Five problems with employee engagement surveys

About the author

Kevin is a co-founder of PR Academy and is the author of Exploring Internal Communication published by Routledge. Kevin leads the CIPR Internal Communication Diploma course. PhD, MBA, BA Hons, PGCE, FCIPR, CMgr, MCMI.

Employee surveys are so ubiquitous now that they are accepted as part of everyday working life. There are, of course, many good reasons for doing employee engagement surveys. For example, they can identify, in general terms, what employees are thinking about managers and the organisation. The results can, when considered carefully, result in a more inclusive management culture.

However, surveys for surveys sake are a 21st century management disease and engagement surveys have a number of inherent problems:

1.       They measure the wrong factors

2.       They are mainly quantitative

3.       They are conducted too often

4.       The expenditure would be better used for more communication with employees

5.       They might be used as an excuse for not involving employees in day to day management.

Senior managers should take a long hard look at engagement surveys and consider whether they are still fit for purpose. What’s the ROI of a big annual engagement survey? It’s difficult to know, it’s probably  just a tick box exercise.

The first and most fundamental question to ask is “what definition of engagement does the survey company use?” Different consultancies use different definitions to construct their survey questions. This is important as the emphasis on different factors, such as organisational identification, can vary significantly. This also makes benchmarking incredibly difficult. In my view, too many surveys focus on the aspects of the job itself as drivers for engagement, though they use different questions to establish this. This ignores wider aspects of organisational engagement that can be as significant, if not more significant than the job you do.

Most engagement surveys are self-completed questionnaires that are quantitative in design. There are many well known shortcomings in a quantitative research approach. For example, one survey question I’ve come across is “How satisfied are you with your pay and conditions?” I know that many people answered this negatively in the vain hope that if everyone did the same then maybe they’d all get a pay rise. If you want to know why employees are disengaged or do not trust senior managers, then much more qualitative research needs to be done.

I’m surprised that surveys are often done annually, especially when the overall results are almost always within one or two percentage points of the previous year (and all the years before that too). Instead I’d recommend more targeted, shorter, pulse surveys, regular focus groups and a company-wide survey every five years. This is linked to the fourth point. I don’t know how much money is spent on employee engagement surveys in the UK. Let’s assume that 500 large organisations spend around £100,000 each year. This amounts to £50 million. Think about the improvements that a re-investment of this money in better internal communication could achieve.

Finally, the fact that an organisation has an engagement survey is not a replacement for involving employees in day to day management. It would be better to do away with the big annual survey and re-use the money saved to support line managers in regular two-way dialogue with employees. This would lead to higher levels of engagement, more innovation and better customer service.