9 Dos and Don'ts of Employee Engagement Surveys

Lack of planning is often why organizations don’t receive the “bang for the buck” from. Planning reduces stress during analysis, but helps define assumptions and expectations about what you want to achieve.  The following are good “rules of thumb” for planning:

Keep the data anonymous, but communicate the actions

Organizations often keep survey information anonymous and confidential to increase the accuracy of the data received. This can also can have its drawbacks, such as the uncertainty of what to do with survey comments that allege illegal actions or violations of company procedures.  Acting on such comments may violate the confidentiality of the respondents. Additionally, confidentiality can lead to nonaction by those who need change the most, as the following story illustrates.

Don’t look for what you already see

Many organizations believe they understand their problems, and call in consultants to work out the details. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If an organization investigates only subject “X”, they will only get back information on subject X. They may overlook other issues of major concern, as the following example shows. Organizations can get around this problem somewhat by using a broad-spectrum survey at the beginning of their effort, and asking specific narrow questions later.

Use multiple survey methods

Using multiple techniques to ask about the same kind of information is a hallmark of good information gathering. Any surveying technique has its weaknesses. For example, numerical surveys (where survey items are rating one a scale of one to five) are easy to score. However, the specific wording of the question may not exactly apply, and may miss getting to the heart of the matter. In addition, numerical surveys, especially those that ask a narrow set of questions, only allow survey takers to be asked a limited set of topics.

An organization may miss discovering important issues because they didn’t ask. Using focus groups after a broad-spectrum survey is usually best.

Decide how to analyze data before you gather it

Whenever creating surveys, decide how to analyze, chart and graph the data before employees complete them. This approach avoids bias when there is no set procedure for analysis, and reduces last-minute panic when the data come flooding in. After developing the survey and are uncertain about analysis, give the preliminary survey to a sample of people who are similar to employees. Use this sample to fine-tune  questions, decide how to analyze the data, and change the questions to make analysis easier.

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Decide on your sampling plan and how to “break out” the data

Many organizations survey their employees, usually once a year. Two problems arise from this practice: First, because the organization surveys only once, one can’t distinguish between flukes and trends. Only surveying multiple times a year, using a sample of employees, can an organization distinguish between special, one-time events and ongoing concerns.

Involve employees, especially powerful ones in the survey effort

Organizations can survey their employees, accurately assess their needs, and still meet with resistance to change. One way to lessen this problem is to involve formally and informally powerful employees in the group that develops or selects the survey, distributes and analyzes the results, develops recommendations, and implements solutions. Such employees can include management, union officials, and elected representatives of departments or job classifications. These employees act as spokespersons for the groups they represent, communicate events to these groups, and provide vital information to the survey process.

Never survey without acting

Management can survey their employees to assess working conditions out of curiosity, or to relieve their anxieties about everything being “all right.”  However, surveys raise expectations by those who take them, and those they tell. When expectations of change remain unfulfilled, employees can become more demoralized than before the survey.

Management might ask “What if we survey our employees, and can’t do anything about their problems?”  Management must decide what actions are possible and what are not, even before the survey authors create the survey or gather the data. When employees or raise concerns, management needs to communicate that they understand. If management cannot immediately solve these issues, employees must know this. At the minimum, management must communicate survey data and their response. Preferably, management should answer concerns and act on them.

Create clear, specific actions from the survey data

“We must communicate more,” and “We must change people’s attitudes” are often the recommendations that come from surveys. Unfortunately, these platitudes do little to fix the problems that survey responses communicate. Depending on the issues, some possible solutions are below.

Employee Concerns

Possible Solution

Fairness of promotions

change selection, promotion procedures, who decision-makers are

Fairness of pay system

gainsharing flexible benefits plan

Performance reviews

reward groups instead of individuals, change rating process

Career development

create career ladders, clarify job descriptions, create mentoring systems, pay for knowledge


bulletin boards, all-hands meetings, company videos, E-mail, focus groups


delegate specific authority and decisions to employees

Inter-group warfare, between-department communication

inter-group teambuilding, restructure by product or customer instead of functionally

Management style

360° feedback, management training, removal or transfer of supervisor

Clearly communicate the survey process, recommendations and actions

Communication is a crucial, necessary ingredient in every phase of the survey process. Organizations must inform employees about survey planning, data collection, and implementation plans. Without this communication, employees who would otherwise support the survey become confused, frustrated, and eventually complacent. Loss of this critical mass of support may eventually doom whatever changes the company implements.

Someone once said, ” Whenever change takes place, a third are for it, and a third are against it, and a third don’t care. My job is to keep the third who don’t like it away from the other two thirds!”

Use the right scale – and absolutely avoid agree-disagree scales

This has nothing to do with rust, alligators or how much weight you’ve gained since the holidays. Instead, it’s deciding how to ask employees to react to questions. Many people use “agree-disagree” scales:

I like ice cream

  • strongly agree
  • agree
  • neutral
  • disagree
  • strongly disagree

I hate ice cream

  • strongly agree
  • agree
  • neutral
  • disagree
  • strongly disagree

Unfortunately, this kind of scale has fatal flaws. Firstly, studies have shown that these scales suffer from “response set bias,” which is the tendency of employees to agree with both the statement and its exact opposite, like in the case above. These problems are more more powerful the lesser the education of survey takers.

Secondly, conclusions from these data are unclear. If I strongly disagree with the statement “I like ice cream,” what does that mean? It could mean that I hate ice cream, or it could mean that I don’t like it-  I love it to death. There is no way of telling which of these employees mean.

Thirdly, prioritizing problems is hard to do. People often add percentages of people who “strongly agree” with those who “agree”, and the compare the results question by question. Instead, use frequency, intensity, duration or need for change/need for improvement type of scales.  Use Pareto charts, discriminant analysis or logistic regression to determine especially important issues, and groups with significant needs.

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About the author

David ChaudronDavid Chaudron, PhD is managing partner of Organized Change consultancy, He has over 30 years experience in using employee surveys. Their website is https://www.organizedchange.com. He is the author of “Master all you Survey”, available on Amazon.