Not So Fast: Get rid of surveys at your peril

By Scott Young

We get it. Human Resources is frustrated with surveys that don’t yield good insights or pathways to positive results. HR’s pain is so acute that when the Wall Street Journal published an essay Aug. 1 entitled “It’s time to get rid of employee surveys,” some HR and business leaders’ heads nodded in agreement. 

Not ours. Author and noted HR leader Peter Cappelli misfires on his main volleys against surveys, claiming that because employees don’t like them and HR often does nothing with results, we should throw all employee surveys, regardless of what they measure, into a fiery heap of futility. Cappelli then offers several survey alternatives such as focus groups and monitoring employee chat. The problem is, large-scale annual surveys can work very well, and virtually every argument he lays out against them is a more effective argument against his alternative approaches. 

It’s how you use it

Surveying is like any tool – put it in the right hands, with the right minds, and it yields valuable insights that can help leaders move their organizations forward. Wield it clumsily and neglectfully, and your intentions can come crashing down around you. 

While it’s true, as Cappelli points out, that engagement surveys have limitations, that is largely because leaders tend to lay responsibility for “fixing engagement” on HR’s doorstep. But when surveys are designed to measure organizational culture and more importantly—aspects of culture that support business strategy—business leaders naturally own the issues surfaced by the survey. HR acts as a business partner or coach, but leaders must take necessary actions to “fix” issues. That leader-ownership more than anything is what leads to positive change, which has the greatest effect on increasing employee enthusiasm for providing feedback and input.

Higher survey response rates

The company-wide surveys we design at CultureIQ—with culture top of mind—achieve a median response rate of around 80%, far from the dismal 50% Cappelli cites. He recommends shorter surveys (as do we as part of a culture-building program), but significantly lower response rates are obtained when an annual, company-wide survey is replaced by more frequent, shorter surveys. This is partly explained by the greater planning and communication that goes into larger annual surveys, but also has to do with employees feeling less obligated to complete a survey that they know is one of several or many that will be sent to them during the year. That said, we do believe that pulse surveys to follow up on post-survey actions or to quickly get feedback on an emerging issue are valuable – just please don’t expect that approach to produce higher response rates as Cappelli suggests.

Survey length aside, what actually affects response rates more is whether employees feel their confidentiality is protected when participating in a survey. And employees can be assured of that confidentiality when a 3rd party vendor, as we are, conducts a survey with strict confidentiality policies in place.

But not every firm uses a culture-focused, confidential and expert-led approach such as ours, and we believe without these elements, firms have a much greater risk of losing time and money, and raising their frustration level, when they conduct survey programs. But that does not mean they should condemn all surveys and move on to the next shiny new tool, as Cappelli advocates.

Old is not an argument

Cappelli claims that surveying’s 100-years-long history is a mark against it, even though he says the reasons for using surveys “are as important as ever.” He urges a switch to more “efficient” methods like focus groups and chat/Slack monitoring to get better feedback.

We hate to break it to him, but monitoring employee communications is over 100 years old, and raises the same invasion-of-privacy alarm bells now as Justice Louis Brandeis and attorney Samuel D. Warren raised in their often-cited “Right to Privacy” law review article, published in 1890. These scholars knew back then that mining data employees were unaware they were providing would not improve trust and confidentiality.  

Focus groups clock in at over 70 years old, originating at Columbia University in a study of attitudes toward radio soap operas and wartime propaganda. While we agree focus groups can complement a survey, and offer a great format for generating ideas, their smaller size and susceptibility to disproportionate influence from 1 or 2 members means they are far less accurate as a measure of how a workforce feels about something than a survey. 

The chat-monitoring minefield

Chat/Slack channels are not only less representative than an annual survey, monitoring them can be a minefield. If Cappelli thinks employees shy away from surveys due to confidentiality concerns, what would those people think of having their chat room entries monitored and used to report to leadership on employee engagement and sentiment? And if they were aware of the monitoring, how would it affect the candor of their comments? 

Cappelli also suggests exit interviews and GlassDoor reviews, but these suffer from biases and flaws as well.

Skewed, and reactive 

Exit interviews are notorious for hiding the real issues for someone’s departure. The departing employee, in a non-anonymous interview frequently tries to avoid burning bridges to ensure good references or keep the possibility of returning open.  Exit surveys, on the other hand, can provide a safer way to provide feedback, but they are also reactive – discovering a problem that is too late to address because the person has already left. By using culture surveys, the aspects of the culture can be assessed and improved to prevent turnover.

GlassDoor, and even those chat channels, can be good sources to mine to potentially discover specific incidents or examples of unethical behavior, etc. But these sources of data are far more biased and less representative than employee survey data. These reviews and comments can’t be accurately applied to the workforce as a whole and don’t distinguish short term stress of a project vs. long-term change in sentiment about the company as a whole.

What actually works

That brings us back to employee surveys, which offer a far greater, more accurate, less risky opportunity to improve both employee well-being and an employer’s business health. And in these very uncertain times, surveying is more vital than ever to help leaders keep an ear to what’s happing in their organization, and know the changes they need to navigate to keep their company culture strong.

It’s a really terrible idea to get rid of surveys. But a really great idea to point them in the right direction.

Scott Young is CultureIQ’s Managing Director, Culture Solutions

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