Tell the truth. Most of your employees aren’t telling the truth on your annual employee engagement survey. You know it. They know it. And they know you know it. It’s become an exercise that frustrates everyone involved. None of your efforts to improve this situation – from internal memos explaining how the importance of the surveys to downright begging them to take it seriously – seem to be bearing fruit. You’ve switched survey providers and simplified questions to make it easier, not to mention launching an entire internal marketing campaign, but still you’re dissatisfied with the response rate and the quality of the feedback. What is even more frustrating is that the results do not seem to reflect the true sentiment that you’re observing in your team. We know of one situation where mere weeks after the engagement survey results showed high levels of engagement, staff threatened industrial action. Clearly someone isn’t telling the truth.
So what is going wrong?
The first challenge is that you might be asking them to complete the survey for all of the wrong reasons. Most companies we’ve interacted with conduct annual employee engagement surveys, and many of them tie the results of the survey into some type of compensation. For example, employees may be asked to score the service they receive from other departments. Over time, employees have realised that if they give each other great scores, everyone gets a bonus. Celebrations all around. In one organisation we’re aware of, employees aim to average a score higher than 8 out of 10 simply to avoid senior management calling them into meetings to try to figure out what they could do to make them happier. Employees are hacking your surveys all of the time, rather than using them as intended, i.e. a useful tool to provide meaningful feedback that management can use to improve their employee experience.
The second challenge is that employee engagement surveys ignore the very basic fact that they are supposed to be assessing how employees feel about working with you. Similar to customer experience, the employee experience is a series of touchpoints from before employees even interview with your organisation to the day they leave. It is influenced by both external pressures and constraints internal to your organisation. On the external side, your employees are responding to economic, labour market, competitive, customer, societal and technological developments. Internally, they are operating with fixed – in the short term – constraints around the company’s values, financial situation, culture, reputation and management structure and the design of the job that they’re doing. Most employee engagement surveys tend to ignore all external factors and most of the internal constraints, focusing almost exclusively on factors related to leadership. While leadership is often a linchpin, it may not be the root cause that most surveys we’ve seen tend to conclude it is.
I remember sitting in a town hall meeting years ago as an employee myself watching the head of HR at the time looking so pained and frustrated as he summarised the findings of the last survey. The results were bad. Very bad. And he just could not figure out what else he could give us. We had the best perks in our industry: long vacations, excellent training opportunities, annual bonuses, after school day care for our kids, interest-free loans, sports clubs, and the list goes on. At one point, we even had on-site lunch catering. These types of benefits are near unheard of in the Caribbean even today. He was beginning to think we were spoiled, bratty children, never satisfied with our luxuries. In truth, the issues staff had were mainly related to the design of the jobs themselves and the management structure (not the managers themselves); neither of which we could provide specific feedback on given the structure of the survey. So, we simply provided low satisfaction scores as a way of expressing our frustration.
How do you fix it?
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not against employee engagement surveys. Most of them are well-intentioned, and we acknowledge that many companies use best-in class providers. But once a year employee engagement surveys are simply not enough because if you want to improve employee engagement, you have to improve the employee experience. Instead of one massive survey once a year, we recommend smaller, more focused surveys where you track how well the services you provide meet their needs, how they feel about the culture and leadership of the organisation and their likelihood to recommend others to work there. Together, these surveys provide a much more detailed and nuanced reflection of true employee experience, they are harder to hack and they provide more useful insights that can inform strategies and tactics to improve the situation.
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