Getting the most out of survey data

The most challenging and impactful part is ensuring the data is actionable
By Nick Sanchez
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/12/2016
Credit: Alex Mit (Shutterstock)

Employee surveys are a powerful tool to help in employee engagement efforts. In fact, 95 per cent of organizations defined as “engaged” use annual employee surveys, compared with 45 per cent in disengaged organizations, according to a 2016 survey conducted by Quantum Workplace.

Conducting an employee engagement survey isn’t as simple as sending around a survey link to the organization and encouraging participation. The most challenging and impactful part of the employee engagement survey is ensuring the data received is actionable. 

Here’s how to take a strategic approach to get the most from the survey results, in partnership with the leadership and employees at your company.

Start with key numbers

Trying to make sense of all the data at once can be daunting. Begin with the data points that matter to your organization and its current objectives and vision. A good place to start digging is employee participation, overall engagement scores, and manager/leadership scores.  

While the number of employees who participated in the survey may seem like a minor data point, it is quite important. If only a handful of employees participate, it may mean you need to review the survey program branding, culture of open communication, and outreach strategy.

Do employees know why they are taking this survey and what happens with the data? Are they concerned about confidentiality? Or does it reflect a disengaged employee population? In addition, a small sample size may mean the results don’t accurately represent the broader employee population.

Then, focus on the data points that are most important to the company — be they around employee development or areas of company culture that are lagging. Start with those metrics that have the potential to make the biggest impact for employees and the business.

Then, look for metrics where there is clear dispersion: Employees are either in agreement or really divided. For example, by glancing at the data, you may notice an overwhelming number of employees are satisfied with compensation and benefits — a sign that the compensation program is well-received.

But you also see employees are split down the middle when it comes to their satisfaction with leadership — something to add to the priority list for areas to improve in.

Look for connections

Next, it’s time to start looking for connections. Look at data points together to see if any are related and point to trends and deeper insights. For example, look at employee satisfaction alongside tenure. You could find the longer employees have been with the company, the more satisfied they are, or vice versa.

Now, the data has context, and there are trends to dive deeper into for feedback.

Another example is to link participation rates with tenure. If newer employees are more likely to participate, that’s a sign your team is doing a great job of engaging fresh talent, but you need to put more energy into sustaining that engagement in the long term.

Being thoughtful about how you set up the engagement survey — including the level of anonymity and access of data — is important and will also inform what data to review. 

Analyze feedback

The open-ended responses from employees inject incredible colour into the employee experience. However, closely reading through the many responses can be time-consuming, and it can feel impossible to consider each one individually.

This is where a lot of HR departments get stuck. There is paragraph after paragraph to go through — how do you pull out themes?

Instead of reading each open-ended question as a separate piece of data, consider them together using content analysis. Divide open-ended responses among team members, and read through them to identify overarching topics. Scan through them, looking for and highlighting key words. Then, sort them by positives and negatives. 

Once responses are categorized as positive, negative or neutral, look for themes in each group to sort them further and discover more detail. For example, under negative feedback, multiple employees might mention learning and development, while others mention leadership. Group these themes together to create subcategories.

Now, you can see how many employees feel positively or negatively, as well as their biggest shared concerns — which puts you in a position to take action.

Additionally, consider working with an engagement survey partner who does text analysis to help confirm the insights. 

Share the right data with the right people

Having made it through all the data, with some actionable insights on employee engagement, the next step is sharing this information with the organization.

From the leadership to managers, all the way down to employees, everyone should receive some information about the survey results and what’s going to be done with the feedback. Without visible results and a plan of action, employees may consider not participating during future surveys. Employees need to know their voice is being heard.

As an example, a 2015 survey of more than 600 employees by the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Virg., found only 37 per cent of respondents were very satisfied with the consideration their ideas received.

Consider which results different employees throughout the organization would want to see. For example, management may be more interested in data and comments related to leadership, motivation and employee frustrations — so they can take steps to better lead and engage them. On the other hand, employees may be more interested in what their colleagues think about workplace issues.

So, share any large percentages and repeated themes on open-ended responses across the organization. Always be aware of the data integrity and treating confidential responses with appropriate care.

No matter what you decide to share with employees, do so in a way that’s easy to understand. And partner with leaders to deliver survey feedback. When leaders own the survey data and communication strategy, they may be more likely to own the action planning around the engagement survey. 

And if the survey results are used well, employees will naturally see improvements to issues they pointed to in the survey. When employees see their feedback had an impact, they’ll be much more likely to keep participating down the line.

Compare with previous results

There’s still one more set of results to review: Those from previous surveys. Compare the current data set with past surveys to see what has changed, what has improved, what continues to be an issue, and any new problems that have come up.

This is a great opportunity for human resources to show just how impactful these employee engagement surveys are in driving effective strategy over time. Look at the biggest trends and issues from previous years and compare them with current results to show that you listened to employee feedback and made changes that mattered.

While survey administration, data and followup can be overwhelming at first, engagement surveys and corresponding actions can yield valuable results.  Ultimately, the efforts can help improve the experience for all employees.

Nick Sanchez is the chief people officer at Namely in New York, an all-in-one HR, payroll and benefits platform. This article originally appeared at

Add Comment

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *