Building the perfect employee survey

With careful planning and execution, HR can boost participation, convey information
By Esther Huberman
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/05/2010

A popular provider of online surveys recently circulated an email with this message: “It only takes a coffee break to create a survey.”

With all due respect, it takes much longer than a coffee break to create a thoughtful, strategic employee survey. This initiative is critical to a communications plan, so the effort involved in creating something worthwhile begins long before any questions are drafted.

The first stage to developing surveys is preparation — analyze and understand the following before writing a survey:

Company goals: While you might question why a review of corporate goals should precede what might be a seemingly simple survey, the fact is every communications activity — including employee surveys — must satisfy overall corporate and HR objectives. Otherwise, there is a risk of rejection due to lack of relevance.

Survey objectives: There are many reasons to survey employees — to ascertain engagement, satisfaction, knowledge of company expectations or service performance. Test each question against survey objectives to ensure the knowledge gleaned from the answers moves you closer to achieving goals.

Determine what you really need to know: Too many organizations already know the answers to the survey questions or know they won’t react to the answers. Think carefully about what information is needed so valuable attention-span time isn’t wasted and there are no false expectations.

Distribution: Consider distribution ahead of time. If employees generally have access to computers, online surveys are best for ease of completion, tabulation, filtering results, creating graphs for followup reports and better response rates. But if computer access is a problem — and kiosks are not realistic — think about the length, language and tabulation requirements for hard-copy surveys. If the resources to tackle those jobs don’t exist or are already taxed, consider an outside survey facilitator or a different method of gathering information, such as conducting focus groups or surveying only an employee sample.

Language: Surveys should be conducted in the appropriate official language — French, English or both.

The second stage involves the writing and delivery of the survey. When crafting questions, focus on the survey objectives throughout the process and bear in mind the following:

Surveys are a communications tool: Surveys both gather and convey information. They may appear one-sided since they solicit employees’ input but questions, when framed carefully, can communicate corporate messages and information while simultaneously soliciting a response.

For example, key employees might consider benefit flexibility important and the retention of quality employees may be a top HR objective. However, anecdotal evidence suggests the desire for flexibility may come at the price of something else in the benefit program.

To quantify how much employees desire flex benefits, introduce the survey question in a way that clarifies the company’s contemplation of flex benefits includes possible forfeiture of a benefit detail. By doing so, the question communicates the corporate messages of fiscal responsibility and responsiveness to employees, but also establishes appropriate expectations around benefit modifications.

Don’t be too ambitious: Employers might think, “We are already asking about this, let’s ask about that at the same time.” But if there are two separate issues — or a company can’t react to both issues at once — both topics will be shortchanged if the survey becomes so long and onerous that it jeopardizes participation levels. It is better to address only one matter at once and deal with it as completely as possible. Prioritize issues, if necessary, and plan subsequent topics for the future.

Communicate throughout: A survey deserves thoughtful communication before (to prepare workers for its arrival and increase employee participation since its value is communicated), during (to communicate corporate messages) and after (to communicate results and subsequent actions, ensuring employees continue to be engaged).

Ensure confidentiality: Greater confidence in confidentiality equals a higher likelihood of honest answers from employees. They need reassurance their negative responses will not impact job security. Therefore, survey communications must clarify that identifying details are unknown to HR. This can be better achieved through an online survey or, if necessary, by hiring an outside survey or research vendor. An appropriate prize can also help increase participation.

Test: Before circulating the survey, test it on a sample to ensure the questions are as clear as possible and there is an appropriate range of answer options. For example: “yes,” “no” and “maybe” might not be enough answer choices. Perhaps include a “sometimes, in certain situations such as…” or an “I don’t know enough about this,” which will then prompt correction of a communications shortcoming.

Once employees have completed the survey, they deserve to have their feedback acknowledged. If an organization is not prepared to act on results shortly after a survey, it should save time and money by postponing the initiative until it is ready to do so. Otherwise, employees could feel the company doesn’t care enough to respond to the latest dialogue.

Employee surveys are very important mechanisms for ascertaining issues such as engagement, perceptions, values and desires. They can help an HR professional qualify and quantify a course of action. And because they are so important — both in what they communicate and what they collect — they require careful planning.

Esther Huberman is a communications consultant with Pal Benefits in Toronto. She can be reached at
(416) 969-9894, ext. 311 or ehuberman@palbenefits.com.

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