Bad management practices killed employee surveys. 7 ways to get reliable employee feedback

In the wild pandemic world of constant fear and change, management needs feedback from employees to keep them aligned, motivated, safe, and innovative. Are employee surveys still useful — given how they have been carelessly overused and in the face of emerging digital tools powered by Artificial Intelligence?

This past weekend, two human resources powerhouses, Josh Bersin and Peter Cappelli of the Wharton School wrote separate pieces on employee surveys. What’s especially interesting is that they came to hugely different conclusions.

Josh Bersin argued in a blog post that the survey industry is not dead and is becoming smarter by the minute. Peter Cappelli — making his case in the Wall Street Journal — appeared to offer a similar opinion — until he pointed out that management has overused such tools, does not do anything with the data, and have better options to stay in touch with workers.

Cappelli writes, “Workers don’t like the surveys and often won’t respond to them, and most companies don’t do anything with the results anyway. And now, management has access to a host of other data that can tell it what is going on in the workplace far better and faster than the annual survey can.”

Cappelli points out that in a LeadershipIQ survey, 60 percent of human resources executives admitted that their organizations either do nothing with the results or deal only with the easy issues.

I survey workforces for a living, using an empirically developed assessment, the InnovationOne Health Index©, to measure and benchmark a company’s culture and capability to innovate. It is not at all like a typical employee satisfaction survey because it broadly measures culture. Companies that score high in our benchmarking have a strong correlation with profitable growth. Before my consulting, I surveyed employee populations for more than 30 years as an HR leader for global divisions of Medtronic and Honeywell. My experience gives me some advice for you.

If you won’t follow these two rules, don’t survey.

Cappelli is correct. Surveys are overused and too often management does not do anything with the results which has created a cynical workforce that doesn’t want to spend its time completing a survey that will not led to improvement. The bottom line is, employees have grown tired of surveys.

I had a rule I used with my executive teams: if you aren’t going to share a summary of the survey results and take action based on the results, DON’T ADMINISTER THE SURVEY. My second rule was to pick three actions to work on, tell the workforce of your plans, and work them feverishly to a better outcome, keeping the workforce informed along the way.

Cappelli recalls the rise of surveys in the 1950s when it was incorrectly thought that happy employees were more productive employees. Gallup then published research in 2000 showing an empirical relationship between “engagement” and productivity. Employee engagement is a multi-billion-dollar industry that has earned blind faith. But the concept of “engagement” is vague, Cappelli writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Engagement, however, is a vague concept with multiple definitions, and many of the drivers of engagement aren’t things that can be changed easily. As Cappelli observes, engagement is going to be higher in a children’s hospital, for example, where most everyone sees the mission as important, compared with an investment firm, where not everyone is as motivated to make more money for those who already have it. A second issue is that engagement on its own isn’t a good measure of job performance, which is what most business leaders ultimately want to know.

A Better Way to Move Forward

Below are seven practices to get reliable employee feedback

No. 1. Make sure managers are listening to their teams. With the constant change during the digital age and the health fears and life and family disruptions of COVID-19, it is essential to have honest and empathetic discussions among managers and their teams on the phone or through ZOOM. This is better than a survey. Make sure managers are clearly discussing changes, the desired benefit, and asking for questions and ongoing feedback.

No. 2. Listen to the discussion in company chat rooms using AI. Both Josh Bersin and Dr. Cappelli point out that today’s Artificial Intelligence capability allows companies to gather data they already have in emails and chat rooms and learn from it. Cappelli reports that some companies create chat rooms and monitor them closely to learn what employee think about policies and practices. Amir Goldberg at Stanford University and Sameer Srivastava at the University of California, Berkeley, have done groundbreaking work assessing and measuring the culture of organizations by studying the language employees use in their electronic communications, such as emails, Slack messages and Glassdoor reviews.

Cappelli reports that up to 87% of companies already monitor employee email, although how much of that is simple checks for inappropriate content via scanning software isn’t clear. I was shocked to see the number was this high, and to also learn that 77 percent of employees say it is acceptable for companies to monitor employees’ work-related email. But the devil is in the details. Ethical and careful companies let employees know what they are monitoring. And as with surveys, necessary information should be gathered from email without identifying the authors, as it is only necessary to see average results.

No. 3. Use exit interviews. I have found that exit interviews are extremely useful in getting insightful information from departing employees who are more inclined to be forthright with their answers, especially if the information is only reported in aggregate. So did Peter Cappelli. Exit interviews when they are conducted in person are especially revealing.

No. 4. Track workforce metrics. You will learn a lot about the morale and dedication of your workforce by tracking meaningful metrics such as trends of internal transfer, harassment complaints, individual and team performance trends (as Bersin points out it is made easier by today’s performance management platforms), and turnover, especially when tracked to the department level.

No. 5. Benchmark pay and benefits offerings. In conducting exit interviews for employees that were being laid off by a company, I learned that the pay and benefits of the company was the highest rated feature. However, internal employee surveys showed that pay and benefits were one of the worst rated qualities. Sharing this fact, I asked the leadership team to benchmark their pay and benefits. We learned that they paid at market levels and offered benefits better than market levels. This discovery illustrates a long-standing psychological facet related to pay, first articulated by Frederick Herzberg. Pay and benefits are a hygiene factor. They motivate employees to come to work and employees expect at-market pay and benefits, but higher-than-market pay and benefits don’t motivate workers to take discretionary effort. (Incentives do, however, along with meaningful work, a sense of achievement and supportive managers). The joy of a pay increase can last for about two months, and then it wears off. When you survey on pay and benefits you will frequently get a worse response rate than the relative value of your pay and benefits compared to your peers, so don’t survey on the topic.

No. 6. Consider pulse surveys. Short pulse surveys taken to gather feedback on well-known strategic milestones and messages can be immensely helpful—but don’t overdo it. Besides, their response rates are much higher than typical surveys.

No. 7. Use empirically developed comprehensive surveys strategically. Cappelli and Bersin agree that continuing to use surveys is still important and useful. We have seen response rates to our innovation surveys as high as 70 percent, but this achievement is in the context of making transformative change to a company’s strategy and culture to ward off competition, improve innovation, make substantive changes, and improve financial performance. As I wrote above, do not survey the population unless you will share a summary of the results with employees and take action to address employee concerns.

Today, management needs to over communicate its strategies and changing priorities and listen to employee feedback. Technology provides us with new listening tools that we should use along with smart surveys to navigate the world’s chaos, ethically and wisely. Yet, never forget the importance of empathetic and supportive managers who keep an open dialogue with their teams.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting, managing partner of InnovationOne, and Sales Advisor to MeBeBot. He works with companies to transform HR, implement remote work, recruit executives, and to develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and cultures of innovation. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at 



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