Make sure your surveys aren't disengagement tools

Springing a pulse survey on your employees and then failing to feed back or act on the results quickly turns the survey into a disengagement tool

I remember the event that disengaged a friend from a job he had enjoyed, and a company he valued, for years. It was a survey.

His employer asked him how he ‘felt’ about a planned change to how his department’s work was organised, and then ignored his feedback. He was incandescent.

As far as he was concerned his employer had broken faith with him, and with colleagues who shared his view. They had failed to listen, and to communicate. Afterwards he and others in his team left.

The question is: at what point did it all go wrong? The answer: probably from the start.

Without a doubt organisations, and employees, can benefit from pulse surveys. They provide a way of quickly gathering actionable feedback that is in the moment and reflects the realities of a working environment more closely than annual performance reviews. With the widespread availability of cloud-based HR systems, they are also easier and cheaper to run than ever before.

However, the fact that you can run pulse surveys doesn’t mean that you should. First, it’s important to ask what you are trying to achieve and why. Are you really looking to take the ‘pulse’ of employees? Or are you trying to influence change? Perhaps it’s a bit of both?

If the former, do you have the authority to act on what you hear – even if it is totally unexpected? If the latter, are pulse surveys really the best approach – and, if so, where do they fit into the wider HR strategy?

As research suggests, when we get to the crux of the matter, it is the actual work staff are doing that really counts. It is this and only this that will foster intrinsic motivation and ongoing engagement. Surveys need to encourage productive and focused discussions, with real outcomes that make work life better.

Get this right and your engaged employees will want to perform well for no other reason than the personal reward it brings them. In this scenario there are very tangible performance and productivity gains to be reaped.

What makes the difference between a good pulse survey and a bad one? The answer isn’t straightforward. It’s not just about having clear objectives and crafting good questions; it’s also about your company culture – and how ready your employees are to participate in a way that is authentic and genuine.

If employees are concerned that their responses could count against them, even when surveys are anonymous, there is plenty of evidence to suggest they will play safe and try to second-guess what you’d like to hear, rather than sharing what they really think.

Don’t take employees’ time and commitment for granted either. If you don’t want pulse surveys to become a box-ticking exercise, or one that is ignored altogether, you need to highlight their personal relevance and significance. And, of course, be prepared to prove you are listening and acting on feedback.

Even when employees are prepared to give open and honest answers, the actual survey can influence the data you collect. As a profession HR is more than aware of the pitfalls of unconscious bias.

Together with the way you ask the questions, the language you use, and the order they are presented in, even the colour of design elements, such as tick boxes or the use of graphics, can skew outcomes. The recommendation is to use gender-neutral questions – and keep check boxes plain.

The next step is to ask yourself if the data ‘makes sense’. It’s important not to accept it at face value, and to use your experience and wider understanding of your workforce to question the data. Cultural influences can have a huge impact.

For example, when asked to rate something on a scale of zero to 10, Americans are more likely to score a 10 to indicate they are extremely satisfied, while a European is more likely to go for an eight. A key consideration, therefore, is how to keep these cultural nuances in mind, and normalise the data if required.

Ultimately pulse surveys are just one tool in employee engagement. Used correctly they can be a great way to understand how your employees are feeling at a given time. But they need to be integrated into a well-thought-out internal communications plan.

Springing a pulse survey on your employees and then failing to feed back or act on the results quickly turns the survey into a disengagement tool. It’s OK if an organisation can’t implement all the changes that employees raise in a survey, what’s not OK is going radio silent post-survey.

So, before embarking on a pulse survey, ask yourself: Am I asking the right questions, and compensating for bias as much as possible? How will I collate and make sense of the responses? What will I communicate back to the business, especially if the results aren’t favourable or actionable?

A solid plan built around these questions will ensure your pulse survey remains an engagement, and not a disengagement, tool.

Sue Lingard is marketing director at Cezanne HR