25 September 2009 • 7:00 am

Four Reasons NOT to Conduct an Employee Survey

Employee surveys are useful tools for understanding the beliefs, attitudes and opinions of an organization as a whole.  Surveys are commonly used in pursuit of change to discover and understand organizational culture, resistance, morale, and a host of other characteristics that can shine the light on opportunities for improvement.

However, not all surveys will improve the situation.  The following are four warning signs that conducting a survey may do more harm than good.

1.  The leaders don’t really want to know what people think.

The people who hold the top spots in an organization are usually out of the feedback loop.  As they move up the ladder, they are increasingly unaware of the pulse of the organization.  When the intent to conduct an employee survey is proposed, leaders who understand this phenomenon will jump at the chance to collect information that they have gradually been phased out of.  These leaders will want more details about what will be asked, and might even propose other questions that they would like to ask.

On the flip side of the coin are leaders who think they already know, or worse, don’t really care what the employees think or how they feel.  If you propose an employee survey and receive a resounding, “Sure, go ahead” without any curiosity or concerns, beware.  They probably don’t really want to know what people think.

2.  The leaders won’t believe the results.

Sometimes leaders will dismiss the results of the survey, even if it seems they wanted to know.  I once conducted an employee satisfaction survey that I created in-house due to lack of funds for the project.  Once I presented the results, the leaders wanted benchmarks to compare against to see if the results were “normal.”  Of course, having created the survey in-house, there was no other data to compare them against.

Before conducting a survey, watch for signs that the leaders commonly deflect accountability by picking apart the validity of numbers in other settings.  One way to combat this scenario ahead of time is to discuss the output that will be generated from the survey.  Discuss hypothetical results with the leadership team to determine up front what else they will want to know, so you can build it into your analysis.

3.  The leaders won’t do anything about it.

Even leaders who want to know and believe the results still may not do anything about it.  If employees give their opinion and then nothing is done, the integrity of the leaders and you as the surveyor drops, and future surveys will not be taken as seriously.

When discussing hypothetical results, gauge the interest of leaders in taking action.  For example, if the survey says that people don’t know the direction the company is going, are the leaders willing to share strategic information?  If the answer is no, then don’t bother asking.

To combat the first three reasons not to conduct an employee survey, make sure leaders know the questions you are asking and what you are actually measuring with the questions.  Discuss ahead of time what the implications and actions might be based on hypothetical responses you think they might have trouble absorbing.

4.  You don’t want to say what you already know.

The fourth reason not to conduct an employee survey, instead of being directed at the leadership team, is directed at the surveyor.  Are you conducting the survey because you don’t know the answers, or are you conducting the survey because you don’t want to say what you already know?  Is fear getting in the way of you speaking up and sharing the problems you see in the organization?  Is the survey actually a cop-out?

If any of that rings true, here’s an idea for you:  Include your point of view in the proposal for the survey.  State your hypothesis – what you believe to be true – and say you would like to conduct a survey to test it.  Share the implications and the action plan for improving the situation if you are right.  Then offer the option to skip the survey if they agree – they just might.  If they don’t agree with your hypothesis, then you will still conduct the survey.  Not only will you get more involvement from people who disagree with you, it will also be more scientific and objective than if you were just using the to communicate for you.

Yes, surveys can be very useful tools to help direct a change initiative.  That is, of course, if the leaders want to know what employees think, will believe the results, and will do something with the opportunities that are revealed.

(Editor’s note: This post first appeared in the Change Starts Here blog at

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