Is It Time to Ditch the Annual Employee Survey?

Two HR executives debate the issue.

By Vivian Rank and Phillip B. Wilson Jan 24, 2017
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We need to double-down on measuring employee engagement. 

RankI recently fielded an employee engagement survey for my company; it was the first such assessment we had conducted since 2011. Why, you may ask, did we let five years pass without listening to the collective voice of our 28,000 employees? 

Well, we were in the midst of intense change. Leaders came and went, and we spent most of our effort working to turn the company around. It was a time to batten down the hatches, cut back on expenses and look to the future. While we continued to review customer survey data, hold focus groups and consult with external firms to interpret our shoppers’ feedback, we did not do the same for our employees. 

That was a mistake, and one that could have cost us more than the dollars we saved by not conducting a survey for five years.

In reality, understanding the wants and needs of employees has never been more important. A 2015 study by the intellectual property equity firm Ocean Tomo found that publicly traded U.S. companies realize 87 percent of their value from intangible assets—in other words, the contributions of people—and only 13 percent from tangible ones (cash, equipment, land, etc.). In the 1980s, that ratio was almost completely flip-flopped—with about 80 percent of companies’ value coming from tangible assets compared to 20 percent intangible. In today’s world, having a good, capable, engaged, high-performing workforce can mean the difference between success and failure. 

Still, after not having gathered feedback for so long, I wasn’t sure it would be worthwhile to pick up with annual surveys again. I consulted with Don MacPherson, co-founder of Modern Survey, the backbone technology platform for Aon Hewitt’s talent measurement capabilities and current global head of talent marketing for Aon. He told me that “engagement surveys are highly predictive of future employee behavior, particularly around retention.” 

[SHRM Members-only resource: Toolkit—Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

We made the right call in doing a survey in 2016. In addition to gaining a better understanding of our levels of engagement, we now know more about Millennial employees’ career development needs. We also understand that our new hires need additional training, and we are taking steps to give it to them. As a result of the survey, we are thinking about how to integrate our engagement data with other key metrics, including retention, performance and diversity. And we are considering moving to more-frequent surveys. 

Indeed, MacPherson is seeing companies conduct engagement surveys more often rather than less. Of organizations with more than 1,000 employees, 45 percent are measuring engagement more than once annually or considering moving in that direction, he says. 

Nevertheless, most still haven’t made that leap. And if we, as a Fortune 500 company, don’t yet have the analytics support to conduct frequent surveys, surely many other employers are in the same situation. In the meantime, fielding an annual survey is far better than doing nothing.

The speed of business requires us to be flexible in many aspects, including keeping up with our employees’ needs and wants. The only way to do that is to ask them, and the best tool we have for doing that is the employee engagement survey. 

Vivian Rank is the senior manager of talent management at Supervalu Inc. in Eden Prairie, Minn.

 These surveys rarely capture real-time information that drives change.

WilsonForgoing an annual survey may sound like a sacrilege. I and others have recommended engagement surveys for nearly 25 years. My company conducts these assessments for clients, and I have seen organizations transform using data from them. So why abandon them now? Here are three reasons:

Information overload. When you collect data once a year, you want to glean a lot of information. That’s understandable. But for many organizations, the result is paralysis by analysis, which occurs when people feel unable to move forward in light of overwhelming data that paradoxically never seems comprehensive enough to drive decisions. It happens in part because the options for slicing and dicing data today are seemingly endless. 

Whenever you choose certain areas within the results to attack—typically, those that reveal the most need for improvement—you inevitably feel you are leaving important issues behind. Yet trying to tackle everything all but guarantees you won’t accomplish anything. Employees can feel alienated by either approach.

If you do take action, you may wind up responding to symptoms rather than their underlying cause. I call this the “whack a mole” problem. You might have an action plan for improving each item in the “engagement” category, for instance, but it ignores the unapproachable leaders who are driving disengagement, either because you didn’t ask about them or employees didn’t feel comfortable pointing them out.

Moving target. My company turns around surveys in two weeks—which is fast—but the data-collection process can take an additional few weeks, depending on the organization’s size, as can getting schedules aligned to review results.

Consequently, many companies fall into the trap of focusing on “problems” that are no longer problems. This is not just a waste of time and resources; it can actually create new employee relations issues.

Mistrust. By the time employees hear about survey results, they often have forgotten what they answered and why. This can cause some to feel misrepresented or misunderstood, regardless of whether their feedback was positive or negative. It’s not a good way to begin what is supposed to be an encouraging employee relations experience.

So what should a company do instead to assess engagement, which has been shown to be critical to success?

One option: Collect smaller, more-targeted data more frequently. Ask a subset of employees every quarter or every month to respond to a series of statements in certain areas, such as leader approachability or turnover intention. Results can be captured on a dashboard and discussed in regular meetings. While there are many innovative apps and tools available for gathering such information, pulse surveys can also be low-tech, in part because they are, by design, limited in focus. Some of my company’s clients use paper and pencil.

Another direction is to meet regularly with groups of employees. Ask them what they need, what’s working, what’s frustrating. Focus groups work best in organizations where things are going well. If there is mistrust between employees and management, anonymous surveys are likely a better option. 

Should your company abandon its survey? That depends. I wouldn’t change something that’s working for you. But just as some companies are replacing annual performance reviews with more-frequent check-ins, many leaders are moving to fluid employee feedback mechanisms that better reflect today’s dynamic work environment. So if your survey isn’t moving the needle on engagement, it’s time to consider the alternatives.

Phillip B. Wilson is the founder of Approachable Leadership in Broken Arrow, Okla., and president and general counsel of the Labor Relations Institute. He is the author of The Approachability Playbook and two other business titles. 

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