5 problems with employee engagement surveys

And a few suggestions for improvement!

Smiley face pain scale
If only it was this simple … Hmmmmmmm …

Every big company I’ve worked for has done the annual employee engagement survey thing. Minus a few tactical improvements here and there, I can’t think of a big positive outcome that resulted from these years and years of survey processes. We spent a lot of time chasing people to make sure our response rates were high (even though it was a voluntary exercise). We reviewed piles of reports with numbers and scales and color comparisons. We put together spreadsheets and held action planning meetings for months after the survey. And we patted each other on the back when we came out ahead of other departments or the industry standard. But were there sweeping changes to the employee experience that led to measurable improvements in retention and productivity? Nope …

I couldn’t find a number, but it’s safe to say organizations spend millions every year on employee engagement surveys. Of course, this is typically done with the best of intentions. The importance of the employee experience is increasingly clear, and management is looking for a way to gauge their status and react accordingly. Unfortunately, like many legacy workplace processes, the annual survey process just can’t keep pace with the speed of business.

As I have reflected on my years of employee engagement surveys, I’ve noticed 5 specific shortcomings in the process that hold us back from making meaningful, timely workplace improvements.


They only capture right NOW.

Do you really believe an annual survey can tell us how the representative employee population has evolved in their feelings about their work over the past year? That could be the case – if employees were heavily invested in providing deep, honest, reflective feedback. However, it is a lot more likely that we’re spending a pile of money to see how employees are feeling about the past few days. The rest of the year could have been amazing, but a bad moment last week could radically shift the feedback for groups of employees. On a similar note, I view engagement surveys a lot like Yelp reviews. Not everyone makes the effort to provide quality feedback. People who are VERY happy or VERY dissatisfied are likely to take advantage of the opportunity to tell the company what they think.

They’re a heavy lift to administrate.

How much time and effort does your HR team put into deploying the annual survey, and what are they NOT doing to support timely business needs because it’s survey time? When you run a large, busy, distributed operation, it’s difficult to get people’s attention long enough to complete dozens of serious questions in a serious, reflective way. It gets even worse when you work in an industry like retail or distribution in which a majority of the employees don’t have immediate access to technology and therefore must be herded into managers’ offices away from the operation. End of the day, an annual engagement survey is a disruptive exercise no matter how well planned and executed it may be. Even the most progressive organizations typically just aren’t set up to deploy this type of mechanism.

They’re difficult to complete.

Have you ever done an engagement survey and not had to take extra time to interpret what the questions are actually asking? The typical engagement survey question isn’t quite written for the typical employee, regardless of organization or role. The scales used for answering also tend to be rather unfamiliar – unless you regularly take surveys for fun. Therefore, they require a decent amount of context to ensure people answer as purposefully as possible. Are they talking about MY manager or the managers of the company? There’s a pretty big difference in how I’d answer those questions.

They try to cover everything.

Ever wish the survey would just focus down on 1 specific area of concern for the business? Instead, because it takes so much time and effort to get people’s attention once every year, we have to cram all of the questions into a single activity. At the same time, we have to keep them generic enough to apply to most employees – regardless of what they may individually want to share. On the flip side, managers are then saddled with page after page of scientific-looking report when they just want to know what their people need to better do their jobs every day.

Their impact cannot be measured.

How can we measure the specific impact our actions have on the employee experience when the survey data is mostly vague and high-level? Exactly! Because the survey is constructed and executed without local context, managers are left to interpret the results and figure out how to turn the data into tangible actions. This often results in responses that are too little, too late or off-target due to the local interpretation of the results and related employee needs.


There’s a better way …

Our ability to identify and respond to employee experience challenges in a modern workplace must become embedded into the every day (just like learning). We simply cannot wait for “survey time” to figure out where we should be focusing our time and resources when it comes to engagement. Rather, we must leverage systems and processes that can pick up on the ongoing signals employees send regarding their satisfaction. For example …

  • Simple, topically focused 1 or 2 question pulse surveys can be built into workplace tools and triggered based on pre-determined schedules, career progression and KPI trends such as changes in productivity or attendance.
  • Historical data can be analyzed to establish models for employee engagement, including trigger activities that consistently cause declines. When one of those triggers is identified at any level, a manager can be notified to assess the situation and take action if necessary.
  • Dashboards can be built to allow senior management to drill down into the organization to identify teams with specific challenges. Frontline management dashboards can merge engagement data with traditional KPIs to help correlate areas of difficulty and success.
  • Accountability for the employee experience can be balanced across the organization, with senior management owning the overall design while frontline management takes care of contextualization and execution.

When it comes to identifying and retaining the right people, employee experience is a growing differentiator. However, even an awesome initial design will fail under the weight of constant change. Organizations must install “sensors” within the day-to-day to measure the employee experience and quickly identify actions that can help employees overcome barriers to maximize their potential.


Is your organization still running an annual engagement survey? Has it helped you improve your employee experience in measurable, palpable ways? If you aren’t running the typical survey, what are you doing to ensure you stay aware of your company’s pulse? 

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