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Viewpoint: Carefully Craft the Employee Engagement Survey

Senior management needs to act on survey results or employee trust will be lost

A person pressing a blue button on a keyboard.

​Employee engagement surveys often are the first step toward increasing employee engagement. But the surveys will be ineffective without the support of senior management, which is essential for the survey results to spark needed changes. Ensure that employees' responses will remain confidential to get honest answers, and keep the surveys simple and straightforward.

Survey's Purpose

Statistics show that organizations with highly engaged workforces generally outperform those with low employee engagement and typically have higher productivity and profitability, less employee turnover, and lower absenteeism rates.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

An employee engagement survey is designed to help HR and senior management understand how employees perceive their work environment and the extent to which they are engaged and committed. The survey can provide an organization with employee feedback to help it identify where it is maximizing employee potential and where attention is needed to improve staff motivation, productivity and retention. Human resources manager Kevin Epley, SHRM-SCP, of Landmark Automotive Group in Springfield, Ill., said, "With my own engagement survey experiences, I've learned to take the good and bad feedback and work with it for better employee engagement outcomes."

Preparing to Survey

It is recommended that HR gain the commitment of the organization's senior leadership to use and act on the survey data prior to undertaking the survey process. When the employer does not follow through after an engagement survey has been conducted, employees' trust is drastically reduced and the employer will have a harder time getting employee buy-in and participation in future efforts. When the employer follows through, however, employee trust grows.

An employee engagement survey should not have too many aims. It should focus on a small and manageable number of questions that are relevant and meaningful to the organization. To determine the design of the survey, the employer should consider what impact it wants the survey to have on the organization. As well as striving to understand and increase engagement, many employee surveys endeavor to improve key measures, for example, business performance, recruitment or staff retention.

Confidentiality Is a Top Priority

To encourage employees to participate in the survey, employers must ensure that they maintain employee confidentiality throughout their analysis. It is important that employers do not analyze results at a level or by using a demographic that will identify employees. This means that respondents should not be able to be identified from their responses. The employer should communicate to employees that confidentiality is important and guaranteed. If the employer doesn't ensure anonymity, it can undermine or erode the trust of employees, noted Adam Calli, SHRM-SCP, principal consultant at Arc Human Capital in Washington, D.C. "Without trust, you can't have a great place to work."

To ensure confidentiality, the employer should not analyze or share survey results at the team level in instances where a team provides fewer than 10 responses, nor should the employer break down results by demographic data if the demographic group is not large enough to ensure anonymity. However, these results will still feed into the results for the organization as a whole and any higher business-unit levels. Wording to this effect should be included on the survey.

Content and Process

The survey should be straightforward and easy to understand, administer and analyze. Marking all questions, or just marking potentially sensitive questions, as nonmandatory can encourage survey completion because this will enable employees to complete the survey while leaving blank questions that they would prefer not to answer. "The greater your response rate, the greater the insight you can draw from the survey," said Calli, "and the better tailored your go-forward strategy can be."

The survey should include specific questions to measure the level of employee engagement, such as whether employees would recommend the organization to a friend. One way of formatting the questions is to ask how much employees agree with statements like:

  • "I would recommend this company as a great place to work."
  • "I intend to be working here in 12 months' time."
  • "Working for this organization makes me want to do the best work I can."

A 5-point scale is recommended to allow for gradations in perception (versus "Yes"-"No" answers).

Employers should keep the survey title simple and avoid the term "engagement," which could be confusing to respondents.

Survey Results

Survey data should be analyzed for overall trends across all respondents, and, if relevant, broken down by large, intact departments, organizational units and/or demographic groups. The analysis should focus on a comparison between responses of "engaged" and responses of those who are "disengaged."

HR should be responsible for survey administration, data analysis and reporting. Reports of survey results should be available to HR and senior leadership. Once an employer has evaluated its engagement surveys and initiatives, it should follow through on needed changes. Employees should be apprised of any changes that are a result of survey findings.

'I've observed firsthand the fallout from an organization failing to follow through on those needed changes gleaned from an employee engagement survey,' said Kevin Epley, SHRM-SCP. 'Doing so only results in increased disengagement.' 

Improving employee engagement should be viewed as an ongoing process, with a number of diverse campaigns and initiatives, including the employee engagement survey.

In addition, "expect the engagement survey effort to be ongoing," said Calli. "A 'one-off' might yield results that could be interesting, but you really get the best ROI [return on investment] when you've done the survey a few times and can track trends and identify patterns."

Robert S. Teachout, SHRM-SCP, is an Brightmine™ HR & Compliance Centre legal editor in Washington, D.C. To download a free copy of Brightmine employee engagement white paper, visit Brightmine's website.


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