employee surveys, people metrics people science

Employee surveys are meaningful people metrics. Ask compelling questions, gain profitable insights to drive engagement and passion for your organization and its mission. Here’s the research…

Updated 11/28/2017

Employee surveys can be interventions for organizational change.

Giving a survey can catalyze positive organizational change. Surveys invite employee voice — expressing ideas for change. When employee voice is high, people feel like meaningful participants in the organization’s decisions.

A meta-analysis on employee voice showed that when people feel they have high voice, they perform better at their job, are more creative, and implement more new ideas. Employee voice boosts performance partly because it helps employees get resources to support strong performance outcomes.


The most effective decisions use a combination of intuition, logical reasoning, and hard data.

Intuitions (or “gut feelings”) are processed in the same part of the brain responsible for positive emotion. This means that using intuition to make decisions feels good, and that happy, optimistic people are more likely to rely on intuition. Compared with logical reasoning, using your gut is faster, and better at moral and aesthetic decision-making. But gut-based decision-making is generally less effective than logical reasoning and data-driven decision-making for most business decisions.

To maximize effective business decisions, research recommends a combination of intuition, logical reasoning, and data. Intuition, logic, and hard data strengthen each other symbiotically. For example, spending time with data from your latest employee survey can improve the accuracy of your gut feelings. Likewise, your gut feelings can generate excellent questions to explore with employee surveys.

Hidden information in your employee surveys can provide additional insight.

The average survey response rate is about 50%, according to a recent meta-analysis. The top reason employees reported for not responding was “too busy.” However, there may be deeper forces at work. Research on nonresponders identifies both active and passive nonresponders. A passive non-responder is fully willing to take the survey, but skips it for some reason (e.g., “too busy”). Passive nonresponders tend to be the same (in terms of job attitudes like job satisfaction) as people who reply to the survey, but passive nonresponders may be less conscientious.

The second type of nonresponder is an active nonresponder who refuses to take the employee survey. Active nonresponders generally have higher intentions to quit, lower job satisfaction, and greater dissatisfaction with management than people who respond to the survey. In terms of personality, some results suggest that active nonresponders may be less agreeable and less conscientious than people who were willing to take the survey.

The preferred method for learning about who’s not responding to your survey (and who’s active and who’s passive) is switching from anonymous to identified surveys and then following-up with nonresponders personally.

Companies who measure and act on employee attitudes and feedback consistently outperform those who don’t.

Successful companies invest in listening to their people, and it pays off. One study found that companies who invested extra resources in people measurement and development beat the S&P 500 index in earnings by as much as 35%. Another study showed that companies ranked in the “100 Best Companies to Work For” also consistently outperformed less people-friendly companies in profits.

Related case study: When Sysco started keeping track of delivery driver job satisfaction, driver retention rates improved 20%. Drilling into survey results showed that units with highly satisfied employees had higher revenues, lower costs, greater employee retention, and stronger customer loyalty.

Small improvements in employee attitudes can lead to huge profit gains.

If your main business expense is people, then people are also a powerful lever for boosting profits. A conservative estimate by Harvard Business Review suggests that a 5% increase in employee productivity can boost profits by 50%. In a related case study, Best Buy found that a 0.1% increase in employee engagement at a single store boosted revenue by $100,000.

Feeling safe is an important ingredient in honest, constructive survey responses.

Employees need to know that survey responses won’t be used against them. People can worry that a boss will take comments personally, or that constructive comments will be misread as disrespectful.

Many survey makers try to address safety with anonymity, but that’s not the best solution (see below). Instead, it’s better to create a culture of psychological safety where people feel safe to express opinions because they know responses will only be used to help improve the work experience.

Identified surveys are usually better than anonymous surveys.

Contrary to popular wisdom, employee surveys should NOT be anonymous, ideally. Companies tend to make surveys anonymous under the assumption that anonymity will boost psychological safety, but this can lead to lower-quality results, lower response rates, and less helpful feedback. A better solution is to build trust without having to make surveys anonymous.

CoeticHR: Anonymous vs. Identified Employee Surveys: What to Know

Use pre-built survey questions instead of writing your own (whenever possible).

Writing your own questions is a good idea when you’re asking about specific features of your organization.  However, if you are surveying employees on common psychological constructs like “work engagement,” it is better to use tested measures (e.g., like a measure from our metric toolkit). Tested measures bring you the benefit of effective questions subjected to scientific rigor supporting what they measure and predict.

Write meaningful open-ended survey questions.

Research shows a strong negativity bias with optional, vague open-ended questions. If providing extra detail is optional, then people are more likely to choose to comment when they have something negative to vent about. To get a more balanced collective voice, craft meaningful forward-looking questions that engage all respondents (including the happy ones). Also consider requiring responses for open-ended items to gather detailed feedback from both satisfied and dissatisfied employees.

  • Poncheri, R.M., Lindberg, J.T., Thompson, L.F., & Surface, E.A. (2008). A comment on employee surveys – Negativity bias in open-ended responses. Organizational Research Methods, 11(3), 614–630. http://doi.org/10.1177/1094428106295504
  • Morrel-Samuels, P. (2002). Getting the truth into workplace surveys. Harvard Business Review, 80(2), 111.

Work to overcome “Why bother?” thinking — the sense that responding to a survey will be pointless.

Taking actions based on employee survey results, thus showing people that survey responses matter, is the key to earning respect for surveys.

One study found that 47% of employees think the results of surveys stay flat over time (i.e., no changes). Another study found that this “Nothing ever changes around here” attitude is two times more powerful than fear (see below) in creating resistance to survey participation.

Make sure to clearly communicate how responses will improve your organization, make it clear that you are committed to making changes, share an organized summary of survey results, and when changes do happen be sure to remind people of the survey connection.

Ask questions that investigate specific drivers of employee attitudes and performance.

It’s valuable to capture outcome metrics like satisfaction and engagement, but remember your goal: finding out what’s driving attitudes and performance.

Pick one or two factors that you suspect might be affecting performance and attitudes, and focus your questions on those. Focusing on specific, pre-identified drivers makes the survey appear more relevant and gives you more actionable insight.

Share the survey results with everybody, but be thoughtful about how you do it.

Goals: You want people to have a positive attitude towards this survey and towards taking future surveys, and to feel that your organization’s surveys result in tangible, positive change. Further, it’s beneficial when people feel involved in changing and improving the organization together.

Research supports the positive impact of sharing survey results with the whole organization. People feel more involved and more positive towards the survey — and more involved in making changes — when survey results are available and openly discussed.

Science-backed tips for sharing survey feedback effectively…

  1. Talk about the results in person (more effective than sending an email)
  2. Think beyond a single presentation to everyone — look at strategies to present and discuss in smaller groups (or follow a company-wide presentation with team-level discussions).
  3. Point to actions that are already underway in response the survey. These links are not always known or obvious beyond those directly involved.
  4. Ideally, leaders throughout the organization present results — not HR, and not outside consultants (these people can help leaders prepare).
  5. Present the most unit-relevant results first. People are more likely to feel involved when focusing on feedback that directly concerns them.
  • Klein, S.M., Kraut, A.I., & Wolfson, A. (1971). Employee reactions to attitude survey feedback: A study of the impact of structure and process. Administrative Science Quarterly, 497-514.
  • Nadler, D.A., Cammann, C., & Mirvis, P.H. (1980). Developing a feedback system for work units: A field experiment in structural change. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 16(1), 41-62.
  • Thompson, L.F., & Surface, E.A. (2009). Promoting favorable attitudes toward personnel surveys: The role of follow-up. Military Psychology, 21(2), 139.

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