made of, you know, so many, such a certain percentage of the workforce is now millennials and they have different priorities generally, as different generations usually do. But they really do. They have a completely different set of priorities. And so, yeah, asking, like you said, asking that generic, Do you trust management to make, you know, careful decisions? I don’t know. Maybe? No, I distrust trust them. I think they’re lying, greedy jerk faces, you know?

Andrew Brown: Yes, there is a different demographic. And, in fact, whereas we develop communication strategies with organizations, one of the things that we spend a great deal of time on is understanding the nature of the beast, the complexity of the employees. No employee’s exactly the same as one another. But yes, we understand that there are different value sets, different behaviors – the way that different demographics, and that could be age, cultural background, where they’re located geographically, skill sets. All those things we have to understand if we’re going to communicate well to employees. And I would say that if you want to ask the right questions, you’ve got to be aware of those things as well.

Derek DeWitt: So, when you’re doing an employee survey, I think it seems to me like it should be anonymous, right? I mean, isn’t that really the best way to get honest answers, you know? Like, Hi, I’m Bob and I think my boss is a jerk head.

Elizabeth Williams: Well, yes and no. So it’s more about, do your employees feel like they can safely and honestly respond? And so, yeah, anonymity’s important, particularly if you want to out your jerk-face boss. But again, we also know people lie on surveys. You know, we also know that different people have different expectations of what’s going to happen with that data.

I have sat in the room when we were debriefing a big employee survey and I have heard executives trying to figure out who made that comment, right? So there’s, there’s always open forum comment fields and they’re like, Okay, it’s from the sales organization. I bet, I bet that’s Derek. Derek’s such a downer. He’s so negative. That’s Derek. Okay, so we can not do anything about that comment because it came from Derek, we’re pretty sure it came from Derek, right? So you, and I think it comes back to Andrew’s earlier point, we need to be very, very clear with employees. Here’s how we’re using this information. Here’s how we’re protecting your anonymity.

One of the things that I remember having to communicate for a large employee survey, because we had very, very low participation rates among certain groups and we realized it was very small groups. So the finance department had three people, so everyone knew that you were one of the three people popping up. So, what we had to do was put out messaging that said, Well, we actually roll out, roll up the finance group to this other one so you’re actually part of a much larger pool of people. So, we don’t actually know that you’re one of three, we know that you’re one of 300.

So, there’s partly that, but I think that the big thing really is what are you going to do with the information? And are you actually going to do something with it? Because you know, one of our lines is there’s no such thing as survey fatigue, but there’s certainly such a thing as BS fatigue. And millennials and younger workers expect to be consulted about the workplace, expect to have input that’s taken seriously. And so, if your surveys are not giving you what you need, I would suggest that it’s not that you’re over-surveying people, it’s that you’re underacting on what they’re asking you to do or what they’re telling you to look at.

And there’s so much theater that goes on, you know? Oh, we got the survey results back and we have four areas of opportunity we should work on. So we’re going to get a bunch of busy people who don’t have time to be the heads of these committees full of other busy people who don’t have time and they’re going to fix that engagement thing.

Derek DeWitt: Right? This is not just a lip service sort of a thing. Like, it has to be meaningful or else why bother? Why take everybody’s time up?

Andrew Brown: Certainly, yes. And you know, Elizabeth talks about the theater. People see the survey’s happening. It’s important for people to understand and see that their input is being recognized. But if it’s not connected to a current reality, then there’s going to be frustration. There’s going to be skepticism. There’s going to be lack of involvement. There are going to be people who become disengaged with not just the survey, but with their managers and with the organization.

So, employee surveys are wonderful things, but there is that dark side to it as well that essentially, if you ask a question, be prepared to do something about it and do something relevant and do something fast. And then let people know the reason why you’ve done this is because we’ve consulted you. It may not be the only reason, and you want to introduce a degree of transparency in order to build trust, but let people know that their input actually had some sort of meaningful impact, as well.

Elizabeth Williams: It’s got to be a survey and, right? So that’s where I think we need to make sure we’re doing those focus groups. So instead of just panicking because some score is low and appointing a tiger team of people who won’t do anything, get your survey company to go in and put those people around the table and say, Hey, your scores on this were really low. Help us understand why.

And again, it’s not something I think that we want to push down onto managers. I think, in fact, we want to make sure we’ve got focus groups with managers saying, Hey, we’re hearing that these scores are low. What can we do to help you as managers bring them up? Because at the end of the day that’s who’s going to do it. And you know, oh, you think the benefits plan is terrible. Okay, let’s sit down and understand what should it have in it? So, I do think that one of the things that we don’t do enough of is actually digging in on the data and understanding what people really want.

And don’t cheap out on your survey. I think that’s one of the other things is people feel like, Oh, I’ve got a Survey Monkey license, I am a surveyor. And Survey Monkey’s great. Like, I don’t know about Andrew, I think that you should be doing little pulse surveys basically all the time.

So, Microsoft surveys its entire population once a year at least. But they don’t do it in one big thing. They’re doing just constant surveys are just dribbling out and they’re catching their whole workforce. So it’s not, you know, that six-week period in the middle of Q2, carefully timed to avoid any time when, you know, there may be results people are reacting to. And so, it’s this continuous listening and this continuous feedback loop that I think we want to get into.

And so, you know, you do a town hall, survey it. I don’t know, you launch a new product, do a pulse survey with a tiny sample of your population and see how that’s going. Just constant little bits of feedback on the end. As long as you are seen to be acting on the surveys, you’re not going to get the dreaded survey fatigue – nobody wants to take a survey. Everybody wants to have their say. So as long as you’re prepared to act on it, I think they will have that say.

Andrew Brown: And I would just add that, in addition to those periodic and situational surveys, there are opportunities for organizations to do survey-ask kind of behavior. So let’s say a CEO does a blog on the internet and there’s a section there that, you know, you can have a thumbs up, a thumbs down. You can have a comment section there. People are going to be providing feedback.

And so sometimes we have to break out, again, of that notion that survey is this monolith. But really if an organization is committed to listening and seeing how people feel and how they’re behaving, why they’re behaving the way they do, how they will behave in the future, there are great opportunities throughout employee communications that those survey-ask kinds of activities can be established.

So again, Elizabeth said about town halls, anything that’s published, solicit some feedback. There’s nothing wrong either with running little pilot projects with small groups. Again, speaking to what Elizabeth was saying about Microsoft. You don’t have to blanket everyone all at the same time. Again, I go back to the one-on-one meetings or the group meetings where managers are leading them. You know, it can be about a particular product launch, about anything, about a new process, new technology that’s being rolled in. The kinds of questions that get surfaced by employees is revealing themselves, right? So it doesn’t always have to be and the employer asking the question, they can see what questions are being asked.

Derek DeWitt: Well, I’d like to thank my guests Andrew Brown and Elizabeth Williams, founders of the Academy of Business Communications. Thanks guys for talking to me about employee surveys today. A lot of food for thought.

Andrew Brown: Thanks, Derek. And anyone, if you want to come and learn a bit more about the Academy, come to www.fixmycomms.com.

Elizabeth Williams: Thanks very much Derek.

Derek DeWitt: Thank you. And don’t forget everybody, you can also check the episode notes for a link to the Academy of Business Communications and the transcript on the Visix website. Just go to Resources/Podcasts and there’s a transcript of the whole conversation with links. How modern is that?