Why Your Employee Survey Is a Waste of Time

by  David Dye  |  Workplace Issues

Imagine Their Surprise

“The whole department has quietly agreed never to mark anything but good scores on the damn thing!”

I was talking with Joan, an employee of a large medical service provider and this…this was her ultimate response to the last round of employee surveys designed to improve morale and motivation.

What’s worse, her management and executive leaders were clueless that their attempts have done exactly the opposite of what they intended.

I regularly write about how to motivate your employees, but this was a disaster:

This team’s morale was far worse and their effort far less, than if their supervisors had done nothing at all.

What Happened?

If you’ve spent any time in an organization of 30 or more people, you’ve probably encountered an employee or member survey of some kind.

When I’m working with an organization, I can get a good sense of its health by how staff respond to a survey. In far too many places, the response is something cynical like, “Oh great – another chance to be ignored!”

Joan described her organization’s survey:

“They did ask some good questions and we shared how to make things better, but they ignored all those issues, and made us spend extra time on task forces to address cosmetics and desk arrangements.”

“Our reward for taking time to give them good feedback that would improve efficiency and profitability – was to be ignored and given extra work on how we would decorate the department.”

She sighed in frustration. “This is so stupid! We were ignored and punished…and we really tried to help.”

Is Your Employee Survey a Waste of Time?

Imagine having coffee with a friend who asks you for feedback on their website.

You take a moment, look it over, complement the layout, color scheme, and suggest they make their contact information more prominent.

Now imagine that in response to your thoughtful feedback, your friend stares past you, gets up, turns her back and leaves the coffee shop without another word.

How would you feel?

Insulted? Hurt? Angry? Perhaps worried about your relationship?

That’s exactly how your people feel if you ask for feedback and then ignore them.

The number one thing that will make your employee survey a waste of time is failing to respond.

If you ask people for their input, it is vital that you recognize their contribution.

You may not be able to accommodate all the suggestions you receive, but if you don’t acknowledge the responses and be transparent about why you’re doing what you’re doing, you might as well kiss your leadership credibility goodbye.

Don’t Waste Their Time!

Here are a few guidelines for an effective employee survey:

  • Make it short (10-15 minutes to complete).
  • Make it concise: target a specific situation or project.
  • Only ask questions for which you legitimately want answers. (e.g.: Don’t ask if they are content with their salary if you know salaries are frozen for two years. Yes…I’ve seen this happen!)
  • As part of the survey, make it clear when people can expect a response.
  • Respond when you said you would. Genuinely thank people for their feedback.
  • Do not punish people for their feedback. If you’re not sure if your reaction would be considered punishment, get a second or third opinion. (Hint: making people work longer days to solve a problem that’s your responsibility is not cool.)
  • Take visible action quickly, where you can.
  • Where you cannot take action, explain why. When you share criteria people weren’t aware of, you give them a chance to help you problem solve.

Your Turn

When done well, employee surveys are an opportunity for you to demonstrate your concern for your people and to get vital information and ideas from people who are close enough to the issues to have good ideas.

How do you ensure your employee survey is not a waste of time?

I’d love to hear your best idea in the comments below!

Take care,


Creative Commons Photo Credit: Erica Hampton

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About The Author

Articles By david-dye
I work with leaders who want to build teams that care and get more done with fewer headaches.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Pat Lotich  |  21 May 2013  |  Reply

This article nails it! I have seen too many organizations do employee surveys more for an ego boost than for identifying ways to improve internal operations and efficiencies. Employees hold many of the answers for solving organizational issues. Organizations that have figured this out and take advantage of that collective knowledge are the high performing and successful ones. Great article. Thanks for sharing.

David M. Dye  |  22 May 2013  |  Reply


You’re very welcome. It is far far far too common and I can’t believe the outpouring of “you should hear my story” that this post has received.

I hope at least a few managers, supervisors, and organizational leaders stop and think next time before doing this to their people.

Thanks for the feedback,


Dianna Booher  |  21 May 2013  |  Reply

Great tips, David. It’s important to make each survey useful.

Bob Johansen  |  22 May 2013  |  Reply

What is the general take on whether the survey should be anonymous or not? Our experts are saying that an anonymous survey is the only way to get honest feedback. True?
Others, however, are demanding that we remove the anonymity because they want to be able to build strategy around the results (i.e. target training for an office that needs it, provide a program for morale improvement within a certain demographic, etc.)
Your thoughts?

David M. Dye  |  27 May 2013  |  Reply


That’s a great question and, like so many things, the I answer I would give you is “it depends”.

There are different types of scenarios in which surveys can be used.

If the scenario is a very caustic, unsafe culture where employee feedback is vital to righting the ship, then anonymity is essential.

In a healthy, transparent organizational culture, however, it’s usually unnecessary and can interfere with taking healthy, positive, and direct action.

I would disagree with your experts in so far as saying the “only” way to get honest feedback is with anonymity. Another alternative, and much more productive, in my opinion, is to build an organizational culture that values transparency, full input, and productive disagreement.

Good luck!


Susan Mazza  |  23 May 2013  |  Reply

There is so much truth in this David. I’ll add that all too often survey’s are used instead of th eleadrs doing what is necessary to foster an open conversation on a day to day basis about the things that really matter.

The opposite response to ignoring can also be just as much of a waste – by opposite I mean forming committees to address issues identified by the survey. With a member of the leadership team as a figurehead these committees start programs and initiatives that all too often don’t affect change and leave people more resigned than before because they worked so hard and made no progress. The activity creates an illusion that something is being done for a time but unless the leaders are more than figureheads and willing to own the issues personally well intended action will make little substantive difference.

David M. Dye  |  27 May 2013  |  Reply


You are so right!

I’ve seen both – the survey used to ‘look response’ while shirking real responsibility as well as the ‘death by committee’ response to make sure real feedback never sees the light of day.

Both are products of insecure, unconfident, or irresponsible leaders and I hope they become more and more rare as we have more and more character-based leadership!

Take care,


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