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Workplace Surveys Often Don’t Work

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Every year companies line up to promote themselves as among the “best places to work.” They also insist they adjust policies based on employee feedback. But it’s not what it sounds like.

Unfortunately, the value of surveys in the workplace are much lower than many HR professionals would care to admit. The problem is simple: you need feedback to be anonymous for it to be candid, but in the environments where you most need candid feedback, people aren’t likely to believe the survey is truly anonymous.


© Flickr user Bruce Guenter.

Let’s break that down. Imagine two companies: HappyCo and Dismal, Incorporated. At HappyCo, employees are generally pleased. They like their work, their colleagues, and feel they have career opportunities. People are dedicated to their jobs but still go home and take vacations. All, in short, is well.

At the offices of Dismal, the situation is the reverse. Virtually everyone is tired and frustrated. They don’t enjoy what they do and too many people work too many hours.

You probably have worked at one or both of these companies, or at least something somewhere in between. And if you’re at HappyCo and take a survey, you probably have no reason to do anything but be honest. Why wouldn’t you tell people that you enjoy your job?

If you’re at Dismal, however, what are you going to say when a survey comes around? If you admit there are problems, is there a chance it will get back to your manager? Could you lose the job? And do you trust that an anonymous survey is actually anonymous?


© Flickr user CLAUDIA DEA.

This isn’t just logical thinking, it’s also supported by science. From Wikipedia:

Social desirability bias is a type of response bias that is the tendency of survey respondents to answer questions in a manner that will be viewed favorably by others. It can take the form of over-reporting “good behavior” or under-reporting “bad,” or undesirable behavior. The tendency poses a serious problem with conducting research with self-reports, especially questionnaires. This bias interferes with the interpretation of average tendencies as well as individual differences.

This phenomenon is particularly apparent when people are talking about themselves. Individuals will report that they are kinder, more reliable, better drivers, and overall friendlier people than they truly are because they want to be liked. But the same effect can also happen in company surveys.

Question: Do you feel respected by management?
Answer: Uh, do I want to tell the truth here? Yes! I do.

This the paradox of organizational trust. If your team trusts that you won’t deceptively track their responses to the anonymous survey, then your team also trusts you enough to give you feedback without a survey.

Laura Vanderkam notes more troubles with these best-places-to-work lists in a piece for CBS News. For example:

First, most magazine lists are “opt-in.” To be eligible for a list, you have to fill out whatever paperwork the tabulators require (Fortune’s list, produced in conjunction with the Great Places to Work Institute, involves employee surveys and some open ended questions). This means that not only do you have to be a great place to work, you have to be a company where management cares about being listed in magazines as a great place to work. Only 311 organizations bothered this year, out of thousands of employers in the US. So if you went through the whole process, your odds were pretty good. But that doesn’t means that the 311 employers that did try are better than the thousands that didn’t.

Does that mean that surveys are worthless? No. In fact they can be a great way to get general opinions. But remember that any survey is taken in the context of existing relationships. If there is a strong hierarchy, some fear, or personality issues, that may impact the quality of the results.

If you think you have problems in your company, don’t do a survey. Go find former employees and take them to lunch. Then work your way through current employees. But if you’re generally doing well, surveys are great ways to gauge preferences. Ask away!

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


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