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Tools Of The Devil – Employee Surveys

I’m starting a new series called Tools of the Devil.  Here’s where we’ll take a look at some of the more idiotic things that organizations do usually without thinking how idiotic they really are. The series kick-off is focused on the ridiculous exercise of employee surveys. 

Employee satisfaction surveys are a waste of time and energy but nearly all organizations continue to do them. Why? Undoubtedly, it’s the feel-good factor of crossing something off the list of things you’re supposed to do. And of all the things you’re supposed to do as an HR manager, the employee survey is right there at the top. You’re supposed to ask your employees if they are satisfied. You’re supposed to ask your employees if they know their jobs. You’re supposed to ask your employees about their managers. You’re supposed to ask a lot of things…

Here’s the problem: a survey is a craptacular tool for determining any of this in a meaningful way. What these survey questions aim to understand, on a surface level, is satisfaction, but on a deeper level the purpose is to understand the relationships between an employee and his or her work…which, if you think about it, is rather absurd. Would you send your spouse a survey to measure their satisfaction with your relationship? How about your kids…they’d love that, right? So why the hell do most organizations continue with this shallow and increasingly pointless exercise?

Organizations are – and always have been – fixated on benchmarks and quantitative measures. Notice how many organizations survey their folks and then quickly go to compare their results with other organizations? It’s like when my daughter brings home a 95% on a test but then quickly states that her friend only got 90%. What does that mean? Absolutely nothing. What I’m more interested in is whether she actually retains enough of the learning, not whether she could pass the damn test again. Again, it’s the relationship…in this case the relationship that my daughter has to the learning.

I can practically hear the response now, “But Chris, how can we be sure that we’re making progress on our goals if we don’t have some type of measurement?” My response is, “How can you be so sure that your precious survey is an honest assessment of whatever it is that you’re trying to measure?” What a typical employee survey does is try to ask very general, shallow questions in an attempt to get a broad, baseline understanding of the company’s human resources. If you think you can understand the relationship between individual and organization through such an instrument, I have some land that I’d like to sell to you.

A survey allows for anonymous feedback which will be more honest. The notion that ‘anonymous = honest’ is a myth. Let’s step back and ask why someone might want to conduct an employee survey. Worst case scenario is that it’s done just to cross something off a managerial to-do list. Not too far behind this rationale is that it’s done because other organizations do it. But somewhere edging toward a more noble reason is because you want to learn about your employees. Yet, just because it’s noble still doesn’t make it the best option.

Here’s a fairly typical scenario for thinking about honesty through anonymity. You send an employee survey out asking for frank and honest feedback. Employees, in an attempt to maintain their anonymity, will try to keep their remarks general so their comments can’t be traced back to them. The remarks tend to also be shallow, never really getting to the root of the issue because the survey asks for feedback out of context to the situation. Then, at some point in the process, the manager receives the feedback. What do they do with it? Let’s say its negative feedback. Because it’s anonymous, the manager questions the validity since no one is openly responsible for the comments. Or perhaps the manager wants to learn more about an employee’s opinion, but can’t because he or she has to keep up the facade of anonymity. Which all begs a question…do anonymous employee surveys diminish instead of build the kind of organizational trust needed to put the feedback into action?

If you really want to know what your employees think about their work, their managers, their colleagues, and most importantly, their relationship to the organization, step out from behind your desk and start asking questions face-to-face. Stop relying on surveys  and making ritual sacrifices to the gods of quantitative measurement. I won’t lie. If this is a new practice in your organization, it’s going to take time and effort to cultivate an open dialogue. Conversations about work and meaning and individual purpose are hard, but the fruit of these conversations will be a hell of a lot better than yet another spiral bound survey analysis report gather dust on the corporate bookshelf.

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