Employee opinion surveys are deeply flawed. Here's why

Big companies put a lot of stock in these reviews – but they don’t provide proper feedback from workers.

By Gareth Murphy Financial Services Union

AROUND THIS TIME of year, many big employers will conduct their annual employee opinion survey in which they take the views of staff on a range of workplace matters including pay, engagement and culture.

Many employers put a lot of stock in these surveys and the results are shared with teams and the board. But many workers are sceptical and question the nature of the survey and how the results are used.

The Financial Services Union (FSU) has seen the development of these surveys over the years in the finance sector and how they adapt with each new fad.

It is now all about ‘engagement’. The more engaged your workforce is, the more productive they will be – or so they say.

So measuring engagement seems important, but how accurate are these surveys? The FSU is sceptical – very sceptical – and here is why.

Release the survey now

Timing is everything. These surveys are often released strategically, either on the back of something good or held off till after a bad news story has passed.

Employers often say it is only a snapshot of the moment, but that particular moment is often strategically chosen.

The ‘soft bribe’

In order to get surveys completed in a positive way, line managers often accompany it with boxes of chocolates or treats, or even promises that workers can go home early.

Granted it is better than being ‘threatened’ to complete it, this is nonetheless a subtle way of achieving better scores.

‘You haven’t done it yet?’

Line managers will often get data on completion rates which, while not pinpointing individuals, gives sufficient information for them to draw conclusions.

Employees are often reminded several times about the need to complete the survey, yet it remains ‘voluntary’.

It’s in your objectives

Probably the most corrupting influence is where elements of employee opinion scores are included in staff’s performance objectives. Leaders are often assessed on the scores from their team.

This creates a corrupting influence overall as team leaders will desperately try to convince their team to give good feedback.

As in some other areas of performance management it can create an unhealthy ‘gaming’ of the system.

Do an action plan

A classic trick from employers is to place the onus back onto the employees themselves.

So if a team identifies a problem, then it is up to the team to come up with an action plan to solve it.

HR describes this as empowering, but in reality, it is shifting responsibility and blame. It is also a disincentive to being honest next time around.

Answer the question the right way

When management don’t get the ‘right’ answer, it is the fault of employees for not understanding the question and so communication teams are sent down to staff to explain and ensure that the ‘right’ answer is given next time. Employees often just give in for an easy life the next time.

All of these issues lead to an unscientific and flawed survey. It is stacked against employees and mostly tells executives what they want to hear.

It does not provide employees a voice in the workplace – the only way to provide that is to equalise the imbalanced relationship between staff and employers by collectively bargaining with independent trade unions.

Employers and board members need to look at how surveys are designed and listen to feedback from staff on the ground about implementation. This should lead to more insightful results.

Rather than an obsession about engagement levels, management and employers should look closely at staff concerns – as well as grievances, complaints and absences – and engage with employees and unions.

This would provide much more honest, qualitative feedback than flawed surveys.

Gareth Murphy is head of campaigns and industrial relations at the Financial Services Union.

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