10 Best Practices for Employee Surveys
By Patrick Gilbert, David Slavney, and David Tong
Employee motivation is vital to business success. Increasingly, it distinguishes
companies that thrive from those that fail to survive. A highly motivated workforce
delivers superior products and services, and this in turn leads to greater customer
satisfaction and improved sales performance.
Given the implications for business success, the measurement of employee motivation
and commitment through the use of employee surveys continues to increase, from an
estimated 50 percent of U.S. organizations in the 1980s (Delaney, Lewin, and Ichniowski,
1988) to more than 70 percent in the 1990s (Paul and Braken, 1995). Survey findings
have become a valued management information tool and are often used to identify
and prioritize issues for action, monitor the effectiveness of change initiatives,
establish performance objectives for managers, and provide metrics for the "people"
quadrant of the balanced scorecard.
Because survey results are increasingly being used to guide management decisions,
it is important to achieve a high level of participation to ensure that the findings
accurately reflect the key concerns of employees. When response rates are low, the
validity of the results will be called into question, and sufficient data may not
be available for organizational subgroups or locations, hindering local action planning
and follow-up. Moreover, a low response rate sends an ominous message that the workforce
is disengaged and employees feel they lack a collective voice in communicating their
concerns to management. All of this diminishes the return that an organization receives
on its considerable investment in the survey research effort.
Participation in an employee survey is a direct result of how well the survey process
is designed and implemented. Simply put, well-orchestrated surveys lead to higher
return rates. Following are 10 "best practices" for survey design and implementation
and the implications of these best practices for employee response rates. Also included
are key questions to ask at each step to ensure that your organization is adhering
to these practices.
- Establish clear goals and objectives. In the early planning stage, articulate
the overall goals and objectives of the survey and define the anticipated return
on investment. These objectives should be developed with management input and clearly
communicated to employees in order to demonstrate the importance of the process.
Without long-term objectives that are clearly linked to company performance, the
survey may fail to elicit the management support and secure the resources required
Key question: What does the organization hope to achieve and what are the implications
for company performance?
- Develop a communication plan. Prepare a comprehensive communication plan
to support each stage of the survey. The plan should include a schedule of communication
"events" as well as a budget and formally assigned responsibilities. In the absence
of a communication plan, employees may not recognize the importance of the process
or see the connection between survey findings and subsequent follow-up actions.
Key question: Who should prepare and issue survey-related messages and when should
these messages be communicated?
- Brand the survey process. The survey should be "branded" with a tag line
and an identifiable graphic logo. The branding will help to provide continuity across
each stage of the survey and establish the process as an ongoing activity, rather
than a one-time event. When possible, the survey should be linked to other ongoing
change initiatives. Without branding, the survey may be seen by employees as an
unconnected initiative that will have limited consequences for the organization.
Key question: What theme does management want to convey through the employee survey
and how is this integrated with wider company change initiatives?
- Allocate sufficient resources. Estimate the resources that will be required
to develop and implement your survey and to support follow-up actions. These resources
should be budgeted at the start of the process and be taken into account in business
plans. When this is not done, the survey follow-up stage will lack the support required
to be effective and will often meet with resistance from line management. In addition,
employees might be convinced to participate in one survey, but if they see no tangible
evidence of change after the survey, they are not likely to make the effort to participate
again in the future.
Key question: Who will be required to manage and support the survey and what resources
will be required for the process to be successful?
- Define roles and responsibilities. Support your survey by creating a network
of internal survey champions with responsibility for identifying the requirements
for their part of the business, managing data collection, and supporting follow-up
actions. Survey champions must be sold on the value of the survey and given a clear
description of their role requirements so that they can budget their time accordingly.
Similarly, managers who receive survey results for their areas of operation also
should be given clear instructions regarding their responsibilities for survey follow-up.
When this is not done, management is less likely to communicate survey results to
employees or take action in response to the findings, and employees are less likely
to have faith in the value of the survey process.
Key question: What are the specific responsibilities of the survey champions and
what are the requirements of managers who receive survey results for their areas
- Demonstrate management commitment. The research process will have greater
credibility if employees believe that it is endorsed and supported by senior management.
Senior management commitment can reassure employees that their views will be taken
into account and acted on. When management commitment is lacking, employees may
view the survey as a public relations exercise designed to project a "caring" management
style rather than a process for identifying and acting on employee concerns.
Key question: Who is the principal sponsor of the employee research and how is this
person’s commitment to the process demonstrated?
- Ask the right questions the right way. The survey should be designed to measure
areas that are of concern to management and employees. Even when the questionnaire
includes standardized items, the wording should be modified to reflect the culture
of the company. An "off the shelf" instrument that fails to address issues of concern
or that fails to reflect the language and terminology of the organization will be
seen as lacking in relevance and will fail to engage employees.
Key question: What are the topic areas that should be covered in the survey and how
should these questions be asked?
- Collect data the right way at the right time. Consider the data-collection
methodology that is best suited to your workforce. Traditionally, surveys have been
administered using printed questionnaires, but the technology is now readily available
for conducting online surveys that make data collection easier, more efficient,
and less costly. Ease and convenience translate into higher response rates.
In addition, unless there is a specific need to coordinate with other business processes
or a budgeting cycle, a survey generally should be administered at a time when it
will pose a minimal disruption to the business and when a maximum number of employees
are available for participation. Times of peak business activity or when employees
are likely to be on vacation should be avoided. Similarly, data collection generally
should not be undertaken during times when management and employee relations are
tense--for example, during a contract negotiation, industrial action, or downsizing
Equally important, survey administration should be scheduled so that the findings
are available in time to be included in business plans. This will position the survey
as a business-planning tool and secure the necessary budget for follow-up actions.
Poor scheduling for survey administration will invariably reduce line-management
support for data collection and may result in data being available too late to influence
budget or other business decisions.
Key question: What is the optimal time of the year to administer the survey and when
will data have to be available for the business-planning process?
- Take clear follow-up action. The most effective way to build confidence in
the survey process, and thereby improve participation rates for future surveys,
is for the organization to take clear and visible action based on survey results.
A realistic number of areas should be targeted for follow-up action to allow the
organization to concentrate and focus resources on issues that will have the greatest
impact on performance. Failure to take action will create apathy toward the survey,
and targeting too many issues will diffuse the effectiveness of follow-up actions.
Key question: What are the key areas for action and which actions are most likely
to affect performance?
- Review and audit the process. A formal audit process should be planned to
monitor the effectiveness of follow-up actions and to measure progress against objectives.
Actions that meet with success should be widely communicated and celebrated. This
audit should also include an assessment of the ROI associated with follow-up actions
in order to determine where investments should be increased, reduced, or discontinued.
Measuring the effectiveness and ROI of follow-up actions will enhance the business
relevance of the survey for both employees and managers. It sends out the signal
that the survey isn’t simply a nice thing to do--it’s good for business.
Key question: How effective are the survey follow-up actions and what is the ROI
for the company?
Enhancing employee motivation has become a business imperative and is essential
to compete effectively in today’s market. The employee survey can be used to develop
a strategy for creating a high-motivation work environment and improving business
performance. Achieving a high response rate ensures that the survey findings are
valid and can be used for local as well as organization-wide action planning.
Adopting the best practices outlined above will engage both management and employees
in the survey process and can serve as a catalyst for cultural change, creating
an environment in which employees are involved and have a productive and open dialogue
Patrick J. Gilbert, Ph.D., is a team leader in the organizational research and development
group for Mercer Human Resource Consulting in the UK. David H. Slavney is a principal
and senior communication consultant with Mercer, and David Tong is a principal and
senior consultatn in the organizational research and development group. Mercer Human
Resource Consulting is a consulting unit of Marsh & McLennan Companies, Inc.