• Neal Dlin

The Inconvenient Truth About Employee Engagement Surveys

Or more precisely, 4 inconvenient truths.


It was a dark and grey morning, in every way really. The company I was working for at the time had just laid off about 20% of its workforce and like the thunderclouds looming out the office window, the sound of that action echoed through the hushed halls. With each lightening strike, employees cowered at their computers waiting to hear if they were the next to be called into a room with their leader and HR. You couldn’t even book a meeting room that day as they were all full, each had been converted into a factory line. First the sit down, then the spiel about the company’s poor results while a stack of papers was slid, across the table, past the Kleenex box, only to stop square in front of the current victim. What was said by the leader and HR, was drowned out by the rainstorm in the employee’s mind. Fear, shame, anger, confusion, all whirling about.


Conducting layoffs, while sometimes necessary, is never easy. And the truth is, this company did it as well as one could. But it still takes a serious toll on morale, even when understood by the survivors. I used the term survivor because there really is a lasting trauma.

But what happened next is just one of the serious and inconvenient truths about employee engagement surveys. That year the company chose to skip the survey, on which they had usually scored very well, for fear of the inevitable results.


1. The first inconvenient truth is, that many companies don’t really use the survey to improve their organization but rather to tout their excellence.


And hey, there is absolutely nothing wrong with touting your excellence. In an age of fierce competition for top talent, if you have managed to create an amazing place to work, you should fly a blimp, with your results strewn across it right over the Superbowl! But if that’s the only reason you are doing it…you are missing out on a huge opportunity. In fact, having great employee engagement does not mean you have systemic and sustainable practices to keep you there, something a well-designed survey can help reveal. Not to mention, that even the best companies have opportunities to improve. Not the least important is how critical communication and getting feedback actually is to survivors to help morale rebound (as discussed in this UK article by the Institute for Employment Studies).


So, if you are only using a survey to brag…it’s time you faced this inconvenient truth, lest you find one day that your culture is falling off the rails and discover you could have proactively prevented it.


Far away, in another organization that had grown quite rapidly, employee engagement was sagging. Employee turnover was at an all-time high. Hiring could not keep up. Those remaining were being asked to work longer hours and in turn, absenteeism and short-term disability claims began to spike. The CEO was flabbergasted. When they were smaller, engagement always seemed high. They had never measured it, but all those indicators mentioned above were strong, as was productivity and revenues. However, as the company grew, things began to worsen, and it was unclear why.


The HR leader put together an action plan that included sourcing a vendor to conduct an employee engagement survey. After some coaxing and coercion, they managed to get a decent participation rate. What came next leads to the second inconvenient truth. The results pointed mainly to a lack of faith in the leadership, specifically the executive along with a lack of belief in the company’s purpose. There were other opportunities too, such as feeling unappreciated and not feeling heard. The executives were simply not prepared for, nor able to accept and therefore not willing to act on the results. Instead of addressing the main issues, they grazed the surface on the secondary issues.


They launched a peer recognition program to address feeling appreciated which didn’t address the root cause at all. As you can imagine, the team, which commiserated often, already supported one another. They wanted to feel appreciated by the leaders. They also launched an online suggestion box but it was manned part time by an HR generalist who was not empowered to do anything with the feedback. In one motion they dramatically compounded their now non-existent employee engagement.


2. The second inconvenient truth is, a survey is not an employee engagement solution. It is a vehicle by which you can more precisely focus on engagement and you must be committed to act in earnest.


Conducting a survey without being fully prepared to accept the results and take meaningful actions will actually do more damage than good. Even worse is taking unmeaningful action as it tells your employees, you really don’t care what they said. So why bother asking?

Yet even further away, a large organization with a very recognizable brand was just wrapping up their bi-annual survey. It had been two years since the previous survey and they had put a full court press, not to mention substantial financial resources, on taking action from the previous survey. They authentically wanted to make positive change and they were feeling confident about the outlook.


The executive team were understandably anxious to get the results. I imagine they had champagne on ice waiting for the big celebration. HR and their research partner firm walked in the room to present the results. The title slide came up. By this point there was practically a fever pitch in the room. You can imagine then, the sound of jaws hitting in the floor when their overall score, while not terrible, was actually down.

What happened? They worked very hard on all the opportunity areas from the previous survey and while many of those improved, other areas had fallen resulting in a lower overall score.


3. The third inconvenient truth is, the old method of lengthy annual or bi-annual surveys is simply far too long a stretch to measure, and act, on employee engagement.


Over that same time period, the organization had gone through several product innovations and its business had shifted quite a bit from a traditional bricks and mortar model to an ever-increasing online model. This created gaps in employee knowledge, feeling of preparedness to do their jobs, lack of clarity on the direction of the organization, fear of job loss for those who were once superstars in the old paradigm and more. The effort put into the survey was not all lost and garnered some good credibility, but it simply took too long to work on issues that actually were no longer the burning issues of the day.


Annual or bi-annual employee engagement surveys are sort of like going on a long drive and only looking at the directions once. Five hours later you realize you took the wrong fork in the road one hour in and you are nowhere near your destination. Or you run into construction on the highway and the detour takes you hours off your course. If only you had just turned on Waze (or Apple Maps or Google Maps, etc).


In the new world of talent driven innovation, organizations need to make engagement a business strategy (as discussed in this article and study by (Gallup) including more frequent check-ins, through more mediums and of course, actually acting on issues.

  • ·A lengthy annual survey is ok but monthly pulse checks that are shorter and drill down into very specific themes can greatly compliment this approach.

  • ·Another complimentary method is quarterly focus groups and/or town halls (you can alternate each quarter) with open Q&A (and ample time on the agenda for it…not the last ten minutes where one answer eats up the whole time).

  • Create clear mechanisms for feedback all year long. Make it easy to submit and make it safe to challenge the status quo (hint, don’t fire people whose ideas challenge yours).

  • Ensure there is closed loop communication meaning you need to get back to people about their feedback. Include them in building the solutions.

  • Deploy a feedback continuous improvement function with dedicated resources and empower them to navigate the organization, prioritize projects, involve employees who may be impacted and hold them to deadlines and results.

  • Have executive seat rides where the C-Suite routinely spend some time each month job shadowing in different departments. The candid feedback and real-time observations gleaned here will uncover hidden nuggets no survey ever could.

  • Have a speed dating session every quarter with front line and senior management that rotate tables every 10 minutes.


There are so many ways to garner regular feedback, stay on top of the most current issues, take action and measure the results. Don’t pick one. Do as many as you can, and please, don’t leave it to a survey every two years.


What other ways can you think of to keep on top of employee engagement levels?


The last truth (of this article anyway) is this:


4. Any survey methodology is still a reactive measure. Organizations require a proactive focus on the employee journey and employee fulfillment.


This last point is an article unto itself. I will simply assert that incredible and sustainable employee engagement requires a disciplined commitment to the employee journey. Many organizations have high engagement due to a few great leaders, a great product or brand that people like to associate themselves with, a great size where communication is easy, a great moment in your history where you were disruptive etc. However, all of those are fleeting. Sustainable engagement requires a focus on the employee journey from posting to departure and everything in between.

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