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Employee Surveys: Great Idea? Or Soul-Crushing Waste of Time?

November 15, 2013

By: Jennifer Lucas

Employee satisfaction surveys have become a popular way for upper management to receive valuable company feedback from staff. They often seem like a great idea, but bad timing and execution can make them irritating for the taker and useless for the giver. For example, a few years back, I worked for a company that had grown dramatically and suddenly. As a result, there were the usual growing pains: people overworked, inadequate staffing, trouble maintaining training, new middle management. Everyone from the bottom up was super-stressed. During that time, I (along with all my coworkers) received a link for an employee survey. “Great idea!!” I thought, then filed the email away to be immediately forgotten.

A couple of weeks later I got a follow-up reminder email stressing to me the importance of completing the survey and promising my anonymity. “Wow!” said I, “They are really serious about this.” So I completed the survey. It took about 25 (precious) minutes, and I answered it as carefully, honestly and fairly as I could. I considered each question, erring more toward the positive than the negative, because let’s face it, I had no real way of knowing how anonymous the thing really was, and I had bills to pay. Most of the questions asked for a rating of 1-5, but there were some optional free-writing ones. Figuring that would be a great place to make some real, applicable suggestions, I went to town on those sections. Clicking send, and feeling satisfied, I sat back and imagined the much-needed changes that were to come.

I never heard another word. No changes were made, no results were published or released, and things continued to slip into chaos in the department. Exactly one year after the first survey was sent out, I received another one. The SAME one.

What did that tell me?

My company had apparently subscribed to some kind of annual HR survey service. The service included automated prompts for people who had not responded. As far as I knew, the survey results were sent directly to some upper-management spam folder. This time, I clicked on the link immediately, selected “3” for everything, left all the free-form questions blank and clicked send so I could quickly return to the work that was piling up on my desk.

I suspect my experience might be a little extreme, but it does beg the question, “Are employee surveys really beneficial?”  Like any tool, they can be if they are used properly.

A few benefits of surveys:

  • They give your quietest employees a voice, particularly if you can guarantee anonymity: Some people are afraid to speak up, especially if they have an extreme manager who is a jerk, or ineffective (or an ineffective jerk).
  • They help identify trends: If HR hears about problems from one or two people, they could easily consider them isolated incidents. If 20 survey participants say the same thing, they know it’s a problem.
  • They can provide valuable insights into employees’ greatest concerns: A well written and carefully conducted survey can definitely help employers figure out the cause of turnover or morale problems.


  • Honesty: No matter how anonymous you promise to be, many people will pull punches to protect themselves. This is especially true in small departments where it wouldn’t exactly take CSI to figure out who the respondents were.
  • They can be overused and time consuming, which will lead to less thoughtful responses. They are fine to do occasionally, but keep them short and minimal. Doing so will encourage greater participation.
  • Surveys are completely useless if nobody is reviewing the results! If you are going to the trouble of sending these suckers out, make sure you read the responses, and let the participants know you have done so. Consider sending out a summary of the findings, and some possible action steps based on them. Something like: 80% of you said you want more ice cream on the job. So… ice cream for everyone!!  That would work for me.

If not surveys, what?

Exit interviews: When you want honesty, talk to someone on the way out. They might still be diplomatic to keep from burning bridges, but they don’t have as much to lose as a current employee, so you are way more likely to get the real dirt.

Follow the trouble: Before considering a survey to find the source of a morale or productivity problem, look for warning signs like increased absenteeism or turnover in one area, or new or worsening HR complaints.

Talking: If you are trying to figure out what makes people tick, what their concerns are or what they need to be more productive, you might try talking to them. It’s unconventional in this technological age, but it just might work!

How can you inspire, reassure or energize your employees?

Learn about Omnia behavioral assessments for employee engagement!

Jennifer Lucas

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