employee surveys

Employee surveys: How to get the answers you need

Employee surveys are a useful diagnostic tool – not a final fix for a problem. However, they can uncover valuable insight that directs you to the best solutions for your company’s unique challenges.

To be most effective, surveys should be created with highly specific goals and objectives in mind. Step one in creating a survey is knowing what you want to get out of it.

Business drivers for employee surveys

Here are some reasons that lead many businesses to survey their employees:

  • High turnover
  • High absenteeism
  • Excessive overtime coupled with low productivity
  • High workplace accident rates
  • Departmental silos
    • Departments aren’t working together to achieve company goals
    • Poor communication across departments
    • One department’s goals are a problem for another
  • Recent merger or acquisition
    • Change management issues
    • Multiple company cultures are merging together

Employees are more likely to share the possible underlying causes to these problems when given the chance to speak anonymously in a survey.

Survey precautions

Before you spend time developing, distributing and assessing an employee survey, make sure you’re ready and willing to take action and make improvements once the responses are in.

It can be demoralizing to employees who take the time to open up and share their thoughts in a survey if company leaders fail to take action on issues that are uncovered.

Types of employee survey questions

Once you have a clear objective in mind, you are ready to write your survey questions. On any employee survey, it helps to have a balance of closed-ended and open-ended questions. Both types of questions offer benefits and challenges.

Closed-ended questions

These are usually multiple-choice, quantitative questions, offering respondents a few fixed responses from which to choose.

  • Benefits: The results are quantifiable. You can score answers and compare results easily.
  • Challenges: Answers will lack full details, explanations and/or the reasons your employees responded the way they did.
  • Example: “Management includes employees in decisions affecting their work.” This type of question is usually tied to a Likert rating scale (e.g., the Likert Five Scale – Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, Strongly Disagree), forcing the survey respondent to choose a rating that most accurately reflects the employee’s opinion.

Open-ended questions

These allow respondents to answer freely, providing qualitative information (usually considered the most important part of a survey’s results).

  • Benefits: Employees have the opportunity to express their full thoughts. Common issues will emerge from the responses to these questions.
  • Challenges: The feedback can be overwhelming. Employee comments aren’t always constructive, and they may use open-ended survey space to gripe or complain.
  • Example: “Please provide any other ideas or comments relative to how management involves employees in work decisions.” This allows employees to provide commentary explaining their personal perspective in their own words.

Aim for a 50-50 mix between these two types of survey questions. Too many open-ended questions may make it difficult to identify trends and make quick decisions based on the data captured. But asking too few will make it more difficult to explain the reasoning behind employees’ ratings.

Wording employee survey questions

There is an art to wording survey questions in a way that guarantees the most useful responses. Be careful not to:

  • Ask compound questions – These questions require multiple answers while the survey setup allows for only one answer. Compound questions can lead to ambiguity when you’re interpreting results later. For example, don’t ask a two-part question like, “How satisfied are you with your pay and job title?” Focus on one thought only per survey question. In this case, pay OR job title.
  • Ask biased questions – Ensure you ask questions with a neutral tone. Don’t ask questions that seem to suggest an appropriate response. For example, “Many employees have said they are satisfied with our PTO policy. Do you agree?”
  • Use complicated language or acronyms – Instead, use language that all of your employees will easily understand. Survey questions should be concise and direct.

Survey length – don’t get carried away

The number of questions you ask largely depends on your goals for the survey and also on how much time you plan to give employees to complete it. Sometimes a three to five-question survey is long enough to meet your objectives.

If you want employees to finish a survey in 30 minutes or less (to minimize disrupting productivity), ask no more than 50 questions. Also, be aware that longer surveys can lead to less than full participation.

Administering surveys – when and how?

When you’re ready to launch an employee survey, try to choose a kickoff time that’s not disruptive or filled with other events (e.g., not during a busy season; not during management changes; not during summer vacation or a holiday season).

Most companies today deploy employee surveys online using one of the many Web-based platforms available, ranging from free, do-it-yourself surveys (e.g., Survey Monkey) to fully-customized enterprise feedback management solutions (e.g., Verint Systems).

But some companies still need to provide a paper option to employees who don’t have access to a computer. But beware; paper surveys present anonymity concerns for some employees.

For example, if employees have to hand in completed surveys directly to their manager, they may worry about the manager figuring out who gave which responses. One way around this is to hand out paper surveys along with a self-addressed stamped envelope, so employees can all turn the survey in anonymously to the same place.

Another thing to consider when planning an employee survey is whether the survey needs to be offered and analyzed in multiple languages. If you do need translation services, be sure to use a reputable service provider (not just a multilingual employee).

It’s also best practice to ask for demographic information (such as, department, tenure and role) at the beginning or end of an employee survey to help you interpret the results.

However, providing this identifying information sometimes makes employees concerned about their anonymity, which is absolutely key to getting honest feedback. You can be sensitive to these concerns and preserve privacy while still getting the demographic information you need. For example, if you ask employees to select their department from a list of choices, group small departments together.

Encourage participation

Naturally, the more completed employee surveys you receive, the more confidence you can have in the results. In general, to consider the results valid, you want a minimum of 70 percent of your employees to complete the survey.

On the front-end, managers must clearly communicate the company’s goals for administering the survey and how they will put the results to work. Employees will be more motivated to participate in the survey if they know why you want their thoughts and how it will help their work life.

You can also incentivize participation. For example, throw a pizza party or give a half-day off coupon to all employees (again, to preserve anonymity) when you hit your participation goal.

Analyzing results and taking action

First, score and examine your quantitative results (i.e., the responses to your closed-ended questions). Then look at how employees responded to the open-ended questions for your qualitative results. Do common themes appear across the company or within departments?

Next, hold a meeting with company leaders to present the results. The leadership team should work together to identify clear opportunities for improvement and also areas of success.

Then, hold a meeting with all employees to roll out the results. Be sure to open this meeting by expressing appreciation to your employees for providing their feedback (e.g., “We heard you; we listened; thank you.”)

Next, share three to five trends that emerged from the responses. Communicate the changes that are already being made to address these issues. Then, present three to five “opportunities” for improvement along with an action plan for tackling these areas of concern. Break your goals into quarterly, bi-annual and/or yearly goals. Emphasize again that the management team is taking employees’ responses to heart.

From there, meet quarterly to update employees on goal progress. The leadership team should commit to keeping action items on the agenda to ensure follow through and accountability.

Go over what has been accomplished already, what everyone needs to remain focused on and what still needs to be achieved. It’s important for your employees to be reminded of changes that are happening as a result of their feedback and to know you’re still committed to following through.

Example results and action plan

Let’s pretend you conducted employee surveys because of a problem with high turnover in the first year of employment. Some themes you may uncover in the results could be:

  • Employees feel the job that was described to them when they were hired did not end up being the reality.
  • Employees don’t feel like they’ve had adequate training or support,

Your leadership team may choose to take the following actions as a result of your findings:

  • Incorporate a realistic job preview into the recruiting process. This preview may include touring the workspace, watching a video of employees demonstrating the work (which is helpful when work demands are physical or fast-paced), and even having candidates interview during the shift time in which they are required to work (e.g., interview at midnight for graveyard shifts).
  • Examine the company’s skill-set hiring practices.
  • Focus on a better onboarding process so employees receive a full explanation of their job responsibilities, and follow an onboarding checklist.
  • Check in with new employees in the first 60-90 days to ensure employee satisfaction and role clarity.
  • Require new employees to have regular follow-up meetings with their managers.
  • Offer performance management training to managers.
  • Measure turnover monthly.
  • Perform exit interviews to spot trends.

Survey again

In many cases, it’s best practice to conduct the same employee survey yearly to benchmark results, track improvements and detect new challenges.

For example, corporate culture, employee satisfaction or employee engagement surveys should be administered annually.

As you can see, employee surveys are a holistic approach to addressing organizational issues. Employee feedback becomes a valuable tool that directs you to the most effective solutions.

For more ways to draw on your employees’ thoughts, talents and ideas to meet your business goals, download our free guide: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.

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2 responses to “Employee surveys: How to get the answers you need

Samantha Robinson

As a personal opinion, the key to a great employee engagement will always be the questions asked in the survey. Also, if companies are new to conducting these surveys or are looking for new ways to conduct them, I’d suggest them to go for online survey tools like SoGoSurvey or Qualtrics that provide tips and sample questionnaires giving a headstart. Also, a Likert Scale is always better than providing Yes and No type of answer options.

Insperity Blog

Hi Samantha – Thanks for sharing some insightful tips! Very true – the quality of the questions asked and the ability to give more detailed responses add to the value of employee surveys. We appreciate your comments and your reading our post. Have a great day!

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