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How to approach employee engagement surveys

Nikoletta Bika
Nikoletta Bika

Nikoletta holds an MSc in HR management and has written extensively about all things HR and recruiting.

Surveys can reveal employee engagement issues. For example, a Gallup survey revealed that only about 13% of employees worldwide are engaged in their jobs. But, while Gallup’s aim is to unearth interesting patterns, employers need actionable and detailed results. Could their own employee engagement surveys deliver?

Tracking employee engagement can be tough. Employers could lookout for red flags to help them spot disengaged employees. But, with Gallup reporting that 70% of millennials are disengaged, this could turn out to be a full-time job. Some employers opt for exit interviews instead. In fact, 71% of companies use exit interviews to measure employee engagement, according to a 2011 SHRM/Globoforce survey. Still, that could be too little, too late.

Ask questions before sending surveys

Employee engagement surveys are a popular method and can yield good results, if used correctly. Yet, they have their share of limitations and problems. Anyone who wants to improve their employee engagement surveys should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Are our surveys valid and reliable? Expertly-administered employee engagement surveys are costly. To cut back on expenses, many companies choose to create and administer their own surveys. Unfortunately, this can raise doubts about their validity and reliability. Questions should measure what they need to measure (validity) and should produce consistent results (reliability). Professional survey companies test their surveys many times to ensure they’re reliable. They’ll also control biases like selection bias and response bias to ensure surveys are valid. For example, good surveys avoid ‘leading questions’ that point to a right answer. Companies might not have enough time or know-how to ensure their surveys are effective. This often translates into skewed results.
  • Do surveys answer the ‘why’? It’s useful to discover your employees’ engagement levels. But, what do you do with your results? If you discover high engagement, how do you maintain it? If your employees are disengaged, what actions should you take? Intuition and assumptions won’t do. You need to know the reasons behind employees’ answers. Without concrete reasons, you can’t know what you’re doing right and what you should change. For example, yes or no questions like “are you satisfied?” can tell you how engaged employees are. But they don’t tell you why employees think the way they do.
  • Will employees actually respond? Surveys often struggle with response rates. If half your employees get around to completing your survey, it’d be a cause for celebration. Good response rates matter for employee engagement surveys, because they’re not designed to draw conclusions about all employees from a small sample. You want to hear as many voices as possible. Another possible problem with surveys is nonresponse bias, a common type of selection bias. Disengaged employees are less likely to bother completing engagement surveys. This means the majority of results might come from fully or moderately engaged employees. In that case, they won’t represent overall employee engagement.
  • Are results accurate? As with any survey, you can’t be sure that responders will tell the truth. Social desirability bias is an issue, because people want to create a desirable picture of themselves, often misrepresenting their opinions and feelings. Also, employees might think they’ll be penalized if they reveal something negative. Even in anonymous surveys, people might give moderate answers if they’re afraid low engagement rates will affect bonuses, influence managers’ attitudes or cause unwanted disruptions.External factors could also pose a problem. For example, if you conduct a survey in the middle of an economic crisis, employees might report higher engagement than they really feel—either because they’re glad they have work or because they don’t want to upset their managers.
  • Are surveys and results timely? If you conduct employee engagement surveys annually or semi-annually, it’s difficult to know what happens during the rest of the year. Plus, results can often take a couple of months to process. In the end, they’re nothing more than a snapshot of the past.
  • Am I ready to act on the results? Companies can instruct employees to spruce up their office. But, they often fail to address the real underlying issues, the ones that take longer to change and are harder to get right. In other words, the ones that’ll make a difference to engagement levels. In fact, this is one of the reasons why employee engagement surveys could foster disengaged employees. Eighty percent of employees don’t really expect employers to act on survey results. Ignoring meaningful employee feedback isn’t a great way to maintain a good employee-employer relationship.

Even if surveys didn’t have all these issues, they still wouldn’t go far enough. An employer’s ultimate purpose is to boost employee engagement. Just gathering and analyzing results, no matter how valuable, won’t get them there.

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Complement surveys with other approaches

The best way to make employee engagement surveys useful is to avoid relying on surveys alone. Direct, real-time feedback from employees (through regular 1:1 meetings) and open communication (through intranets or apps) are good ideas too. Combined with more frequent surveys, they could present an interesting picture of employee engagement. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of employee engagement surveys:

  • Explain objectives. Emphasize that you aim to improve things for employees. Make it clear that employees won’t be penalized for negative feedback but will be listened to.
  • Use the right tools. Many companies use tools like Officevibe and TINYPulse to track employee morale in real-time, analyze data and do pulse surveys. With SurveyAnyplace, you could also discover your employees’ opinions about events and training programs, as well as assess employee engagement levels.
  • Consider an external service. Using a third party to administer surveys and collect results may make employees more comfortable. Response rates might rise and you could get more honest answers. Experts can also assist with benchmarking and analytics.
  • Ask the right questions. Answers should be actionable. For example, don’t ask “do you enjoy collaborating with your team?” There’s nothing you can do with yes or no answers. Instead, ask employees to rate statements like “teamwork is valued and encouraged in the company.” Assess key areas like wellbeing, recognition and autonomy. Give employees an opportunity to speak their minds. Also, employees’ personal lives influence work engagement. For example, employees who have long commutes might not be happy when coming to the office in the morning and try to leave as early as possible. Use open-ended questions to find out if there are any personal issues that prevent them from feeling good at work.
  • Take results with a pinch of salt. (Unless your response rates are phenomenal.) A larger sample size can help you get more reliable results. Encourage employees to respond. Making engagement surveys mandatory will boost your response rates, but it might also harm engagement levels, frustrating disengaged employees even further. Offering incentives could be a better option.
  • Be ready to act. When results are analyzed, plan your course of action immediately. Communicate any changes you’ve decided and take small steps fast. If you haven’t found a way to deal with a problem yet, or think it’d be impossible to do so, tell employees. Explain your reasoning and tell them what you’ll do instead.
  • Involve managers. Most managers and supervisors think HR have ownership of employee engagement surveys. It’s true that HR play a big part in the process. But, employee engagement won’t improve unless managers are involved.

Finally, it’s important to understand that employee engagement surveys measure, rather than drive, employee engagement. The key to driving engagement and employee retention is to build a pleasant and empowering workplace. And that can only happen through a systematic and holistic approach. Improving employee engagement should be an everyday goal.

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