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Employee Survey: 20 essential questions to ask and what staff survey pitfalls you can avoid?

Understanding and improving the employee experience within your organisation is an important factor that will help steer your business through cultural shifts to success.

Employee & staff survey best practice

The majority of new clients who partner with 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 registered psychologists and research experts, particularly around asking the right questions and structuring the staff survey correctly so the desired insights are attainable
  • robust, externally benchmarked data
  • an understanding of the whole picture in terms of demographic breakdowns but also percentage favourable responses by staff
  • historical trend comparisons and the ability to purchase a product which will provide long-term tracking data
  • 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 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

These are essential best-practice requirements when administering an employee survey.

For ideas on how to invite employees to participate in the survey, you can view sample employee survey invitation templates here. Or if you want to increase your staff survey response rate, these tips can help.

20 essential employee survey questions

Consider the questions that are already in your staff survey. If there are other matters unique to your organisation that you want to address you can and should design your own questions. Remember to think about how you want to collect the data, be it in the form of a numbered rating, open feedback or other form.

Insync’s staff survey tools have the flexibility for you to add your own questions. For ideas on how to invite employees to participate in the survey, you can view sample employee survey invitation templates here. Below are 20 examples of employee and staff survey questions constructed by past clients, that you can use to guide you.

Sample employee survey questions

  1. I can envisage a future for myself at [organisation name]
  2. I care about the future of [organisation name]
  3. Given the choice again I would apply for a job with [organisation name]
  4. I fully understand my role in the organisation
  5. I have a good understanding of all areas of [organisation name]’s business
  6. [Organisation name] cares for the environment in the work it does
  7. [Organisation name] supports a balance between work and life
  8. [Organisation name] has adequate induction for all new employees
  9. I feel free to tell my manager what I think
  10. My manager treats me with respect and dignity
  11. [Organisation name]’s divisions work effectively together

Sample employee survey open-ended questions

Keep the number of open-ended questions in your staff survey to a minimum. Depending on your available time and budget, analysing open feedback can be time-consuming and expensive. We suggest two or three open-ended questions. This will give you enough staff feedback to gain more value from your staff survey.

  1. Is there anything else you would like to comment about [organisation name]?
  2. Is there anything you would like to communicate to the CEO personally?
  3. If you could make changes to improve [organisation name] what would they be?
  4. What would you do to increase performance?
  5. What would you do to increase people’s effectiveness?
  6. How do you think we can improve innovation?
  7. What are three things that you think [organisation name] does well?
  8. What are three things that you think [organisation name] does not do well?

When constructing your own staff survey questions, for consistency it helps to follow the same response rating scale as the rest of your staff survey, i.e. on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is strongly disagree and 7 is strongly agree. This makes data analysis easier and quicker.

After the survey has been conducted it’s critical to communicate the results with your staff, these sample employee survey results templates will help you offer constructive feedback.

Once analysis of results is complete, it is critical to plan a post survey action plan to show your commitment to improving the organisation, and help your staff achieve their objectives.

What can go wrong with an employee survey?

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

Pre-survey/existing issue

Issue Problems it causes Mitigating 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 validity Don’t plan your staff survey as a stand-alone HR initiative but make it an organisation-wide project

Address 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 data
Other managers across the organisation may not support the employee survey project and future improvement ideas
Acknowledge lack of previous inactivity and give reasons
Publically 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 projects

Example: 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 months
Decreased response rate impacting robustness of staff survey data Only use one all-staff survey at a time

Timely 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 communications

Example: 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 staff
Lack of employee awareness about the staff survey Communicate 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 survey

Example: Following a previous internal staff survey which was supposedly confidential, some employees had been identified and targeted by line managers regarding their responses
Low employee survey response rates

False data as staff will say what they think they should say rather than what they believe
Assurances of confidentiality by using an independent third party with a formal policy for the employee survey

Pre-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
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 validity Don’t plan your staff survey as a stand-alone HR initiative but make it an organisation-wide project

Address employees’ concerns about the restructure and survey a month or two later

Survey design

Issue Problems it causes Mitigating actions
Lack of clarity on what you want the staff survey to achieve

Example: 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 outcomes Be clear on what type of staff survey is required and why e.g. safety culture survey, employee engagement survey, alignment and engagement survey, entry survey and exit interview
Asking the wrong types of staff survey questions

Example: 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 data
Failure to provide useful data

Alienation of staff as respondents
Hold pre-survey focus groups to establish pressing issues requiring investigation in the staff survey

Consider historical data for trend comparisons
The employee survey doesn’t align with the culture of your organisation or the culture your organisation aspires to

Example: 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 validity
Staff will not know how to answer questions and may not complete the staff survey or skip items Tailor the staff survey items into familiar language

Write 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 collection

Example: 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 experts
New data statistically incomparable with previous employee survey data Retain 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 content

Example: 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 it
Alienation of some employee survey respondents Following 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

Issue Problems it causes Mitigating actions
Respondents participating for the wrong reasons

Example: 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 responses
Staff survey data bias Avoid 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 workforce

Examples: 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-boxes
Low staff survey response rates

Missing useful/vital data from some demographic groups

Alienating groups of employees
Distribute your staff survey via multiple communications channels

Ensure 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

Issue Problems it causes Mitigating actions
Trend analysis: comparing current staff survey data to previous data collected differently

Example: An education sector client tried to make direct comparisons between qualitative data findings and those collected from a quantitative staff survey
Invalidity of staff survey data Employee 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 survey

Example: 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 survey
Misinterpretation of seemingly similar staff survey data Apply knowledge of cultural understanding to interpretation of staff survey data before action planning

Interpretation of staff survey data

Issue Problems it causes Mitigating actions
Launching the staff survey survey “too soon after the dust has settled” from corporate changes

Example: A finance sector client who received staff feedback seeking answers to information which was currently filtering through their internal communications cascade
Bias response/data of limited validity Following 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 results

Example: 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 comparison
Missing the big picture Benchmark employee survey data against a dynamic and relevant database in addition to scrutinising your own results

Post survey

Issue Problems it causes Mitigating actions
Reporting employee survey findings to the wrong staff members

Example: 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 headlines
Misinterpretation of employee survey data

Misuse of staff survey data e.g. managers seeking out and berating staff for responses they think they have given
Prevention 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 communications

Example: 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 levels
Increased staff scepticism re: the employee survey motivations
Decreased 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 interpretation

Example: 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 provider
Staff mistrust in the staff survey

Future withdrawal from employee research
With careful management this issue was used to facilitate focus groups to involve managers in communicating intention and results of the next staff survey

Swift 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 survey

Example: 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 organisation

Doesn’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 survey
Use the staff survey as a platform for explaining how things will be changing

Offer this executive a 360 feedback survey to help them grow as a leader

Click here for further employee survey communication tips.

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