Why Your Employee Survey Is a Waste of Time

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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