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Employee Engagement Surveys: Why Do Workers Distrust Them?

A woman working at her desk in an office.

​This is the time of year when many companies are asking workers to fill out surveys that measure how content they are with their jobs, compensation, benefits and managers.

HR departments often find it difficult to get employees to complete these employee engagement surveys. Sometimes, when workers do fill them out and HR discovers a department has a morale problem, it can be just as difficult to get those workers to speak up and explain why they're unhappy.   

And there's a reason for that, employee engagement experts say.

Employee engagement surveys, and the way they're administered, tend to have flaws that either prevent leaders from truly understanding morale at their companies, or from doing much to lift morale if it's low, said Rajeev Peshawaria, author of Open Source Leadership: Reinventing Management When There's No More Business As Usual (McGraw-Hill, 2017), and CEO of The Iclif Leadership and Governance Centre, a Malaysia-based nonprofit that focuses on executive education, research and coaching.

For one thing, he said, the best-performing employees are often so busy that they don't take time to fill out such surveys. Hence, he said, "the bulk of the data therefore [comes from] average- or low-performing employees."

For another, he said, some workers don't believe that such surveys will protect their anonymity. So they refuse to fill them out.

No Such Thing as Anonymity?

Are engagement surveys really anonymous?

Many surveys ask such detailed information about the respondent—what department they work in, their general title, their compensation level, how many years they've been with the company—that workers suspect that managers can easily figure out which replies were from whom.

"There is no such thing as anonymous," Peshawaria said. "If management really wants to find out who said what, they easily can. That said, the difference between ethical and unethical management is whether they choose to find out. It boils down to trust."

Most such surveys are "confidential" but not "anonymous," said Peter Foley and Megan Connolly, a principal and a senior consultant, respectively, with Purchase, N.Y.-based Mercer Sirota, an employee engagement consultancy.

"They are not technically anonymous because the [company] is typically receiving … data that indicates the employee's business unit, tenure, etc.," they said. "Depending on the number of these demographic questions, this approach can generate … concern and skepticism regarding confidentiality."

One way to combat that skepticism, they said, is for the company or its HR department to not only emphasize the confidentiality of the survey, but to also address concerns that demographic information about the respondent won't be used to peg replies to specific employees.

Another way, they said, is to rely on an independent third party to administer the survey and analyze the results, with the understanding that the company may have aggregate information about respondents' demographics, but not individual information that might allow them to identify respondents.

Marathon Health, a Winooski, Vt.-based company that helps employers provide workers with personalized health care plans, asks employees to share their workplace experiences several times throughout the year, not just on an annual survey, said Matt Riley, SHRM-SCP, Marathon Health's vice president of people operations.

"If we betray that confidence, we know we won’t get the truth going forward," he said. "We do everything we can to build and keep that trust."  He noted that some employee engagement surveys aggregate data in a manner so that no demographic data is reveealed unless there are at least five or six responses.

Addressing Employee Discontent

If a survey reveals widespread discontent in a department, whether a leader will be able to address employee concerns will depend on how candid workers feel they can be with that leader.

"They need to trust that leader, and trust that there won't be retaliation for speaking the truth," Peshawaria said.

"To earn trust, [a leader] should have demonstrated all along that he cared about his employees, and should not have waited until the survey to find out that there was a morale problem," he said. "Surveys are a very poor substitute for daily face-to-face communication. The idea is to create enough trust such that people can speak up without having to hide behind surveys. Keep talking to your people all year long, stay in touch with their issues and keep inspiring them about the mission and purpose of the organization."

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

When leaders do learn of morale problems through surveys, "their reactions can range from denial and defensiveness, to an embracing attitude that looks at the results as a baseline measure upon which improvements can be made," Foley and Connolly said.

"It is incumbent upon the organization being surveyed, as well as [any] outside consultant, to help foster an environment where the survey is seen as an integral and on-going way of doing business, not a means for retribution," they said.  

For instance, workers aren't likely to be honest about their concerns if a manager has a habit of yelling at or berating direct reports, is prone to discount their suggestions, or tends to grow defensive or to cast blame when something reflects poorly on his department. In addition, they said, a manager who discovers low morale among his workers, then calls a brief, half-hour meeting and asks them to discuss their concerns, tends to send the message that their concerns aren't that important.

"Employee survey results are not opportunities to take employees to task," Riley said. "Approaching the responses with the employees’ best interests in mind is a start. The key is to be open and listen—and if there’s a problem, strategize on how to approach fixing it."   

If employees are not comfortable being candid with their manager, a third-party facilitator can be very effective, Foley and Connolly said.

"Bringing in an outside facilitator to conduct focus groups and generate actions for improvement … can often be a way of … generating ideas for re-establishing trusting relationships."  

Finally, they said, the survey will only be as successful as the effort managers put into post-survey change. "For employees to trust that the [time] they take out of their day to respond to a survey is worthwhile, they need to see managers sharing the survey responses with their team in a constructive way, asking for ideas on how to improve and making a commitment to these changes."

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