David Galloreese

If you could only ask one question on your employee survey what would it be? Would you ask about the employee’s manager? Work-life balance? Fulfillment on the job? Perceptions of compensation and facilities? Whether or not they had fun at the holiday party?
Don’t answer yet.
I like this question because it forces you to stop and answer a more fundamental question: Why are you doing an employee survey in the first place?
The truth is, more often than not, companies who are collecting feedback from their employees can’t answer this question — or else they can a hundred different ways. The C-suite wants to know about morale and engagement, HR wants to know about that new training program they started, and Operations is curious about the new chairs and refrigerator.
The result: Employees are presented with a bunch of disparate questions that, not only fail to create a coherent narrative of their satisfaction and engagement, but also:

  • aren’t actionable;
  • have nothing to do with the success of your business;
  • have nothing to do with the needs of employees to successfully do their jobs; and
  • are meaningless to the point of incepting negativity (i.e. “How satisfied were you with this year’s company sweatshirt?”)

You end up with so much random data that all the departments and people who wanted to throw in questions aren’t really sure what to do with all the (sometimes even contradictory) answers. Little gets done as a result, and at most, you’ve got a set of benchmarks for when you next survey employees. But by then, they’ll be skeptical of the survey’s value, will engage with it less, and then even your data isn’t telling the whole truth.
Why does this keep happening at so many companies? For one, I think we live in times where there is a natural inclination toward gathering more — rather than less — data. It can be powerful in improving so many things, management included, so why not leverage the employee survey to gather more of it?
But instead, I’d argue that they’ve only become a proxy/strawman for good management.
In other words, these surveys are a once (or twice) a year check in on information and best practices that the company really should have a much more continuous, ongoing knowledge about. Questions tend toward the realm of “How are we doing?” —  while your management infrastructure should already know the answer. It’s like checking the weather on one day a year — in July — and making the assumption that all the other 364 days are warm, and everyone can go home happy.
So, how do you fix this and make the survey useful? The advice I can offer — start with the most important question you can always ask: why? Rather than the litany of reasons companies usually come up with to justify their surveys, what specifically can your employee survey help you accomplish? Putting your finger on this “reason to be” comes down to one part company strategy, one part prioritization, and one part understanding what a survey is most capable of helping you do.
This is something we had to do at Medallia. We realized we were collecting a lot of great data, but not in such a way that empowered us to systematically improve, across departments and in ways Medallians could actually see and touch. For us, the “why” of our survey came down to action. In other words, we wanted to make sure that, regardless of what questions we were asking, that someone (or some team) in the company was committed to doing something about each of the answers. If something didn’t clearly pass this test, it didn’t make the cut and was removed.
It’s absolutely still a work in progress, and what the actual survey looks like will continue to evolve. While we’ve been able to take action on big themes surfaced from surveys, we’re focusing our attention on more systematically (and continuously) working employee feedback into our operating rhythm as a company. This, we feel, is the key to truly continuous improvement. And we’ll keep learning and adjusting to make sure our employees and company are getting the most out of the feedback we collect.
So, to return now to my original question — if you could only have one question on your survey, what would it be? I know what mine would be, but I’ll save that for another time.

Photo credit: Maria Keays