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Do Employee Engagement Surveys Matter Anymore?

I have taken the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey since its inception in 2003. My experience with this annual ritual spans three agencies that have cabinet-level status. Despite this huge investment of human and financial capital into a well-meaning exercise, I have yet to see one credible example of how this yearly examination helps employees bring discretionary effort to their work.

Dave Weisbeck of Visier makes the long overdue case that annual engagement surveys should be a thing of the past. They are relics left over from a 20th century workplace that does not exist anymore. Besides being unfit for 21st century workers, they are fraught with inherent bias. Here are some reasons why.

Recent Events
Annual inventories of anything rely heavily on the here and now. It is a 20 minute momentary snapshot of an approximate 260 day work year. You could be having a great day or a bad day when you take the survey. Things may be going well with your boss or going south when you click the send button. These are all influences that could skew your responses to engagement survey questions.

We do it all the time. Engagement surveys are no exception. We manipulate things and systems for our own preconceived outcomes. You want to impress you supervisor so you inflate your responses to reflect more positivity in the workplace than actually exists. Your manager made a good faith effort to improve team morale this year but you decided to stick it to him/her due to one bad interaction.

According to Mark Hammer from Bloomfire, there are other drawbacks to annual engagement surveys:

Hard to Make Actionable
Annual engagement questionnaires pull in a lot of data across diverse business units. It is challenging to take this information and make sense of it throughout the entire organization. What plays in marketing may not play in finance and what makes sense in human resources does not fit in information technology. An annual survey may answer the “what” but rarely answers the “why.”

This is my biggest objection to the annual engagement survey. Why do we rely so heavily on the opinions of people who do not have the guts to tell us their identity? Why can’t we step into the sunshine of full disclosure, put our money where our mouth is and say this is what is wrong with the organization and I am putting my name on the dotted line to do something about it.

If we would make these assessments more frequently and out in the open it would enable the examination to feel less like “big brother is watching” and more like an “everyone is in this together.”

If an organization does not know who the people are they need to have the conversation with to improve the organization, how will anything ever change?

Shall we follow the advice of Dave Weisbeck of Visier? Let’s turn annual engagement surveys into more frequent pulse surveys. In much the same way the doctor checks your pulse during a physical, these surveys allow leaders to monitor the “heart beat” of the organization. That way we:

• Don’t overwhelm our employees with a massive data dump.
• Get real time feedback instead a snapshot of the workplace.
• Obtain up to the moment results.
• Change engagement from a once a year routine into a year round activity.

Let’s have engagement conversations more than once a year. That way maybe we can realize engagement in a way where one day, we do not have to talk about it at all.

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Mark Hammer

Unless you meant to put someone else’s name there, or it’s actually a different Mark Hammer (maybe Michael Hammer, the re-engineering guy?), I don’t recall saying any of that, and don’t know what Bloomfire is.

That little bit of paranoid nitpicky housekeeping aside, there’s nothing wrong with carrying out engagement surveys, provided one understands what “engagement” is and isn’t, and much of what I’ve seen in the form of reports from consulting firms tells me most folks don’t.

I would also beg to differ with the notion that more frequent surveys are a good thing. One of the survey-industry maxims of employee surveys of any kind is that you *never* ask about things you either have no intention of addressing, or have no capacity to address. Every employee survey is a tacit promise: you tell me what bugs you and I’ll make the boo-boo better. If you ask about something that is unlikely to get fixed (e.g., employee benefits), you just create hard feelings.

One of the corollaries of this view is that you don’t ask employees *again* about something you haven’t had/given enough *time* to fix. As such, I am in *strong* disagreement with OPM’s view, and the presidential directive that prompted it, that the FEVS (formerly FHCS) be conducted annually. Keep in mind that, between the time an employee has the first opportunity to check off response A/B/C/D, and the point where the agency has received their data back, wrapped their heads around it, and begun to think about how they might address any obstacles to “engagement”, there are probably only 2-3 months, at most, before the next survey invitation shows up in the employee’s e-mail. I fully understand management’s desire to have something that feels like a quarterly report. But, from the employee’s perspective, “They’re asking me about X *again* and they haven’t even DONE anything about it yet.”. It’s an unnecessary breeding ground for cynicism that can be easily avoided simply by management having a little patience. From an analyst’s perspective, I also have to say that it takes time to understand what the numbers mean, and if you have to move on to the next set of numbers before you’ve fully digested the previous set, you’ll never learn anything useful about the organization. Been there, done that, don’t wish to return to it.

Ultimately, the timing of any re-surveying rests on the likelihood that the topic being asked about could have possibly changed during the interval. Some things you CAN ask about on a frequent basis, some things can be asked about annually, but other things need to wait a while, so that the previous ask does not feel like a false promise to the employee, and not simply translate into a meaningless list of deck-ready percentages and averages. It’d be nice if such things could be cranked out constantly, but the reality is it is far too easy for employees to feel like they’ve been lied to – even when they haven’t – and far too easy to misunderstand what the numbers mean.

Another aspect of frequency of re-surveying is that more regular surveys are obliged to sacrifice depth and length. The reaction to another long survey is more than likely to be “What, again with the surveys?” if it comes too often. So inevitably, pulse surveys become a slave to brevity, at the forfeiture of insight. Unless one is interested in learning something very shallow, pulse surveys are no express route to organizational intelligence. I’m sure they work great for fast-food outlets or customer-service inquiries, or employers with high turnover rates, but they simply yield little benefit to government agencies.

As for anonymity, understand that there are enough obstacles to people being willing to fill out surveys, without lowering the firewall of anonymity. As a long-time survey planner/designer/analyst, I’ve had to regularly deal with inquiries and assuring employees that nothing can be traced back to them, and no one is interested in what they, as an individual, had to say, but rather with overarching patterns across the organization. Add cynicism about whether it is “worth” responding to yet another survey, all the well-intentioned who say “I keep meaning to get to it”, and your response rate drops low enough that either nobody has confidence in what the numbers are suggesting at the end of the exercise, or else management takes shaky numbers, places TOO much confidence in their interpretation of them, and embarks upon ineffective interventions. Uncompelling response rates are as big an obstacle to making such surveys actionable as simply asking the wrong questions.

I understand, and agree with, your motives. But I think the methods you suggest run contrary to accomplishing the intended goals.

Apart from that, have a fulfilling New Year. May we all work in organizations that fill us with a sense of purpose, and gratitude that we get to pursue that purpose with those colleagues.