10 Mistakes in Employee Engagement Surveys

Brad Federman, president of Performancepoint LLC, lists 10 mistakes healthcare organizations make when conducting employee engagement surveys.

1. Conducting an in-house survey. Engagement surveys that are carried out internally tend to show sterling results because respondents know the employer is watching. It's the "Big Brother" syndrome, Mr. Federman says. "People rate the organization well because they know the company has access to their ratings. If you want insights and to strengthen your organization do yourself a favor and use a third party."

2. Putting the onus on managers. In engagement surveys, "the HR community has fixated on the manager," Mr. Federman says. But when all responsibility is put on managers, no one else wants to share any of it. "We simply give permission to our employees to play victim," Mr. Federman says. "Much of the compelling research says that colleagues have a great deal of influence on engagement. It is a shared responsibility."

3. Questions that spread discontent. "Poor survey design is often a source of problems," Mr. Federman says. For example, some questions will always be answered in the negative and some will actually spread dissatisfaction. Also questions that are irrelevant to most people will prompt many employees to stop participating. "Bias toward a particular aspect, such as the direct supervisor, can mask larger issues and impede employee engagement," he says.

4. Findings that aren't actionable. The survey may have been shortened to promote participation and the questions on it may seem intriguing, but no one knows what to do with the survey results. In these cases, "some of the questions turn out to be impractical or at least difficult to follow up on," Mr. Federman says.

5. Using the goals of others. When an engagement effort aims for the norm, it is just aspiring to be average. An organization can aim higher with someone else's benchmark, but that goal may have little to do with your organization. "Organizations can become too invested and even distracted by [benchmarks]," Mr. Federman says. "The best benchmark is knowing where you are and where you want to be."

6. No follow-up on findings. Some engagement efforts can be all data and no action. "So much attention gets paid to creating a survey and collecting the data," Mr. Federman says. Afterwards, however, "there was no action in the action planning," he says. Employees were not made aware of the results and had no opportunity to discuss them with leadership.

7. Hosting just one event. Employee engagement may simply consist of a single event, perhaps following up on the arrival of a new CEO or a recent financial turnaround. But such one-time events can be worse than having no event at all, because they raise employee expectations and don't follow through, which damages morale. "In some cases, outright backlash and animosity will occur," Mr. Federman says. To be effective, keep the project going and have a specific champion behind it.

8. Skirting transparency. In some cases, leadership may not want to share survey results displaying problems. "Do we have to share that information?" executives may ask. "What if we only communicate our strengths and our top goals?" Such an approach always sows employees' mistrust. "They already know what the problems are," Mr. Federman says. "They are just waiting to see if you do. More importantly, they are waiting to see if you are willing to admit what they are." Transparency trumps concealment every time.

9. Looking for the quick fix. "Too many organizations look at employee engagement as a reactive process," Mr. Federman says. "Find the problem and fix it so the numbers go up." But it's usually not that simple. Trying to fix a problem often creates a new one or may even reinforce the original one. "Try to analyze the problem, understand where it started, and why it grew over time," he says. "You may find out that you have something entirely different to work on."

10. Not training managers. Managers may lack the tools to dig into problems unearthed in the surveys. "How can we get them to focus on engagement throughout the year?" Mr. Federman asks. The answer is to give them tools, processes and training outside of the survey and action planning.

Learn more about Performancepoint LLC.

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