employee surveys

Employee surveys: How to get the answers you need

Your employees’ opinions and suggestions are nothing to fear – especially when you proactively collect and analyze them through employee surveys.

Surveying your employees helps you view their feedback as a tool instead of a disruption.

In fact, employee surveys are one of the best ways to draw on your employees’ thoughts, talents and ideas to meet your business goals and uncover solutions to your company’s unique challenges.

In this introduction to conducting employee surveys, we’ll explore:

  • Reasons to survey your employees
  • Common types of employee surveys
  • Precautions and an alternative for small organizations
  • How to develop your survey questions
  • Best practices for administering surveys and getting participation
  • How to follow up and when to dig deeper

Business drivers and types of employee surveys

To be most effective, your decision to conduct an employee survey should be tied to highly specific goals and objectives.

Here are some of the most common types of employee surveys and their goals:

  • Climate and engagement surveys – to discover employees’ attitudes toward their organizations, leaders and work
  • Onboarding surveys – to check in with new hires about their experience
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) surveys – to assess how employees feel about their organization based on how they identify and to find ways to make all employees feel more included

Companies also use surveys to gain insight into particular challenges, such as:

Survey precautions

Your employee survey results will most likely reveal areas for improvement and even point to needs that could lead to multi-year projects.

Before you spend time developing, distributing and assessing an employee survey, make sure you have the bandwidth to act once the responses come in.

It can be demoralizing to employees who open up and share their thoughts if company leaders fail to act on issues that are uncovered.

Also, be mindful of anonymity before rolling out an employee survey.

When given the chance to speak anonymously in a survey, employees are more likely to share the possible underlying causes to any problems.

But without this assurance, employees may be reluctant to give their honest feedback and hesitant to participate at all, fearing their responses will be identified. Low participation can make it difficult to get enough results to make your surveying efforts worthwhile.

For this reason, it’s generally not recommended to conduct an employee survey if you have fewer than 20 employees.

Small companies can instead use stay interviews to get similar feedback.

Types of employee survey questions

Once you have a clear objective in mind, you are ready to write your survey questions. Let’s take a look at the two main types, exploring the benefit and challenges of each.

Closed-ended questions

These are usually multiple-choice questions, offering your employees a few fixed responses to choose from.

  • Benefits – The results are quantifiable. You can score answers and compare results easily.
  • Challenges – Answers will lack full details, explanations and the reasons your employees responded the way they did.
  • Example – “Management includes employees in decisions affecting their work: Strongly Agree; Agree; Neutral; Disagree; or Strongly Disagree.”

Open-ended questions

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

  • Benefits – Employees can express their full thoughts. Trending issues may emerge from these responses.
  • 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.”

Too many open-ended questions can make it difficult to identify trends and act on the data you capture. And too many closed-ended questions can make it hard to explain the reasons behind your employees’ ratings.

So, aim for an 80/20 mix between these two types of survey questions. 

Wording employee survey questions

There is an art to wording survey questions in a way that guarantees the most useful responses. In general, it’s wise to avoid:

Asking compound questions

Don’t ask for two answers when the survey setup allows for only one. For example, “How satisfied are you with your pay and job title?” Instead, focus on one thought only per question to avoid confusion.

Asking biased questions

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?” Instead, ensure you ask questions with a neutral tone.

Using complicated language or acronyms

Ensure you’re using language that all of your employees will easily understand. It may be helpful, for example, to spell out acronyms to ensure all respondents grasp your meaning. For example, “How do you feel about our diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts?”

Survey length

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 you’re ready to conduct an employee survey, choose a time that doesn’t feel disruptive or fall during a busy season. Surveys sent early in the week tend to get the best responses.

Most companies deploy employee surveys using one of the many online platforms available, ranging from free, do-it-yourself survey tools (e.g., SurveyMonkey) to custom enterprise-feedback management solutions (e.g., People Element).

When picking the right survey tool, think through how your employees will take your survey, considering:

  • Will all employees be able to access our survey?
  • Have we considered accommodations for employees who might need assistance to complete the survey?
  • Do we need to offer the survey in multiple languages?
  • Will employees take the survey on a computer or their mobile device?
  • How will we ensure employees have enough time to complete the survey during their work hours?

You may still need to provide a paper option to employees who don’t have access to your survey technology. 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. In this case, it’s better 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.

It’s also best practice to ask for demographic information (e.g., 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. One way to overcome this challenge is to group small departments together when asking employees to select their department from a list of choices.

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% 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

Remember the importance of leadership follow-through after surveying employees?

Here’s how you can get it right.

1. Score and examine your responses

  • What were your quantitative results (from your closed-ended questions)?
  • How did employees respond to the open-ended questions (your qualitative results)?
  • Do common themes appear across the company or within departments?

Sometimes, you may lack clarity about the results. For example, if the satisfaction rating for your company benefits was low, it may not be clear which of your benefits is lacking. It could be paid time off, holidays, medical or retirement benefits.

In this case and others like it, you have a couple of options for digging deeper:

  • Do another quick survey
  • Do focus groups with a few employees at a time

Once you are confident in interpreting the results, you are ready to move to the next step.

2. 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.

While it’s normal to feel uneasy about employee feedback, focus on assuming the best and seeing the results as constructive rather than destructive.

And don’t discredit a satisfied majority by fixating on your squeaky wheels. Remember to look at all responses equitably. One voice shouldn’t be weighted more heavily than the others.

3. 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 or yearly goals.

Emphasize again that the management team is taking employees’ responses to heart.

4. 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.

These meetings should cover:

  • What has been accomplished already
  • What everyone needs to remain focused on
  • What still needs to be achieved

Remind your employees of changes that are happening as a result of their feedback, and communicate that you’re still committed to following through.

Example results and action plan

Let’s pretend you conducted an employee survey because of a problem with high turnover in the first year of employment.

Some themes you could uncover:

  • 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 could take the following actions as a result of your findings:

  • Incorporate a realistic job preview into the recruiting process, including touring the workspace, watching a video of employees demonstrating the work, and even having candidates interview during the shift time in which they are required to work.
  • 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.
  • Survey new employees 60-90 days after their start date 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.
  • Establish a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) committee.

Survey again

Targeted surveys may only need to happen once or every couple of years.

But it’s best practice to conduct the same employee engagement survey annually to benchmark results, track improvements and detect new challenges.

To take your survey strategy further and create a culture of continuous listening, you can incorporate shorter pulse check-ins at the six-month mark or as often as monthly. Ideally, you want to check in often enough to track improvements while also allowing managers enough time to respond to feedback between surveys.

The value of employee insight

Employee surveys are a holistic approach to addressing your organizational issues, which can be as unique as your people.

At Insperity, we believe bringing out the best in your employees is key to maximizing business performance.

Get the insight you need to manage your HR more proactively. Download our complimentary e-book now: 7 Most Frequent HR Mistakes and How to Avoid Them.


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