Every company I know of that says that it is serious about employee satisfaction does them. So why then do most employee satisfaction surveys actually drive employee satisfaction down?
There are many reasons for which surveys fail. I would suggest however that they fail principally due to failures in the following broad categories:
Commitment: If leaders are not really serious about listening to what their employees have to say, openly and honestly, and then demonstrating this effective listening, through concrete actions that address raised concerns, then it is a waste of organizational time and resources to undertake a survey, and employees are quick to figure this out. Leaders must know that if they undertake an employee survey, they are creating expectations on the part of employees that if un-met will greatly reduce employee engagement and productivity.
Design: A survey should not be about Employee "Opinions", nor in isolation, Employee "Satisfaction". Rather, a survey should be anchored in the DNA of the Company, aligned with what the company has communicated as its vision, its mission, its strategic objectives, and its core values. As such, the survey is then an important and potentially effective means to understanding from employees', their engagement to these, and how this engagement (and as a result of engagement, productivity), can be further enhanced.
In designing the survey, ideally, there will be a series of closed questions, with alpha (letter or word) or numerical scores, which help organizations to benchmark progress vs. industry and functional groups and as well compare progress year to year. Also, there will be open ended questions that are aligned with key components of the Company's vision, mission, strategic goals, and core values that seek feedback and input from employees, and potentially change year to year.
Communications: Key to the success of any survey, is communicating vital information to employees. Information to be communicated includes: Survey goals; Survey timelines; Protection of information and confidentiality; Survey methodology; and the Company's commitments with respect to addressing Employee Survey Feedback.
Execution: It is critically important to treat Employee Surveys as one would any other key process within the Company the survey process should have a process owner; sponsorship from the CEO and Executive Team, a project roadmap, deliverables, and success measures. Regular updates regarding progress should be communicated, and timelines respected.
Since time is always in short supply, the survey process needs to be one that is respectful of the many pulls on employee time, and the survey results and corresponding action to be taken need to be communicated quickly and within weeks of the survey close date. Commitments to action then need to be lived up to.
Employee "Engagement" (vs. "Satisfaction") Surveys are possibly the most powerful tool that senior management has available to help them to increase employee engagement and productivity.
Where I've observed these to work well, Management has used surveys strategically, aligning these with the vision, mission, strategic goals, and core values of the Company, been committed to listening honestly to employees, acting upon their concerns, and doing so in real time.
Where I've observed surveys to fail, Management has engaged in surveys, thinking that it is fashionable to do so, that surveys are just another HR to-do, that employees aren't able to significantly impact the success of the Company, and that if the survey results aren't pleasant to read, these can be gamed. All this, plus a failure in these same instances to communicate; to allow survey timelines to drag on; and to not have clearly understood survey goals.
Diamonds or just a lump of coal?