Matt Tenney, Contributor
Employee surveys are an invaluable tool for measuring employee engagement, performance, core value alignment, and job satisfaction. They can also be important tools for identifying areas where senior management can make improvements in how they lead.
But, often, these surveys are time-consuming to take, contain too many questions, include irrelevant questions, and ultimately, are not very useful to leadership because not all team members will complete them or complete them honestly.
Getting employees to complete surveys can be a daunting task for management, but it is so essential to ensuring senior leadership is getting the feedback it needs to improve employee engagement, job satisfaction, and employee and leadership performance.
When you ask an employee to complete a survey, communicate the goal and value of the survey beforehand, keep the survey brief, ask relevant questions, and include a deadline. Ensure that responses will be kept anonymous so that employees feel comfortable answering honestly, without fear of retaliation.
In this article, we will explore the ideal framework for asking employees to complete surveys and a few approaches that can make this endeavor much more successful.
The Value of Surveys
Surveys are an excellent way for leadership to get useful feedback from employees.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), responsiveness to employee feedback can boost retention rates, decrease absenteeism, increase productivity, improve customer service, and positively impact employee morale.
Well-designed and conducted surveys can help managers gain insight into dysfunction within the organization and help them pinpoint when and where it is occurring so their response can be more focused and effective.
When done correctly, surveys can provide useful insight into how well organizations are delivering on the culture (including mission, vision, and core values), and employment practices that are conducive to attracting, engaging, and retaining top talent, improving performance, and guiding managers toward improving how they lead their teams.
However, getting the most out of surveys requires careful planning before asking employees to participate, thoughtful design to ensure employees actually complete the surveys, and timely, results-focused follow-up that demonstrates employee feedback is being taken seriously to ensure they will continue to complete future surveys.
Asking for feedback from employees in the form of regular surveys demonstrates to employees that their opinions matter and are directly impacting decision-making.
For surveys to truly have a positive impact, it is essential for management to really listen to what their employees are telling them in their responses and to be committed to making course corrections when they are needed.
Give Employees a Heads-Up
Leaders should let employees know about the survey and what it is designed to measure before sending it out.
Letting employees know in advance when a survey is headed to their inbox or landing on their desk is a good idea because it gives leaders the chance to convince them that the results will be taken seriously, that their feedback is valuable, and that the responses will be kept anonymous. It also gives employees the opportunity to plan for taking the survey.
Additionally, this provides leadership the opportunity to explain to employees the value of the survey and clearly convey expectations, deadlines, and the ways in which the feedback will be utilized.
Keep Surveys Short
One reason employees often do not complete surveys is because they can be too long. We’ve all taken surveys that ask hundreds of questions—and many times lose interest early on in the process.
Long surveys are time-consuming, but they don’t have to be in order to be useful and shouldn’t be if you want employees to complete them.
When surveys are long, it makes them more difficult to complete for even the employees who want to take them. Their time is valuable and it isn’t always feasible for team members to take time out of their busy workday to fill out lengthy surveys.
Keeping surveys short will ensure more employees complete them. Even breaking the survey up into “bite-sized” shorter surveys over a number of weeks is a better option than bombarding them with a hundred multiple choice questions.
This can have the added bonus of keeping the survey process frequent, which will give you a system of regular feedback, as well as keeping it from being overwhelming for employees who already have busy work schedules.
Keep Questions Relevant
Before even asking employees to complete a survey, make sure during the design and planning process that the survey is asking the right questions.
Questions should be relevant to the employees’ roles within their department and questions should be specific so that responses are useful.
Asking employees general questions like, “Do you receive feedback from your manager?” is not particularly helpful for employees, nor will their responses be useful to management most likely.
In order for feedback to be useful for employees, it should be provided regularly and with consistency and specificity. The same is applicable to the feedback leaders receive from their team, so giving employees the tools needed to provide specific, regular feedback is essential for the feedback to be useful to top leadership.
Asking how frequently an employee receives feedback from a direct supervisor or providing a specific time frame during which the feedback occurred, such as asking, “Have you gotten feedback from your direct supervisor in the past week?“ is more useful than just asking if an employee receives feedback.
When employees feel the questions are specific and relevant, they will be more likely to see the value in completing the survey and more likely to complete it. Carefully crafted, specific questions will be more useful for managers as well to help them pinpoint where they can make improvements.
Keep a Realistic (But Short) Deadline
One of the key ways to get employees to respond to a survey is to set a short deadline.
Most employees tend to be deadline-oriented. Knowing they have only a few days to complete a survey can motivate them to respond more quickly. This is, again, why it is so important to keep survey questions short and to the point.
By setting a deadline for the survey link (if the survey is being administered online) and having the link expire within a few days of receipt, employees will be likely to respond in a more timely manner instead of putting it off for weeks and possibly forgetting to complete the survey.
Even more important than setting a deadline is assuring employees that their responses will be kept anonymous. Without the guarantee of anonymity employees may fear retaliation for their responses. This could prevent them from answering the survey honestly or completing it at all.
This is for the benefit of employees and managers. Managers who feel personally attacked when they receive low scores on a survey could retaliate against an employee that identifies issues with management that genuinely need to be addressed.
If employees feel that retaliation will result if they answer honestly, then the survey will be useless, if they even take the survey at all, knowing their responses will not be confidential.
Make real efforts (as early in the planning process as possible) to convey the ways in which this vital feedback will benefit employees and the organization to help identify areas for improvement for management.
Employees are more likely to participate in a survey if they believe that their answers will be taken to heart, and the feedback they provide can significantly improve the overall performance of the organization. Anonymity is key to gaining these insights.
What You Shouldn’t Do
The average employee survey response rate is only 30-40%, which can lead to unreliable results. In order to improve the response rate, here are some approaches you should definitely avoid.
Leadership should refrain from making responses to surveys mandatory. If employees feel that they are required to take the survey or face punishment for not doing so, you will not get helpful feedback.
Low-response rates are often the result of surveys that are too long, contain questions that are not valuable, too general, or irrelevant, designed in a way that is not user-friendly, or do not come with deadlines for completion.
Since survey length can be a predictor of response rate, avoid making the survey more than 20 minutes in length. Longer surveys will decrease the response rate significantly.
According to research done by the American Press Institute, the longer the sentences, the less readers will understand. When the average sentence length is fewer than eight words long, readers understand 100% of the piece, but, after that, comprehension drops off.
For this reason, the length of questions should be kept as short as possible while still clearly conveying what is being asked.
Over 75% of survey respondents want to keep their responses anonymous. Omitting demographic questions, especially when there will be a small group of respondents, will help employees who may worry that revealing these details will give away their identities and make them targets for retaliation more likely to complete the survey.
Finally, if surveys are administered, dysfunction is revealed, and leaders do not take action to make improvements, this can send a message to employees that their feedback is not valued. This can be disastrous for engagement.
Misinterpreting or misapplying this feedback can negatively impact employee morale and engagement and decrease the likelihood that employees will complete future surveys.
Matt Tenney is the founder of PeopleThriver and The Generous Group, two companies that aspire to create the best workplace cultures in the world. Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence. Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings. His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.