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Published on December 13, 2017

Six pitfalls of employee surveys

It is still common for companies to conduct annual employee satisfaction surveys. It is dangerous, though, to assume that the survey results tell what people really think. You need to dig into the results to understand what they mean and to figure out what to do about them. Here are a few traps you should avoid.

Never rely on averages only. Results of personnel polls are usually reported as average scores per question. Knowing the average without knowing the mean, the mode and the standard deviation may take you astray, especially with a smaller sample. Let’s see how a team of eight answered the question “How happy are you with your workload” on the scale of 1..4. Four persons answered 4 (very happy), three answered 1 (not happy at all), and one may answer 2 (not quite happy). The average becomes 2,6 which is far from anyone’s answer.

Watch out for extremes. There is always somebody who has had a bad day, an argument with the manager, a frustrating project, or a team that he or she does not fit into. A dissatisfied person tends to give very low grades on almost anything. Such a response is a fair and reasonable expression of that individual’s feelings but it is definitely not a fact or a common employee opinion. If there is an opportunity to give verbal feedback, too, the nastiest complaints made by few individuals are easily interpreted as “the opinion of the employees”.

Feelings are not facts. Employee polls are usually formulated as factual-looking claims, such as “I know what my objectives are” or “I get enough feedback about my team’s performance”. The answers, however, are never facts. They are feelings, usually honest feelings. Expression of dissatisfaction means dissatisfaction but not necessarily about the thing that was asked. Someone who says “I don’t know what my objectives are” may equally well mean “I don’t understand my objectives” or “I don’t like them” or “I always get the boring tasks” or “my boss sucks” or whatever. Dig deeper before making conclusions. 

Worry about silence. As long as people complain aloud things are reasonably well. Pay attention to those who did not participate at all. They may be just busy. They may be as skeptical about employee polls as I am. But quite likely, they have reached the point where they don’t care anymore. These are the people you should really worry about.

Satisfaction is not a measure of success. Well-meaning managers worry about “satisfaction” or “well-being” of their people. And they should, indeed. Happy employees make happy customers. But most people are not happy with change or uncertainty – and there is lot of it in the business today. The easiest way to make good averages in satisfaction surveys is to keep things rolling the old way as long as possible. That may be very short-sighted.

Organizations are made of individuals. Teams, departments, business units and corporations do not have feelings. They are not satisfied or dissatisfied. People are. And none of them is average.