Companies give the impression they want to know what employees think, but do they? Photo courtesy of Freepik.
Every year, around the globe, companies spend a bunch of time and money on employee engagement surveys. They ask their employees all kinds of questions about how happy they are at work, how much they like what they do, and who they trust at work. They might include some very thoughtful questions about co-workers and managers, resources, and tools. They will likely include opportunities to comment and provide thoughts on what could be done better.
Companies give the impression with these surveys that they actually want to know what employees think and how they feel. But do they?
“Be careful what you wish for. You may receive it.” – W.W. Jacobs
The goal of engagement surveys isn’t to have employees complete it and then move on. Human Resources – the department usually stuck with the task of sourcing and/or creating these surveys, distributing them, and then interpreting the data – will tell you that a well-designed survey can reveal a great deal of information from employees that management can use to make improvements in the workplace. The intent is for the information gained to point out areas and needs to work harder on and improve. And yet…
In my role as a learning and development leader, I’ve worked side by side with HR. I know, from personal experience and from observation, that HR takes on the task of engagement surveying with the best of intentions. Leadership has asked for information, and they assume they will take what they learn to heart and make changes. Sadly, this is often not what happens.
I worked at an organization that spent a big chunk of HR’s budget on a company-wide engagement survey. The results came in, including what was actually a pretty big number of comments, ideas, and suggestions from employees. All in all, the survey was a pretty big success, in that there was a strong response. Overall, employees were somewhat happy with the company, and the survey pointed out a few areas to be addressed in order to significantly and positively affect employee happiness. One of those areas was around senior leadership and how it stood at arms-length from the rest of the company. What employees wanted was to have more exposure to, and involvement with, the senior team. They also wanted more training (good news for me!) and opportunities for professional development.
You’d think leadership would have been pleased at this. After all, the feedback showed that employees had an interest in connection and growth in the company. However, that’s not how senior leadership reacted. After seeing the data and reading the comments, what senior leadership got was angry. They took it as a personal attack and read the riot act to the head of HR. The only thing that happened, as a result of the survey, was a few more training programs (no more budget, but I managed to get approval for more programs). When I discussed this with HR, I bemoaned the opportunity lost.
You know what this told employees? You guessed it—engagement surveys are a huge waste of time, and the company doesn’t care.
The engagement survey process doesn’t stop after the survey. In fact, the survey is just the beginning.
Here are 8 steps to respond to survey results, courtesy of Great Place to Work®:
- Review the results
Whether your team interprets the results or you have a survey company do that for you, the first step is to get a sense of where you currently sit. Having a clear picture will allow you to understand how engaged (or not) your employees are. Company leaders can learn things like which groups feel comfortable and which have concerns with impartiality and equity.
- Reflect on what the results mean
Before leaping into action, this is the time to reflect on what was learned from the survey and where to go from here. This feedback can be tough to hear, but it’s important to understand and learn from it. What employees tell you can turn out to be highly valuable information for improvement efforts.
- Set intentions
After reflecting, now is the time for leadership to discuss what they’re going to do with the knowledge they have, and make a plan to proceed. Engagement surveys are designed to get a snapshot of company culture. This isn’t always a rosy picture. However, it provides the opportunity to close the gaps between where the company is now and where leadership feels is ideal. Consider how leadership expectations of culture aligns with their leadership style. Do changes need to be made at the top? Often leaders hold employees accountable for making culture changes, but they have to look first at themselves and model the behaviour they wish to see. At the very least, the survey presents an opportunity to understand the connection between employee feedback and their perceptions and expectations of leadership.
Communication should happen throughout the process:
Before: Why is the survey being undertaken in the first place? Who is involved? How will results be communicated after the survey?
During: How to complete the survey and deadline for completion.
After: Organization-wide communication from the CEO that shares high-level results, thanks employees for taking part, and a commitment to action, along with a projected timeline for these actions.
Communication has to involve managers, because they are on the front lines of sharing, and their team members will be looking to them for action plans and updates.
Ooh—this might be the hardest step of all. If a survey turns up feedback that isn’t particularly liked, it may be that involved parties would prefer to just sweep it under the mat. This would be a big mistake. Feedback is a gift—an opportunity to make change and turn an opinion around. The givers of feedback are, in effect, saying “I’m going to give you a chance to make positive change”. Feedback on the survey might be a bit broad, but it opens the door to discussion to gain more specific insights.
- Target Areas for Improvement and Make Action Plans
People have responded to the survey, and are now looking for signs their feedback has been heard. The above-mentioned communications are nice, but they’re looking for action, not just words. However, with what could be a wealth of information to potentially be acted upon, it might be more prudent to choose one or two areas to focus on to make lasting improvements. Often, this looks like one organization-wide improvement, and a second area relating specifically to department-level results. The best strategies involve managers and how they’re leading their teams.For example, a common outcome from engagement surveys is the need for better communication and collaboration. Communication could be considered an organization-wide imperative, and changes could include the implementation of a company-wide intranet or even an employee newsletter. In one organization I worked at, we created a monthly feature on the intranet which featured all the new hires. This was incredibly well-received, and employees mentioned time and again how much they liked knowing who those new faces belonged to, and that it opened up conversation between them. Collaboration could be something more team-specific, potentially involving training and/or coaching on inclusion, inter-team communication, and working together.
- Execute on the Plans
All the best-sounding communication in the world means nothing is no actual action is taken. So, put plans into place. Roll out your practices and programs.
- Monitor Progress
In communicating the survey, leaders indicate a level of concern for their employees. This shouldn’t stop just because the survey is over. Leaders should demonstrate their commitment to meaningful action by checking in to see if the changes that were made are having the desired effects. They do so by staying in communication with employees. Leadership can do this in a number of ways—town halls, inviting comments on company communiques, having managers check in with teams, or even doing a follow-up survey. Managers can ask their team members questions like: have you noticed improvement in this area? What is working/not working? What other ideas for improvement do you have? Whatever the method, it sends a clear message of care and consideration to employees.
The most important thing is that you DO something in response to the survey. If you don’t do anything, resentment will rise, engagement will decrease, and people will have the distinct feeling their company does not, in fact, care about them and they’ll quit.
“If you just do a survey and nothing more, employee engagement will likely decrease and turnover will increase.”
On the other hand, companies which ask for feedback, listen to the responses, act upon them, and share positive results will build engagement and loyalty.
Given that it is a fundamental human need to be heard and understood, employee engagement surveys offer a chance to build strong company cultures or destroy them. Take the opportunity and use it wisely by following the steps above. Listen, hear, understand, learn, and make positive change.