Employee surveys allow workers to provide feedback on their engagement, satisfaction, performance, and more. We look at 5 tips to maximize participation, reduce bias, and produce insightful results that drive company decisions.
Table of contents
- Companies use employee surveys to collect feedback on engagement, onboarding, performance, and more.
- Surveys are easy to misinterpret and responses are prone to errors and biases.
- You need to design surveys that maximize participation, reduce bias, and produce meaningful, actionable results.
- We offer tips to help you obtain reliable and valuable data. These include planning in advance, using the right target group, avoiding leading questions, and more.
Many companies use surveys to gather employee feedback, but results are often flawed, misleading, and tricky to analyze. Misinterpreting things like employee satisfaction, engagement, and performance can have serious consequences.
For instance, results may show that employees feel less empowered at work. You might resolve this by providing them with more ownership and independence. But if they were looking for more training and support, you’ve set them up for failure.
Similarly, workers who are afraid of being truthful may tell you they’re satisfied at work. Next thing you know, they’ve quit, leaving you confused.
When creating and administering surveys, it’s important to follow employee survey best practices. These help ensure robust and reliable results. Below, we share 5 expert survey design tips to help you boost participation and gather honest, meaningful insights for your company.
Plan in Advance
Define the purpose
Employee surveys can be used for a number of different reasons. Companies use them to measure employee engagement levels. Employees can also use them to gather feedback from their managers, coworkers, and direct reports.
Ensure that you define a clear purpose for your survey—whatever it may be. A Forbes study found that 78% of companies failed to get quality results from their employee engagement surveys, and one of the key reasons for this was that they were tackling too many issues at once.
It’s best to narrow your purpose down to a few key topics. This way, you’re not exhausting employees with too many questions. Plus, by having a clear focus for the survey, you can gather more meaningful insights to drive specific business outcomes.
Establish your target audience and ensure they’re “representative”
Identify who you want to collect responses from. Your target audience, or “sample,” will vary according to what your survey is measuring.
When it comes to employee surveys, best practices include collecting feedback from a “representative sample.” This refers to a group that reflects all the relevant people to whom the survey’s questions may apply. You can end up with misleading survey results if you don’t gather feedback from a representative sample.
For example, sending a survey only to team members who are highly engaged won’t yield objective results. These team members aren’t representative of all your employees, who likely have varying levels of engagement. In this example, you wouldn’t have an opportunity to hear from less engaged workers and thus wouldn’t be able to work on addressing the underlying issues.
Finally, ensure that you have a good sample size. This means you should have a minimum number of responses for your survey to be considered representative of the full population.
Sample sizes will vary by the size of your company. There are plenty of tools online to help you calculate what a good sample size would be.
As a rule of thumb, for larger companies of over 1,000 workers, 10% is usually a good sample size. But for smaller companies of less than 100 employees, you should aim to have them all complete the survey.
Decide if a survey template works for you
Before you design your survey, assess if you need to build it from scratch. Some companies use new or previously used survey templates. For example, you could use last year’s employee satisfaction survey again this year if it worked well. This would also allow you to compare the results more meaningfully.
Another option is to start with an existing template and tweak it to suit your needs. For example, you can add or remove questions based on what’s important for your survey. Or, you could add a comments box for workers’ suggestions if that’s what you’re looking for.
Consider a pilot survey or get feedback from focus groups
Some companies run a pilot survey before sending the survey to their full target audience. This means companies test an employee experience survey with a small group to make sure that respondents can understand all the questions.
Companies also use pilot surveys to identify any biases—for example, everyone ranking the first or last item in a list as their preferred option. This is called a primary bias (when respondents select the first item) or recency bias (when they pick the last item).
In addition, using the pilot survey method lets you make any necessary changes before your survey goes to a bigger group.
But pilot surveys aren’t your only option. You can also organize a focus group where you ask a small group to read through the questions and provide feedback.
Choose the right timing and frequency
Carefully consider when you want to send the survey out. For example, performance surveys are usually sent annually or every 6 months. You can administer employee engagement or satisfaction surveys more frequently—for example, every quarter. These are also known as pulse surveys.
Of course, you can send out surveys as frequently as you need to. But timing is important, as it provides context. For instance, you may send a satisfaction survey out to workers during a challenging time for the business. Employees’ responses may be more negative than they would have been if the survey were sent out when the business was doing well. Be sure to take timing into consideration when you analyze survey responses.
Decide who’ll own it
The survey should be administered by a specific person or team. This could be HR, communications, or another relevant team.
This ensures that the relevant person or team is accountable for administering surveys on time, as well as analyzing and presenting results to the relevant stakeholders.
Maximize Participation and Encourage Honesty
Make it short and user-friendly
Ensure that your survey is short, intuitive, and easy on the eyes. Ideally, employees should be able to complete the survey within 20 minutes. This way, they can focus on it in a single sitting without any distractions.
Also, keep any visual elements such as logos, page numbers, survey progress status, and so on clean and simple. Avoid overusing too many colors, as this can be distracting. In addition, consider the font you use when creating your survey. Stick to a sans serif font, such as Arial, in font size 12 so workers can read questions clearly.
A lengthy questionnaire with too many distracting elements can be daunting and lower employee participation rates.
Establish anonymity and/or confidentiality
Respondents should know upfront whether or not the survey is anonymous. Workers will typically answer more openly if they know their responses are anonymous. While some argue that anonymity discourages openness and transparency at work, studies have also shown that anonymous surveys receive employee response rates of upwards of 90%.
Some surveys aren’t anonymous but answers are still kept confidential. This means that only the administering party knows how workers have answered. It’s critical to inform employees if this is the case and reassure them that their answers won’t be shared with anyone else.
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Read our guide on How to Create an Anonymous Employee Survey + 20 Example Questions
Use easy language and offer explanations where required
To improve the accuracy of responses, make sure you use simple language that everyone understands in the same way. Especially with employee engagement surveys, best practices include using a pilot survey or focus groups to check that no questions are ambiguous. This is because these surveys are more likely to contain HR terms that others don’t understand.
For anything that may be potentially confusing, offer a clear explanation for it. This way, employees can focus on answering questions instead of trying to understand their meaning.
Start and end with easy questions
Create a positive employee experience at the beginning of the survey by asking simple questions. For example, “For example, “I am proud to be part of this company.” Easy initial questions will put workers at ease and make them feel comfortable in answering the rest of the survey.
Ending with easy questions will also leave employees feeling positive. This will likely increase their willingness to participate in future surveys.
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Use technology to administer surveys and track responses
Traditionally, surveys were administered in paper form. Although some companies still do this, it can lead to lower participation, lost responses, and missed questions. Plus, it takes a lot of time and effort to analyze the results manually.
Use technology such as employee survey software to create and administer employee surveys online. All responses are saved in the cloud so you’ll never lose data. You can also make certain questions mandatory if you want everyone to answer them. Plus, you can easily track and analyze responses in real time.
Alternatively, you could send surveys in a Microsoft Word or Google Docs format and email these to employees. While this still uses technology, it does have its limitations. You’ll have to group individual responses together and manually analyze the data.
Importantly, using technology lets workers participate from anywhere with an internet connection. This is an excellent way to improve employee response rates for distributed teams.
Make it mobile-friendly
Administering surveys on mobile devices makes it even easier for employees to participate. They can access the survey on the go and save and continue later if they need to pause.
Our advice: Use team management software that also has a mobile app, such as Connecteam.
Connecteam has built-in survey features that let you create and assign surveys and track responses in real time. You can also send workers notifications to remind them when they need to complete surveys. Plus, Connecteam’s reporting tool lets you view and analyze survey trends easily. Sign up for a free trial to check it out today.
Offer incentives or make surveys compulsory
Making a survey mandatory helps in increasing employee participation. It also provides a fair and representative sample.
Alternatively, consider offering rewards to incentivize workers to complete the survey. For example, you could offer a corporate discount for retail, restaurants, and so on. Or, have a lucky draw where one respondent wins a prize.
Thank respondents for their time
Asking employees to answer a bunch of questions isn’t the end of employee surveys. Best practices include thanking participants for their time and effort.
You could add a thank-you note at the end of the survey or send them an email. Or, you could publicly tag and thank respondents in a company-wide newsfeed. This may motivate more workers to participate in the future.
Employees who feel respected and appreciated will have a better chance of participating in future surveys.
Create Meaningful, Relevant, and Objective Questions
Write each question to cover one topic
You can cover multiple topics within a survey, but each question should be focused on only one specific idea or topic.
For example, if you ask employees how satisfied they are with training and mentorship opportunities, you won’t be able to separate out their ratings for these individual topics. Thus, you won’t be able to use these insights effectively. Instead, use one question to focus on training and another to focus on mentorship.
Avoid open-ended questions and focus on facts, not feelings
When targeting a number of different topics with a large target group, it’s best to limit open-ended questions. Each employee will respond differently, and analyzing wordy and inconsistent feedback is time-consuming. You’ll also find it tricky to pick out important themes and decide how to act on the feedback.
Conversely, quantitative questions are easier to answer and analyze. Survey designers often use a rating scale to gather clear data that they can statistically analyze.
Here’s an example of a commonly used rating scale used on survey questions:
Q: My manager provides me with effective feedback.
- Strongly Disagree
- Strongly Agree
However, even this kind of question can be problematic. It focuses on how an employee feels rather than what the observable facts are. It comes down to what an employee considers to be “effective feedback.”
An alternative option could be using a number-based system.
Here’s an example of a number-based survey question:
Q: During the last year, my manager has provided me with effective, actionable feedback
1. Never ………………………………………………………………………… 10. Always
This question now focuses on observable facts and is more objective. The numerical answers will provide more powerful data than answers with words.
Ultimately, the purpose of your survey and the size of your target group will determine which questions and rating scales will provide the most meaningful results.
Qualitative feedback has its place
In most cases, surveys include at least 1-2 questions that allow employees to provide qualitative feedback, like comments, in addition to quantitative feedback.
This is most effective when you’re looking for employee suggestions. Qualitative feedback also allows you to have more context and a deeper understanding of employee opinions. Plus, it’s a great way to make employees feel heard and valued.
Stay neutral and avoid leading questions
Leading questions are phrased to guide the respondent toward a certain desired answer. For example, “Do you feel understaffed?” encourages the participant to focus on the negative.
Neutral, non-emotive questions gather more effective and objective feedback. Consider instead, “To what extent are you satisfied with the size of the staff?”
Likewise, companies often sprinkle surveys with positive statements such as, “My manager is supportive.” The results from surveys loaded with emotive statements are often unreliable. Thus, it’s best to avoid them.
Keep questions meaningful to the company’s performance and success
To keep the survey short and concise, stick to questions that are meaningful to the purpose of the survey. Avoid stuffing your survey with nice-to-know questions that aren’t an immediate priority. This will help you more easily gather meaningful insights so you can take action.
Avoid primacy and recency bias with ranking questions
Ranking questions provide employees with a list of options they’re asked to rank. For example, “Rank company benefits in the order of their importance to you.”
This can result in primacy and/or recency bias in employees. This means they’re more likely to focus on the first and/or last item on the list, paying little attention to the ones in between.
It’s best to avoid ranking questions and instead use independent questions.
Change the wording occasionally to make the desired answer negative
Keep employees engaged and on their toes by changing the desired answer to negative every now and then.
For example, “My manager doesn’t provide me with effective feedback.” This gets rid of the tendency to “agree” with everything—a bias that becomes more powerful toward the end of the survey.
Format It to Minimize Bias
Avoid section labels, and try randomizing the order of questions
Avoid labeling sections or putting sets of questions together in boxes. For example, some companies group benefits-related questions together. A worker’s view on flexible working may influence how they rate other benefits such as health insurance. Employees tend to answer or rate answers similarly for questions within a box or section.
You can randomize the order of your questions so they’re not grouped together. For example, don’t have all benefits-related questions in a row. Spread them across the survey so you can get unbiased responses that apply to only one benefit at a time.
Keep questions the same length to prevent biases
Aim to write questions that are roughly similar in length—for example, 1 sentence, 5-10 words, or fewer than 20 words long. Decide on a length that works for the questions you’re going to ask and remain consistent as you write your survey.
Workers may assume that longer or wordier questions are more important to the company. This can lead to them answering more positively on those questions—especially when they’re worried about being identified.
Place demographic questions carefully
Demographic questions about gender, age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are important. They help identify red flags when it comes to DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and discrimination.
On the other hand, they make it easier to identify respondents. This could result in workers holding back from answering questions truthfully.
It’s best to make demographic questions optional. This way, employees can decide if they want to disclose their details or not.
Also, consider where in the survey you want to place these questions. On employee engagement surveys, best practices include placing demographic questions at the end. This will help prevent employees from dropping out of the survey and reduce biased responses.
Ensure the Results Are Reliable and Use Them!
Cross-check your survey results with actual, real-life data and trends. For example, imagine an employee notes in a survey that they’re likely to stay with the company long-term. But in real life, they resigned shortly after completing the survey. It’s important to identify these inconsistencies and understand where they’re coming from.
Make use of benchmarking data—results for the same or similar questions—from surveys done by other teams or companies in your industry.
For example, say your results suggest that your employees are highly engaged. Perhaps another company’s results for the same question indicate that workers are also highly engaged.
These like-for-like comparisons can help validate your data and show you how your team is operating compared to your competitors.
Discard questions or surveys with very few responses
Don’t rely on data for surveys or questions if the number of responses was too low and didn’t represent the target population.
For example, if you have a company with 50 people and only 5 participated, your results won’t reflect the views of all team members. Thus, they shouldn’t be used to make important decisions.
You may find that survey results seem to lean heavily toward one side. In these cases, check that your survey data hasn’t been influenced by a handful of extreme responses.
For example, if most people said they were “satisfied” or “neutral” with their leave allowance, but a small number of employees were “deeply dissatisfied,” it could push the overall results toward “dissatisfied.” This is called “skewing.”
AON revealed that almost 80% of managers don’t act on employee survey data. This was in line with 80% of employees who felt answering a survey made no difference to their working conditions.
With US employee engagement on a downward trend, it’s important for companies to use the data they gather from their employee surveys.
Don’t treat it as a tick-box exercise. These surveys provide valuable insights you can use to improve the culture and working practices within your company.
The Bottom Line on Employee Survey Best Practices
Employee surveys are an effective way to gather feedback from your workers. They provide insights into employee engagement, satisfaction levels, onboarding, and more.
But survey results are prone to biases, and errors, and can be easily misinterpreted. This can lead you to make the wrong decisions for your employees.
Therefore, you need to create surveys that are effective but also account for these errors. You need to plan in advance, maximize the participation rate, and obtain honest, unbiased responses from your workers.
This article covers 5 expert tips to improve survey design, administration, and analysis. With these insights, you can use the power of the employee survey to its full potential.