Director, Employee Wellbeing Benefex
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Employee feedback: are employers asking the right questions?

Employee surveys are a tried and tested method of gauging how your workforce are feeling. But how much can they really tell us about the overall employee experience and are we focusing on the right things?

7th Nov 2019
Director, Employee Wellbeing Benefex
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5 star rating or review in survey, poll, questionnaire
iStock/Tero Vesalainen

It’s rare that I meet an employer that doesn’t run an employee survey. Whether it’s annually, monthly or daily, everyone reading this has probably completed one at least once while at work.

I once worked for an organisation that sent their employee surveys out just after they issued annual bonuses. For the one month of the year that our employer helped us to clear our debts, buy new cars or book holidays, we were asked how we felt at work.

Even as a young manager, this felt quite contrived. Did we really care what employees thought? Or were we just trying to get high scores? After all, a low score meant we had to do something about it, which meant more work, so management didn’t like low scores.

It’s important we create a culture of honesty and transparency that encourages employees to give us the honest answers to our questions. There is no point sending out a survey if your employees don’t trust you.

As a management group we spent hours discussing one of our lowest scoring questions ‘am I proud to work here?’ We debated about how we could make people prouder to work at the company. Could we do more charity work? Were people afraid to say they worked here? Was there a stigma attached to our brand? Did people think their jobs were boring?

It wasn’t long before we all realised that we didn’t really know what that question meant. Thinking about why you are asking questions is an important first step in building an employee survey.

I see many employers asking questions that if responded to negatively, they wouldn’t or couldn’t action. Which begs the question, why ask it in the first place? Would you say to a friend ‘do you need a lift tomorrow?’ if you had no way of offering one?

Social desirability bias

Although most employee surveys are anonymous, if you don’t look after a huge team, as a manager it can be quite easy to narrow down responses to one or two individuals. This causes us a problem as social desirability bias can kick in. This is the idea that an employee has a desire to present themselves in a positive light. Many employees don’t want to be a ‘problem’ or give the impression they are struggling or aren’t happy.

In research by the University of Colorado, even when surveys are guaranteed to be anonymous, social desirability bias is still prevalent. So it’s important we create a culture of honesty and transparency that encourages employees to give us the honest answers to our questions. There is no point sending out a survey if your employees don’t trust you.

podcast link

Four in a bed

You might be familiar with a UK TV programme called Four in a bed. The premise is that groups of bed and breakfast (B&B) owners spend the night in each other’s businesses and then rate them. The bed and breakfast with the most points is crowned the winner. They will rate each other’s establishments on things like quality of sleep, how good the breakfast was, how clean the place was, what the hosts were like and how good were the facilities.

There’s one last question they are asked (and the most important one in my opinion) – ‘would you stay here again?’ It’s this question that I think holds the secret to a good employee survey. While the results could let the owners know what areas could do with improving, ultimately if the answer to the last question is yes, everything is pretty good.

HR need to become much more like marketeers, seeking feedback from their customers and improving the customer experience in whatever ways they can – which means asking the right questions about the whole experience.

On the balance of all the elements involved in a good night’s stay, someone who says they will return is happy with the bed breakfast and happy to recommend it to others.

In an employee survey, if we ask the question ‘do you think your pay is fair?’ it’s likely that an employee will say no. Multiple studies show that half of us believe we are underpaid. Plus, whether we think we are underpaid and whether we are, are very different things. One is a fact, the other is a feeling.

Research shows that if you ask a group of people whether their IQ is higher or lower than the average, 80% will say their own IQ is higher.

In psychology this is called illusory superiority – a cognitive bias where people overestimate their own qualities and abilities when compared to others. This can be troublesome when we ask questions like ‘do you think you are recognised often?’ or ‘do you think your peers work as hard as you?’

What more could we be doing for you?

A more important question I think we should be asking is ‘what more could we be doing for you?’ I think this takes the whole employee experience as one collection of good and bad things and asks you to focus on the areas important to you. They might not be very happy with their pay, but they are extremely happy with their autonomy and flexible working arrangements. So on the balance of how good their experience is at work, it’s likely to be very good. If it were Four in a bed they’d probably say they’d stay again.

We tend to focus on the lowest scoring areas in employee surveys, as they are perceived as being the place where action is needed. Re-framing some of those in the context of the whole experience, I think, can be quite useful. Now when an employee says they aren’t happy with their pay, you can explain that you benchmark etc and why you can’t pay them more – but then you can ask them what else you could be doing for them. You might be surprised at the responses you receive.

I once managed someone whose response to this question was ‘I don’t like the public recognition you gave me. I’d rather it in private’ and ‘can I get a chair with a bigger back?’ Suddenly, I was having a conversation about their whole experience at work, and hopefully made some small changes that would add up to a big difference.

Employee surveys are an important part of the modern workplace. Employees need to have a voice and an outlet to share their views. It’s also so important that employers are gathering this constant feedback.

HR need to become much more like marketeers, seeking feedback from their customers and improving the customer experience in whatever ways they can – which means asking the right questions about the whole experience.

I once stayed in a B&B with such small parking spaces that someone scraped my wheel arch, but they served great local bacon and put chocolates on my pillow. I would absolutely stay there again.

Interested in this topic? Read People analytics: uncovering how people really feel at work through data.

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