People Science Logo

People Science

Employee Surveys as Meaningful Metrics

Employee surveys are meaningful people metrics. Engage employees and empower teams to pursue your organization's inspiring mission with compelling questions.

1. Employee surveys, done well, are interventions for organizational change.

Surveys are interventions because questions are a powerful motivator5. Human brains are wired to respond to questions—when asked an important question, the entire brain gets active. A serotonin release encourages contributions from many areas of the brain, and new neuronal connections link ideas to create potential solutions. This energized quest in the brain creates motivation and readiness to act.

What transforms a survey into a catalyst for positive change? Have a vision and purpose for your survey. Think of a survey as an important conversation among organizational members and leaders. Create your survey with an intent to produce insights and a forward path.

When crafting your survey, consider who asks and who receives the responses, who responds, and how the information and results translate into action. Positive change comes from the questions asked (or not asked), and sends a message about what is important and worthy of curiosity. When you develop a survey to catalyze change, it creates meaningful dialogue, new thinking, and positive change10.

2. Aim surveys to include employee voice in impactful decisions.

Surveys are a way to understand what it’s like to belong to the organization and to gather ideas that will make the organization more fulfilling and effective. A well-designed survey (and a thoughtful analysis plan) informs leadership decisions with a rich and nuanced understanding of diverse perspectives within the organization, highlighting both alignment and differing views.

Researchers emphasize the importance of Employee Voice27—leaders listening to understand employee perceptions. When employee voice is high, people feel like meaningful participants in the organization's decisions. A meta-analysis on employee voice showed that when leaders listen, employees perform better at their jobs, show more creativity, and share more ideas. Surveys provide one invitation to be heard. Researchers point out that employee voice impacts job performance because it enables people to raise needs and concerns as well as gain support to achieve desired performance outcomes18.

3. Psychological safety is the foundation for honest, constructive survey responses.

A culture of psychological safety—where people feel safe to express opinions—allows a survey to produce meaningful metrics. A combination of psychological safety and effective survey methods yield honest, constructive responses. Leaders foster psychological safety by making it clear that all views are welcome and that discussion and shared understanding will only help improve the work experience.

Here is some guidance from research identifying common psychological risk cues. To bolster positive experiences and encourage meaningful survey responses8:

Cues for Psychological RiskPsychological Safety Strategy
Histories of inaction with surveys and employee voice input lower confidence inhibit progress.Explain in advance the plan for following through on the information that is gathered, and ensure that the employee voice is acted on and show how input inspired decisions.
Lacking transparency creates distrust in leadership.Be transparent, convey information in clear and consistent ways and “close the loop” from input thru decisions.
Power distance between leaders and team members hinder employee voice.Soften power cues and create human connections and comfortable relationships during discussions that feed decisions.
Anonymous surveys imply that openly sharing views is not safe.Make honest feedback a regular, casual exchange, including identified surveys.

A culture of psychological safety is an important foundation. Even within that, surveys need to specifically promote safety. Experts have shared general guidelines for effective and psychologically safe surveys4:

  1. Ensure that survey intentions are clear - what decisions will the survey influence?
  2. Be transparent throughout the survey process - who will have access to results, how will they be used, what are you hoping to learn?
  3. Develop best practices for handling data.
  4. Choose partners who can help frame survey questions to benefit strong decision practices, promote psychological safety, help leaders openly accept diverse and even critical views, share results with teams and facilitate sensemaking, and support follow-up in actions and communications.
  5. Use identified surveys (more on this in the next section).

4. Identified surveys are usually better than anonymous surveys.

Contrary to popular belief, employee surveys ideally should NOT be anonymous. Anonymity can be an enemy of psychological safety by reinforcing fears behind speaking up, and limiting responsive actions8. Identified surveys offer several benefits14:

Greater AccountabilityAn identified survey empowers people to be accountable for their responses and ready to back them up. 
DecencyAnonymity makes room for disrespect; connecting identity to responses prompts constructive, helpful comments.
Higher-Impact ActionAn identified survey enables leaders to follow up with people to better understand perspectives shared in the survey and thus create for more meaningful, on-point interventions.
Meaningful ResponsesAdding identity improves feedback quality, and respondents typically provide more detailed answers.

The best practice—build trust with identified surveys. Experts urge leaders to rethink anonymity as the default for employee surveys15. Studies also show that identified surveys promote accountability and improve individual performance28.

5. Meaningful Employee Survey Design.

Keep surveys focused

It's valuable to capture outcome metrics like satisfaction and engagement, but remember to focus on actionable drivers. Ask questions that reveal experiences that are driving attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and performance. To best discern the most relevant drivers:

  • Do some pre-survey pilot work (e.g., focus groups) to consider possible factors that are having an impact in your organization
  • To determine the best questions, find pairings of outcomes with contributing factors
  • Keep ideas distinct so you can analyze potential relationships; avoid joining topics in single questions17

Focusing on specific, pre-identified drivers makes a survey relevant and delivers more actionable insight.

Use pre-built survey questions instead of writing your own

When asking about specific features of your organization, you may need custom-designed questions. However, if you are surveying employees on common constructs like "work engagement," it is better to use tested measures. Tested measures bring you the benefit of valid questions derived with scientific rigor17. This means your results are more likely to represent something important that you can act on.

Note: The careful rewriting of a validated measure can suit an organization's needs better than a generic question.

###Write meaningful open-ended survey questions

Open-ended questions add value because they help explain ratings. Additionally, comments can help to validate survey constructs—they clarify a person’s understanding of the question being asked17.

However, researchers caution that when open-ended questions are vague and providing extra detail is optional, there is a strong negativity bias—people are more likely to choose to comment when they want to vent than to offer praise or appreciation20.

Unfavorable perspectives are important, but can be problematic if they falsely appear to be the only perspectives, leading to unwarranted corrective action that can backfire with unintended consequences.

To ensure a more balanced collective voice, craft meaningful forward-looking questions that engage all respondents (including the happy ones). Consider requiring responses for open-ended items to gather detailed feedback from both satisfied and dissatisfied employees.

###Know your organization’s pulse

Pulse surveys have gained in popularity (e.g., the Employee Net Promoter Score) as a way to more frequently assess important employee experiences, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and outcomes27. Taking action matters11, and frequent measures that spotlight change over time can support a feedback loop connecting actions to outcomes.

Whether you create your questions or use pre-built tests, the metric is not as important as the actions taken with the data. An ongoing pulse survey can maintain a baseline understanding of the organization. This type of survey gauges employee perception and shows changes to employee perception over time. Leaders gain insights as to when and why changes in employee perceptions occur. Research supports the pulse measures that generate valid results using a single, repeated question21.

6. Overcome resistance to 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 the "Nothing ever changes around here" attitude is two times more potent than fear in creating resistance to survey participation12. Employees need to trust that survey responses will influence leaders' decision-making to feel open to sharing meaningful responses.

The key reason employees withhold ideas and concerns originates from beliefs that leaders will not act8. To earn employees' respect for surveys, take actions based on results, thus showing people that their responses matter30. Decision-making research supports leaders in taking data into account when making important calls such as those that impact employee experience and culture. While gut-based, intuitive decisions are faster, the most effective decision-making incorporates data and logical reasoning6.

Digital solutions and artificial intelligence (AI) have become more prevalent to support surveys, experts issue some cautionary notes about transparency and suggest adopting practices that ensure AI is used to promote legal, ethical, and robust survey goals and methods19.

7. Make meaningful adaptive moves with survey results.

###Hidden information in employee surveys can provide additional insight.

According to a meta-analysis, the average survey response rate for general populations is about 50%, but only about 35% for employee surveys2. For employee surveys, "too busy," is the top reason for no response.

While "too busy" likely has truth, other variables also impact response. Recent studies found that gender, and cultural values sway response likelihoods16. Proactively engaging team members and learning why non-response occurs will foster more meaningful and representative results from a survey.

Research on non-responders classifies two groups; active and passive non-responders. A passive non-responder is fully willing to take a survey, but skips it for some reason (e.g., "too busy"). Passive non-responders tend to rate the same in terms of job satisfaction and related metrics as the survey responders.

The second type of non-responder is an active non-responder, an employee who refuses to participate in the survey. Active non-responders generally have low job satisfaction, high intentions to quit, and dissatisfaction with management. Results suggest that active non-responders present as less agreeable and conscientious than those who were willing to take the survey22,23.

Passive Non-RespondersActive Non-Responders
(Willing to take the survey, but skips it) The majority of non-responders are passive non-responders(Purposefully decides not to respond)
Similar to survey respondents Higher intentions to quit—less committed
Rate the same in job satisfaction as most respondersPoor job and supervisor satisfaction

The preferred method for learning about who's not responding to your survey (and who's passive and who's active) is switching from anonymous to identified surveys and then following up* with non-responders personally (see below)24.

Nonresponse Bias Impact Assessment Strategies
Archival analysisCompare responders to non-responders on variables contained in an archival database
Follow-up approach*Reach out to non-responders personally
Worst-case resistanceCreate projections of the data to determine its significance
Benchmarking analysisCompare the survey data with other business data (i.e. performance, turnover) to identify improvement areas
Demonstrate GeneralizabilityUtilize new research methods to try and replicate results

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

An employee survey launch is not complete until you share the survey feedback with organizational members who were invited to contribute, and determine actions springing from the input26.

Sharing survey results, insights, and actions is an important next step in aiming your survey as a powerful intervention for change. The resulting sense of involvement from being asked for input, learning the input given by all respondents, and participating in determining next steps creates forward momentum for tangible, positive change13.

Science-backed tips for sharing survey feedback effectively:

  1. Ideally, have leaders present results instead of HR or consultants.
  2. Talk about the results in person.
  3. Think beyond a single presentation to everyone — look at strategies to discuss in smaller groups, or consider a presentation followed by team-level discussions.
  4. Present the most unit-relevant results first. People are more likely to feel engaged when focusing on feedback that directly concerns them.
  5. Point to actions that are already underway in response to the survey. These links are not always known or obvious beyond those directly involved13.

9. Improve organizational effectiveness; act on employee attitudes and feedback.

Successful organizations invest in listening to employee voice, and it pays off. Organizations with highly satisfied employees have higher revenues, lower costs, better employee retention, and stronger customer loyalty. Studies have found that companies that invest extra resources in people measurement beat the S&P 500 index in earnings by as much as 35%9, companies ranked in the "100 Best Companies to Work For" are more profitable than less people-friendly companies, and tracking job satisfaction can improve employee retention rates by 20%3.

If your primary expense is people, then people are also a powerful lever for raising profits25. Leaders who listen, tap into insights gained through employee voice data, and take action on what they learn amplify employee success and effectiveness. A conservative estimate suggests that a 5% increase in productivity can boost profits by 50%1—and an employee survey may be the intervention needed to start that growth.


  1. Barber, F., & Strack, R. (2005, June 1). The Surprising Economics of a “People Business.” Harvard Business Review, June 2005.
  2. Baruch, Y., & Holtom, B. C. (2008). Survey response rate levels and trends in organizational research. Human Relations, 61(8), 1139–1160.
  3. Bassi, L., & McMurrer, D. (2004, March 1). How’s Your Return on People? Harvard Business Review, March 2004.
  4. Biga, A., Silke McCance, A., & Massman, A. J. (2011). Identified Employee Surveys: Lessons Learned. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 4(4), 449–451.
  5. Brooks, A. W., & John, L. K. (2018). The surprising power of questions. Harvard Business Review, May-June.
  6. Dane, E., & Pratt, M. G. (2007). Exploring Intuition and its Role in Managerial Decision Making. Academy of Management Review, 32(1), 33–54.
  7. Davenport, T. H., Harris, J., & Shapiro, J. (2010, October 1). Competing on Talent Analytics. Harvard Business Review, October 2010.
  8. Detert, J. R., & Burris, E. R. (2016, January 1). Can Your Employees Really Speak Freely? Harvard Business Review, January–February 2016.
  9. Edmans, A. (2011). Does the stock market fully value intangibles? Employee satisfaction and equity prices. Journal of Financial Economics, 101(3), 621–640.
  10. Falletta, S. V., & Combs, W. (2002). Surveys as a tool for organization development and change. In J. Waclawski & A. H. Church (Eds.), Organization development: A data-driven approach to organizational change (pp. 78–102). Jossey-Bass.
  11. Hyken, S. (2016, December 3). How Effective Is Net Promoter Score (NPS)? Forbes.
  12. Impact Achievement. (2011, October). The Hypocrisy of Employee Surveys: A Closer Look at the True Impact. Impact Achievement Group.
  13. 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, 16(4), 497.
  14. Laurtisen, J. (2016, August 22). 4 Reasons to Abandon Anonymity in Employee Surveys. Fistful of Talent.
  15. Lelkes, Y., Krosnick, J. A., Marx, D. M., Judd, C. M., & Park, B. (2012). Complete anonymity compromises the accuracy of self-reports. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(6), 1291–1299.
  16. Lyness, K. S., & Kropf, M. B. (2007). Cultural Values and Potential Nonresponse Bias: A Multilevel Examination of Cross-National Differences in Mail Survey Response Rates. Organizational Research Methods, 10(2), 210–224.
  17. Morrel-Samuels, P. (2002, February 1). Getting the Truth into Workplace Surveys. Harvard Business Review, February 2002.
  18. Ng, T. W. H., & Feldman, D. C. (2012). Employee voice behavior: A meta-analytic test of the conservation of resources framework: EMPLOYEE VOICE. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33(2), 216–234.
  19. Nocker, M., & Sena, V. (2019). Big Data and Human Resources Management: The Rise of Talent Analytics. Social Sciences, 8(10), 273.
  20. 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.
  21. Rao, P. D. N. (2019). Impact of Employee Net Promoter Score in Organisational Growth. International Journal of Research and Analytical Reviews, 5(1).
  22. Rogelberg, S. G., Conway, J. M., Sederburg, M. E., Spitzmüller, C., Aziz, S., & Knight, W. E. (2003). Profiling Active and Passive Nonrespondents to an Organizational Survey. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(6), 1104–1114.
  23. Rogelberg, S. G., Luong, A., Sederburg, M. E., & Cristol, D. S. (2000). Employee attitude surveys: Examining the attitudes of noncompliant employees. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(2), 284–293.
  24. Rogelberg, S. G., & Stanton, J. M. (2007). Introduction: Understanding and Dealing With Organizational Survey Nonresponse. Organizational Research Methods, 10(2), 195–209.
  25. Siu, E. (2014, July 30). Why Your Employees’ Happiness Matters—And What To Do About It. Forbes.
  26. Thompson, L. F., & Surface, E. A. (2009). Promoting Favorable Attitudes Toward Personnel Surveys: The Role of Follow-Up. Military Psychology, 21(2), 139–161.
  27. Van Dyne, L., Ang, S., & Botero, I. C. (2003). Conceptualizing employee silence and employee voice as multidimensional constructs*. Journal of Management Studies, 40(6), 1359–1392.
  28. Wadhwa, G., Schulz, H., & Mann, B. L. (2006). Effects of anonymity and accountability during online peer assessment. In B. L. Mann (Ed.), Selected Styles in Web-Based Research (pp. 303–333). Idea Group Inc. 10.4018/978-1-59140-732-4.ch020
  29. Welbourne, T. M. (2016). The Potential of Pulse Surveys: Transforming Surveys into Leadership Tools. Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 43(1), 33–39.
  30. Wilkie, D. (2018, January 5). Employee Engagement Surveys: Why Do Workers Distrust Them? SHRM.
© Copyright Coetic 2014-2020. All rights reserved. Updated 09-01-20.