Worker Mistrust Leads to Flawed Data in Engagement Surveys

By Dave Zielinski April 22, 2022
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​Human resource leaders rely on the results of employee engagement surveys and other common feedback tools like exit surveys to make many weighty decisions. Retaining critical talent, creating hybrid work schedules and investing in new HR technologies all are influenced by the burgeoning amount of data collected through employee listening platforms.

But experts say there's an insidious and growing problem with making high-stakes people decisions based on this data: A rising level of worker mistrust is leading to less-than-honest responses on engagement surveys. More workers now fear consequences for being candid, and others are skeptical that their feedback will be used to make any meaningful change in the workplace.

A 2021 survey by Gartner found only 29 percent of employees trust their organizations with data collected through common feedback processes and technologies. A February 2022 survey by AllVoices, an employee feedback management platform in Santa Monica, Calif., found that only 47 percent of employees were fully honest when giving feedback directly to HR, with respondents who didn't share honest feedback saying they feared retaliation if they were candid and didn't believe their organizations wanted truly honest input, according to the survey authors. The AllVoices study surveyed 1,000 full-time U.S. employees at companies with 100 or more workers.

Fallout From Worker Mistrust

Workplace experts say employees not being candid when providing feedback—whether that data is attributed to them or is gathered anonymously—can undermine investments in next-generation employee listening technologies, since any efficiencies gained in distributing surveys or compiling and analyzing results do little good if the data is unreliable.

"Our research shows the industry has a big problem with this, and there is a layer of challenge with getting honest data that HR and talent analytics leaders are overlooking," said Mark Whittle, vice president of research and advisory at Gartner, during a presentation at the company's recent Reimagine HR Conference. "HR leaders can't do their jobs without good, reliable feedback data."

One of the main factors driving the problem is a growing lack of trust among employees in how organizations use their data, Whittle said.

"If employees don't trust, they aren't likely to be open and honest with their organizations when asked to provide input," he said. "It's not that employees will be dishonest with everything they share, but they will be guarded. That means they may turn out to be unreliable narrators in the talent analytics stories we're trying to tell."

How to Get More Honest Feedback

Whittle said Gartner's research shows the key to getting more honest data is to enhance transparency and improve communication with employees at all three stages of the surveying process: before surveys are launched, while data collection is under way, and after survey results are gathered and analyzed.

Gartner's research found when organizations are effective at communicating in all three of those phases, 86 percent of surveyed employees indicate a high level of trust in their employers in using their data.

"If you can effectively communicate in these three areas, the employee trust meter can go through the roof," Whittle said. "That leads to workers offering more honest and reliable data."

SHRM Online talked to industry experts about how HR and talent leaders can improve communication throughout the feedback-gathering process with the goal of building trust. Here are some of their ideas.

Communicating before data collection. Whittle said organizations should move away from communicating their "transactional" practices around data ethics to creating a data ethics "partnership" with employees.

For example, Whittle said many companies send e-mails to the workforce in advance of launching surveys with some variety of this language: To participate see our legal agreement and accept the terms and conditions of our employee data collection policy.

"Employees often feel such e-mails are just a legal disclaimer," Whittle said. "You need to move beyond communications that ask employees to check a data privacy box with little or no context or explanation about the policy. Instead, create and socialize a more holistic data ethics framework that contains a set of principles you abide by all the time."

Whittle said one company with best practices in this area is global pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). The company communicates a framework that sets expectations for data collection with four key tenets:

  • Foster trust through open and accessible policies.
  • Be accountable and responsible by aligning with legal requirements and ensuring only those who need to know can see feedback data.
  • Be impact-driven by using the data for meaningful change.
  • Be rigorous by turning down survey projects or practices that might violate ethical standards.

"It's a living, breathing framework that provides context regarding the principles GSK uses for all of its data collection," Whittle said.

Brett Wells, global head of people analytics for Perceptyx, an employee feedback platform provider in Temecula, Calif., said the key to getting more honest feedback starts with communicating effectively before surveys or other data-collection methods like exit surveys are undertaken.

"You need to create a psychologically safe environment to get employees to be honest with you," Wells said. "That starts by clearly communicating what the employee data will and won't be used for and ensuring that you're collecting enough survey data so respondents can stay anonymous if anonymity is the goal."

Communicating during data collection. Whittle said employees often are skeptical while filling out engagement or other surveys that the data they provide will be used to create any relevant improvements in their work lives. Without a high level of trust in the organization, some also are concerned there will be blowback from giving honest feedback.

"For example, someone filling out a pulse survey about their impressions of remote work might be having some productivity challenges while working remotely but may not want to admit it because they're concerned the company could take the remote option away," Whittle said. "That's a trust issue."

One way to build trust in this phase is to encourage two-way dialogue with employees, Whittle said. For example, GSK uses a social media platform to communicate with workers as surveys are being completed.

"GSK has a dedicated communications portal with topic centers that might focus on things like data privacy issues in the news, where its talent analytics team proactively communicates with employees on various aspects of data collection and where it poses questions like how certain surveying efforts or questions might be more useful to employee teams," he said.

Communicating after survey data is collected and analyzed. Actions taken during this step are perhaps the most critical to building employee trust, Whittle said. "At this stage, many employees often think, 'I'm glad I didn't spend too much time on that survey because I doubt the company will do anything with the findings,' " he said. "We've conditioned employees not to expect much from surveys."

It's vital to show employees examples of how feedback is used to make real improvements to work processes or policies, Whittle said, and to do so as quickly as possible. "Don't just provide a generalized intention of acting on the feedback in the form of sending an e-mail to everyone who completed the survey," he said. "Provide use cases of how feedback has led to specific improvements."

For example, Whittle said technology giant Microsoft sends follow-up e-mails both to employee groups and individuals detailing actions taken on survey feedback. One such e-mail informed a Microsoft employee how his feedback was used to improve a company onboarding process.

"The employee had had a less-than-optimal experience with onboarding the year prior," Whittle said. "Bold text at the bottom of the e-mail first thanked the employee for providing feedback and then described specifically how that input was used to improve onboarding."

Patrick Manzo, CEO of Kazoo, an employee experience platform provider in Austin, Texas, said good communication in this phase is essential to building trust. "You need to provide concrete and repeated evidence that you are taking employee feedback seriously," Manzo said. "You also need to provide workers who complete surveys with a summary of the results, whether those results are good, bad or indifferent."

Dave Zielinski is principal of Skiwood Communications, a business writing and editing company in Minneapolis.

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