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What can go wrong with an employee survey?

The majority of new clients who come to Insync to run organisational research have conducted a previous staff survey. They cite a variety of reasons for selecting us as their preferred staff survey supplier including the need:

  • for guidance from our registred psychologists and research experts, particularly around asking the right questions and structuring the staff survey correctly so the desired insights are attainable
  • for robust, externally benchmarked data
  • to understand the whole picture in terms of demographic breakdowns but also percentage favourable responses by staff
  • for historical trend comparisons and the ability to purchase a product which will provide long-term tracking data
  • for complex data to be simplified and actionable, saving HR from difficult statistical analysis and administration

It is however the softer skills employed by Insync staff which our clients say are key to making their staff survey contextually relevant, such as:

  • organisational understanding gleaned through interviews, reviewing information and past data facilitates to tailor surveys with language suited to the individual organisation, customised staff survey items and free text questions/answers
  • independent research expertise of our trained staff survey experts which helps clients to identify patterns, trends and answers to survey findings which can then be used for action planning
  • for follow-up consulting, focus groups and 360 feedback surveys after the staff survey

Employee survey pitfalls

The following table shows how some advanced planning can help you avoid common employee survey pitfalls.

Pre-survey/existing issue

IssueProblems it causesMitigating actions
Launching the employee survey (or previous surveys) at the wrong time

Example: Client X had launched an employee survey when unaddressed rumours existed among staff about an imminent corporate restructure

Bias response/data of limited validityDon’t plan your staff survey as a stand-alone HR initiative but make it an organisation-wide projectAddress employees’ concerns about the restructure and survey a month or two later

Lack of action from previous staff surveys

Example: Some new clients anecdotally report that nothing or very little was done with the results of their last staff survey

Staff scepticism that nothing will be done with staff survey results may mean low response rates and meaningless dataOther managers across the organisation may not support the employee survey project and future improvement ideasAcknowledge lack of previous inactivity and give reasonsPublically state intentions for the findings for this staff survey with timescales for implementations

Provide regular communication around milestones made for new staff survey initiatives

Respondent fatigue caused by excessive staff survey projectsExample: A new client recently asked if we could boost participation rates to their employee survey; staff had been asked to complete five surveys in the last 12 monthsDecreased response rate impacting robustness of staff survey dataOnly use one all-staff survey at a timeTimely gaps with space for insights to be translated to actions prior to follow-on staff survey projects

Incentivise staff survey participation e.g. with charity donation or prize draw

Poor pre-survey communicationsExample: Emailing survey reminders to staff with no computer access, communicating the survey in languages staff struggle with, or a staff survey that’s appropriate for the senior leadership team but not operational staffLack of employee awareness about the staff surveyCommunicate about the employee survey via multiple media channels, such as email, notice boards, letters, launch events, meetings, etc.Appoint dedicated staff survey communications champions

A planned staff survey communications strategy linked to wider HR initiatives

Staff concerns regarding consequences of participating in the employee surveyExample: Following a previous internal staff survey which was supposedly confidential, some employees had been identified and targeted by line managers regarding their responsesLow employee survey response ratesFalse data as staff will say what they think they should say rather than what they believeAssurances of confidentiality by using an independent third party with a formal policy for the employee surveyPre-set minimum reporting sizes

Amalgamated demographics for small departments

Confidential staff survey data collection methods such as unmarked, reply-paid sealed envelopes with secured and well publicised dropped boxes

Secure, external hosting of electronic staff survey data

Survey design

IssueProblems it causesMitigating actions
Lack of clarity on what you want the staff survey to achieveExample: Government funded departments and franchised employers have come to Insync citing that they must conduct a staff survey as it’s part of their contractual obligation or because “they must been seen to do so”Employee survey findings will fail to provide clear insights leading to actionable outcomesBe clear on what type of staff survey is required and why e.g. safety culture surveyemployee engagement surveyalignment and engagement surveyentry surveyand exit interview
Asking the wrong types of staff survey questionsExample: Client Y came to Insync to design a new staff survey after formerly asking questions which related to KPIs of managerial staff. A data bias occurred in staff responses meaning that all the staff survey data had to be interpreted/used with extreme caution due to the questionable validity of the dataFailure to provide useful dataAlienation of staff as respondentsHold pre-survey focus groups to establish pressing issues requiring investigation in the staff surveyConsider historical data for trend comparisons
The employee survey doesn’t align with the culture of your organisation or the culture your organisation aspires toExample: a new HR director implemented a staff survey which used acronyms not yet widely known throughout the organisation. The result was that staff skipped staff survey items rendering data of questionable validityStaff will not know how to answer questions and may not complete the staff survey or skip itemsTailor the staff survey items into familiar languageWrite some staff survey items which are unique to your organisational context

Use open-ended staff survey questions to invite employees’ opinions; as well as providing insights. This may increase staff engagement by helping them feel that they have been listened to

Using an incorrect staff survey scale or method of data collectionExample: When moving from one staff survey provider to another the response scale may change; mathematical formulae can sometimes be applied to address this; please contact us to speak to our registered psychologists and research expertsNew data statistically incomparable with previous employee survey dataRetain same types of quantitative scale for areas where direct comparisons are required with previous employee survey responses e.g. when comparing rankings of corporate values
Cross cultural issues caused by insensitive translation of staff survey contentExample: An FMCG client conducted a global staff survey without the necessary content quality controls; some of the staff survey questions/items simply failed to translate meaning, staff didn’t understand the question so skipped itAlienation of some employee survey respondentsFollowing translation of the staff survey content, conduct a pilot survey or sense check at the local level to ensure translations are correct

Survey in field

IssueProblems it causesMitigating actions
Respondents participating for the wrong reasonsExample: A newsagency tried to boost staff survey participation rates by offering respondents a voucher for a nearby cafe; staff clicked through the long, laborious survey quickly to gain the voucher without giving due consideration to their responsesStaff survey data biasAvoid linking KPIs or other financial incentives to the staff survey, a charity donation can work well instead
Staff survey can’t be completed by parts of the workforceExamples: Electronic surveys that have been distributed during periods of system interruption due to IT systems upgrades. Surveys that have been mailed to staff at home with no spare copies available when staff are at work near the designated drop-boxesLow staff survey response ratesMissing useful/vital data from some demographic groups

Alienating groups of employees

Distribute your staff survey via multiple communications channelsEnsure that paper-based staff surveys with a robust collection method are available even in organisational areas in which staff normally work via a computer

Analysis of survey data

IssueProblems it causesMitigating actions
Trend analysis: comparing current staff survey data to previous data collected differentlyExample: An education sector client tried to make direct comparisons between qualitative data findings and those collected from a quantitative staff surveyInvalidity of staff survey dataEmployee survey interpretation must consider:
– Previous response rates
– Previous organisational context
– Previous external context
– Like-for-like scales
– Like-for-like methods of analysis
– Like-for-like demographics and corporate structuring
Failure to address cultural response bias in the staff surveyExample: Global travel client who was surprised at the high level of staff turnover in one country despite the fact that this country had recorded positive sentiment in a recent staff surveyMisinterpretation of seemingly similar staff survey dataApply knowledge of cultural understanding to interpretation of staff survey data before action planning

Interpretation of staff survey data

IssueProblems it causesMitigating actions
Launching the staff survey survey “too soon after the dust has settled” from corporate changesExample: A finance sector client who received staff feedback seeking answers to information which was currently filtering through their internal communications cascadeBias response/data of limited validityFollowing a corporate process restructuring, and before running the staff survey, enable new functional teams to embed and go through the group dynamics of storming, norming and performing
Failure to look externally at competitors’ staff survey resultsExample: A marketing team who were shocked and surprised to learn that despite a year-on-year improvement in % favourable scores in their own staff survey; when benchmarked against similar organisations their results were in the bottom decile of a standard distribution comparisonMissing the big pictureBenchmark employee survey data against a dynamic and relevant database in addition to scrutinising your own results

Post survey

IssueProblems it causesMitigating actions
Reporting employee survey findings to the wrong staff membersExample: An organisation who fed internal staff survey results directly back to line managers rather than filtering through their HR department; within an hour, selected parts of the results had been published by staff on the intranet; taken out of context and in isolation, some of these results made alarming headlinesMisinterpretation of employee survey dataMisuse of staff survey data e.g. managers seeking out and berating staff for responses they think they have givenPrevention is better than cure:Swift but vital sense-check of employee survey data by HR manager

Sensitive information cascade

De-identification of all qualitative responses

Listen to guidance from an independent third party survey provider, who wouldn’t approve of this to happen

Lack of post-survey communicationsExample: Too many action items. A lot of organisations that approach Insync for the first time cite that little to nothing was done with the results of the last staff survey. These same organisations often state that a key outcome of success would be to boost or at least retain participation levelsIncreased staff scepticism re: the employee survey motivationsDecreased employee engagement

Cycle of lowered response rates for the staff survey begins again

*See Insync’s article on employee survey communication
Mistakes in employee survey data/data interpretationExample: A client made a mistake in the internal data analysis for their previous staff surveys and feared that a new survey would lack credibility even though they now had a professional providerStaff mistrust in the staff surveyFuture withdrawal from employee researchWith careful management this issue was used to facilitate focus groups to involve managers in communicating intention and results of the next staff surveySwift action by HR team following the staff survey

Don’t try and cover anything up with your employee survey results

Apologise, be honest and explain how mistakes could have occurred

Publish correct information in a timely manner

Hiding bad news from the employee surveyExample: When unfavourable staff survey results for a new executive were revealed the HR department decided not to feed this back.Promotes future mistrust of the organisationDoesn’t help the new manager on a path to improvement and lets down employees who took the time to provide constructive feedback via the staff surveyUse the staff survey as a platform for explaining how things will be changingOffer this executive a 360 feedback survey to help them grow as a leader

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