What Are Your Workers Thinking? Ask Them with Targeted Employee Surveys

March 1, 2018

  • We all know an answer’s only as good as the question, right?

    It’s definitely true when it comes to employee surveys about engagement, satisfaction and other work-related issues.

    But why should leaders of a midsize business undertake these, when there’s so much “more important” work to be done?

    Because well-prepared surveys generate raw and honest feedback that will give clear insight into how you can improve your culture, operations and results. They offer innovative ideas and constructive criticism that will better align your management team and the workforce. And they can help you see the level of engagement in your organization.

    To gain honest feedback, ask objective and succinct questions. Seek the whole truth to fully understand what people are thinking. Shape questions that allow diversity of thought.

    Do all that – and take your workers’ responses seriously, and you’ll have the beginning of a plan for improved performance.

    Avoid Survey Bias and Ambiguity

    There are several types of surveys, including those that aim to pinpoint engagement, satisfaction and opinions about the organization.

    • Engagement surveys measure how dedicated employees are to their jobs, colleagues, management and company as a whole.
    • Satisfaction surveys, on the other hand, attempt to assess how satisfied employees are.
    • Surveys that use a 360-degree format try to see someone from a variety of perspectives, drawn from the feedback of coworkers, managers, customers and vendors.

    It’s helpful to know what’s not effective in employee surveys. In 2017, the Harvard Business Review reviewed why many staff questionnaires fail to assess worker engagement accurately.

    The top two reasons these fail involve psychology.

    First, employees’ answers can be influenced by social pressure, as they want to present themselves in the most favorable light. They don’t want to suggest they can’t do well at work. Assuring that the answers will be confidential or anonymous can help address this.

    Second, ineffective questionnaires also can suffer from acquiescence bias, which is the tendency of employees to agree with questions for which they don’t know the answers. These questions often draw false positive or neutral responses that make management think employees have favorable or indifferent opinions when the reality might be just the opposite.

    The Harvard Business Review advises organizations to avoid unclear questions and statements when crafting surveys.

    For example, instead of combining two unrelated ideas in a single statement (“I am motivated to perform my best work, and we are good at holding people accountable”), split the statement into two distinct questions that prompt distinct responses. And avoid the ambiguity found in double-negative statements (“I don’t feel that my company fails to provide adequate resources to enable me to do my job”).

    Corporate consultant Mark Murphy urges companies focus on questions that will spotlight fixable problems and avoids those questions that might open issues they are unable or unwilling to address or resolve.

    “Every survey question you ask implies a promise that you’re going to take action based on the answer you get. And if you break that promise, things will get ugly,” Murphy wrote in Forbes.

    Look at each question and ask if your organization is willing to address how to solve any issues it will uncover. Communicating what was heard from the survey and acknowledging employee concerns after will solidify trust in management and provide incentive to participate in the future.

    Employee Surveys: Ask About Happiness

    Knowing which questions not to ask will lead to the questions that should be asked. To start, many human resources experts recommend open-ended questions that are free of implicit opinions and let workers shape their answers without fear of discipline or disapproval.

    This can be achieved by keeping questions succinct. The five “Ws” and one “H” that inform journalists’ reporting will do the trick here: “Who?” “What?” “Why?” “When?” “Where?” “Who?” and “How?” These questions are pointed and leave no room for ambiguity.

    Questions should get to the point and be stripped of bias. “What process can be improved?” doesn’t carry opinion. “Are you clear about what your role is?” won’t make employees think their work ethic is under scrutiny – it should instead make them see that your organization wants to know if everyone is on the same page.

    Align questions to the type of measurement that needs to be made. If you want to assess engagement, ask questions that drill down to their satisfaction with work. The employee survey service TINYpulse recommends several queries that aim to increase employee engagement:

    • On a scale of one to 10, how happy are you to work here?
    • Would you refer someone to work here?
    • If you were to quit tomorrow, what would your reason be?

    Then, Gauge Performance

    The advisory firm Gartner believes employee surveys about engagement are stronger if they attempt to gauge employee performance. For these, organizations should ask workers whether they understand their connection to company goals, if they learn from colleagues, and if they’re aware of and confident in the tools and information they work with.

    Discover these answers by asking:

    • Do you know what you should do to help the company meet its goals and objectives?
    • Can you see a clear link between your work and the company’s goals and objectives?
    • Does your team inspire you to do your best work?
    • Does your team help you complete your work?
    • Do you have the appropriate amount of information to make correct decisions about your work?

    Then, acknowledge what was learned as soon as possible. Do this in an overview to demonstrate your commitment to the process and keep the momentum of reflection fresh in everyone’s minds. Once you have had a chance to further study the results and to form a course of actions, share this with the organization so people are clear on what actions will be taken.

    Present the results in a way that fits the audience:

    • C-suite and top leaders: Provide the findings along with an analysis of the top trends.
    • Managers: Give them results that pertain to their teams and compare those results to other teams to provide context.
    • Employees: Break down results into summaries that relate to their work. Be open about which results will be used and how, as well as what won’t be used and why.


    For employee surveys to be effective, you’ll need to know which questions to ask and which ones not to ask as well as how to ask each question.

    Moreover, you should know what exactly you’re trying to measure. Is it performance? Happiness? Management effectiveness?

    You should also be prepared to make changes – both substantive and small – if needed.

    There are many questions to include in employee surveys, and many ways to phrase them. If your organization frames them clearly and directly, while encouraging honesty, you’ll gain insight that will engage your staff and improve the performance of the business.

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