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    Disadvantages of Employee Engagement Surveys: Why They Don't Always Work

    July 25, 2023

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    A representative picture of an employee filling out a survey.

    You  roll out employee engagement surveys with a lot of pomp and fanfare, only to receive a few, half-hearted responses. What are you doing wrong? What are the disadvantages of employee engagement surveys that lead to failure? This article shares the top challenges of employee engagement surveys. It also gives you tips on how to address these drawbacks to get the best results.

    Did you know that an astonishing 78% of businesses today don’t get positive results from employee surveys?

    The purpose of employee engagement surveys is to offer workers the opportunity to share their feelings with their management team.

    Theoretically, this accurately depicts office activities and employees’ emotions.

    In reality though, the problem with employee engagement surveys is that they rarely reflect the sentiment of the workforce accurately. Due to the manner in which they are typically conducted — with a sense of finality and detachment — they may actually lead to disengagement.

    But if you abandon surveys entirely, your employees and the company will miss out on their many advantages. That is why it is important to understand the pros and cons of employee engagement surveys and tackle them head-on.

    Employee Engagement Surveys: A Comprehensive Analysis

    There's no universally accepted explanation for why employee surveys underperform and sometimes fail to deliver the intended results. The outcome of an employee survey depends largely on the reasons for conducting the survey in the first place. Your survey is doomed to fail if your questions failed to address the variables you wish to assess.

    A survey may also fail if few or no responses are received. Alternatively, you may obtain responses that are irrelevant to what you're attempting to measure.

    There are four main challenges with employee experience surveys:

    • Low participation and the lack of honest responses are among the biggest obstacles employee engagement surveys face. This can distort results, diminish data representativeness, and reflect a lack of confidence or enthusiasm for the survey process.
    • Another challenge is managing the quality of inquiries: making sure they are relevant, unambiguous, and unbiased and that they assess what they are intended to test. Poorly constructed queries may result in disenchantment, dissatisfaction, and incorrect or deceptive data.
    • A third problem with employee engagement surveys is converting the data into useful findings and actionable steps that can boost engagement and performance. Lack of evaluation and action can lead to time and resource wastage, an erosion of trust and confidence, and a drop in employee engagement and morale.
    • The fourth challenge with employee engagement surveys is the risk of avoiding or neglecting the moral or legal issues that may arise from accumulating, retaining, and using sensitive employee data.

    Learn More: 70 Ways to Improve Employee Engagement for HR

    The Hidden Risks of Employee Engagement Surveys: What HR Professionals Need to Know

    While organization-wide engagement surveys are common across organizations, there are several nuances and subtleties that HR leaders might miss out on. Here are some points HR professionals must keep in mind while conducting employee engagement surveys.

    1. Capturing only short-term employee sentiment

    This is a typical risk associated with surveys. They simply provide employers with a vague overview of what their staff members are currently experiencing. If an individual is having an especially terrible day or week, they are going to channel all of that negative energy into their responses. Even if they generally feel happy with their jobs, if surveys are mistimed, it may elicit negative responses.

    The opposite is true as well. If somebody is having a particularly successful week, they will share excessively positive emotions on the survey, even if this isn't the norm. An annual engagement survey is simply not good enough to assess office morale throughout the year. Continuous evaluation is what's needed to address this risk. Or you could get periodic samples to figure out whether employees are engaged by using short pulse surveys.

    2. Human psychology and bias skewing the results

    Another risk involved in employee engagement surveys is the risk of bias, both from the respondents and those interpreting the survey results.

    Since the responses depend on the employee's self-awareness, the technique of these questionnaires is inherently biased. Additionally, it assumes that they're ready to respond honestly. The "social desirability bias," which impacts the trustworthiness of the results, must be taken into account.

    Social desirability bias is the predisposition of individuals to respond to queries in a manner that makes them appear favorable. This is a classic case of self-presentation bias. When asked about their health, for instance, individuals may provide responses that make them appear fitter than they actually are.

    3. Superficial, incomplete surveys

    Employee engagement surveys are usually not designed to identify the intricate social fabric underlying an organization’s culture. Employees may believe that surveys do not 'understand' their current situation, the kind of work they do, their position, the way they feel, and what it's like to work for the company.

    Quantitative surveys don't adequately account for the wide range of employee experiences and perspectives. They rely instead on standardized and controlled numerical measurements, which risk upsetting employees.

    Companies are much more than just cold, hard data. When analyzing businesses, researchers in the field of human resources recommend the use of qualitative methodologies with comprehensive explanations and contextual analyses. HR professionals have to observe and get to know employees in their surroundings in order to fully comprehend their ideas, opinions, and experiences in the workplace.

    Learn More: 101 Fun Back to the Office Employee Engagement Activities

    If you ask vague and superficial questions, you won't ever be able to assess and enhance engagement effectively. For instance, surveys that inquire about employees' thoughts, emotions, and objectives will lead to answers that are biased and difficult to analyze. This is a disadvantage of employee engagement surveys.

    Consider this common question: "Does your manager recognize your skills and contributions?" It is not only subjective but also difficult to determine the real problem and make improvements.

    Instead, ask a question that is more specific, such as "How regularly do you receive an acknowledgment from your supervisor for your accomplishments?" It is objective and gauges observable behavior instead of subjective emotions.

    4. Lack of action after conducting employee surveys

    To assess engagement is one thing; to action change that enhances engagement is another.

    It makes sense to present the results in a detailed infographic with charts and diagrams – but this doesn't really push the pedal forward.

    Implementing change based on survey results is difficult, particularly if they are only collected annually. Typically, it requires several months to analyze results, devise a plan of action, and then implement changes. By then, the issue may be irrelevant, or dissatisfied employees may have moved on to other opportunities.

    But if businesses can respond with greater agility, it tells employees that they are being heard. While devising solutions for larger problems, they have to find straightforward and expeditious ways of improvement.

    Also, there’s a chance that the management dismisses and ignores any negative responses altogether. This is a common risk with employee engagement surveys – when senior management sees their views countered by survey results, they sit on the issue instead of changing direction.

    Let's say a manager discovers data indicating that employees are dissatisfied with their performance monitoring. People in the organization want more frequent feedback from supervisors, such as counseling, or need training to achieve this.

    However, the leader disagrees. According to them, performance management can be improved by simply refining the process. They continue with a new system, totally ignoring data that contradicts their beliefs.

    Frequently, perceptions of "what's going on" within an organization are at odds with reality. When data is disregarded, employee engagement suffers. This is a risk that arises from confirmation bias among organizational leaders.

    6. Cumbersome, time-consuming processes

    Most employees dislike the annual employee engagement survey. It's typically an enormous list containing up to 100 questions. This risks causing survey fatigue.

    In addition, if the survey is conducted internally, the HR team is going to get inundated with these massive results: 100+ questions from 1,000+ employees!

    This makes it practically impossible to do any other work while interpreting survey results.

    Is there another solution here? One option is to contract a third-party surveying agency, although this can be expensive and might not give you the details you need. Another possibility is to conduct brief, more frequent surveys, perhaps two to five questions per month. Managers can evaluate employee engagement campaigns on the go by selecting various themes or questions every month. This will help them zero in on clear and distinct engagement metrics.

    Powerful HR software can simplify response collection and analysis, helping you address this disadvantage of employee engagement surveys.

    Learn More: Why a Vending Machine Does Not Cut It? - Methods & Merits Of Modern Day Employee Engagement

    The Benefits of Employee Engagement Surveys

    When it comes to engagement surveys, it is not all bad news. In fact, employee engagement surveys are an HR staple for a good reason. Surveys offer certain undeniable benefits, such as:

    • The ability to listen to the voice of the employee: Employers can assess employee commitment, satisfaction, and contentment. You can decide if an issue with employee turnover is imminent. In fact, the questionnaire can ask the employee directly how long they plan to remain with the organization.
    • A safe space for feedback: Typically, because these surveys are anonymous, the responses tend to be insightful. It is a way to obtain inputs on how to enhance the organizational culture in a manner that's discreet and confidential.
    • Customizability to meet your needs: Surveys can be customized to the needs of the organization. Ideally, questions should be answered regularly from year to year (for reasons of comparison). Additionally, questions can be introduced to gather feedback on trending topics.
    • Immediate improvement in satisfaction: Just the act of carrying out a survey can boost employee satisfaction by allowing them to voice their ideas and opinions. This is particularly true if the organization implements changes based on the feedback provided.
    • Long-term analysis and improvements: Employee sentiment trends can be monitored from year to year with the help of surveys. By staying on track with these changes, the organization can increase productivity and reduce attrition.

    Learn More: Top 11 Employee Engagement Tools for 2023

    The Disadvantages of Employee Engagement Surveys

    When not done right, employee engagement surveys can lead to a lot of trouble. Here are some common issues:

    • Cost and effort-intensive: Surveys are time-consuming to conduct and must be carried out on a regular basis for the greatest impact. And irrespective of how simple or complicated the process may be, there are costs involved. Employers must find the right equilibrium between asking enough questions (to obtain valuable feedback) and asking excessive amounts of questions (that make employees give up or stop sharing thoughtful responses).
    • A vicious cycle: An unsuccessful survey effort will only result in skewed future results. If employees don't think their feedback will be treated seriously, they'll be far less likely to respond honestly, openly, and completely to future surveys.
    • Anxiety among employees: Even when surveys are completed in anonymity, employees are often hesitant to respond honestly for fear of retaliation against negative comments. They may fear that their identity will be exposed in a manner that is not readily apparent. This is of particular significance in smaller groups, where it can be faster to figure out who provided which responses.

    Learn More: How Is Employee Engagement Different From Employee Experience?

    3 Pitfalls of Employee Engagement Surveys

    You need to prevent the disadvantages of employee engagement surveys from getting in the way of their benefits. To achieve this, avoid these pitfalls:

    • Thinking surveys are the end and not the means: Many organizations mistakenly believe that conducting a survey will be enough to foster employee engagement. However, once the survey has been completed, the actual work starts. When you finish a medical examination, you begin by reviewing the results. The same holds true for any employee engagement survey.
    • Not planning enough before executing the survey: One of the leading causes of failed surveys is an absence of planning. Only when the survey is used effectively, encompassing the what, why, and how of employee engagement, can it be an effective tool.
    • Trying to pinpoint the source of negative sentiment: This happens when the survey contains unfavorable feedback, and the manager makes every effort to determine its origin. This compromises the psychological safety associated with the anonymity of the survey.

    How to Address the Drawbacks

    Achieving a sense of belonging and equality calls for every employee to be heard. This is more important than ever before in today's recruiting and retention landscape, where employees value workplace experience and rely on it to decide where they will work and if they will remain committed to the company.

    There are many ways to mitigate the disadvantages of employee engagement surveys and maximize their advantages.

    You must make the questionnaire accessible, convenient, and interesting by using various channels, formats, and languages and by avoiding lengthy or complicated inquiries. Before starting the survey, you must also verify and test the questions and request employee and expert feedback on how to make them better.

    A robust analysis process is also important. Use an HR analytics tool to determine the primary drivers, trends, and engagement gaps by carrying out exhaustive and objective data analysis.

    Lastly, guarantee that the data is secure, private, and anonymous and that the privacy and rights of employees and other stakeholders are protected.

    Learn More: Crafting a Workplace That Enhances Employee Experience With Technology


    Surveys can be an effective tool for measuring engagement and workplace satisfaction, despite its risks and challenges. The good news is that Malaysia’s engagement levels are slightly higher than the global average of 53%, which means employees are mostly engaged and productive. To push the needle in the right direction, employers need to counter the disadvantages of employee engagement surveys and build on their benefits by using data science, AI, and advanced analytics tools.

    Ask for a Darwinbox demo to know how we can help.

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