Why Engagement Surveys Don’t Work.


Engagement surveys have come back in vogue in recent years, and any company wanting to “feel the pulse” of their employees does them. But there are so many problems with relying on these surveys that I hardly know where to start. Here are my top issues.

  • The questions aren’t specific enough to get conclusive answers.
    Yes, I know there are vendors out there who have done all kinds of psychological and behavioural studies to set questions intended to get to the heart of what the company is looking for. But even a simple statement like “My manager supports my career” can get different responses depending on the employee’s understanding. What do you mean by support? I have a matrix reporting line, which manager is this referring to? And if I’ve been passed over for a promotion, I’m just going to put no even if my manager is trying hard to give me other developmental opportunities.
  • Your employees don’t trust the company enough.
    It doesn’t matter how much you assure your employees that the surveys are completely anonymous. They will never believe it. So while they really want to rate you a big fat zero, they will, in all likelihood, put in a neutral rating. Just in case.
  • Your managers are just not ready for the truth.
    I’ve seen a manager put the blame of his low engagement score wholly on an ex-employee whom he said left disgruntled. Except he had a team of 30. So 1 poor rating brought the entire score down? Do the math. Another scrutinised the free-form responses and started guessing which member of his team entered in unfavourable ones, and proceeded to defend himself against each comment. His suspicions obviously also changed his attitude towards his team thereafter and you can imagine how well that worked!

Engagement surveys can give some insight into what’s happening on the ground, but it’s much more limited than what the survey providers want you to believe. Seriously, God help you if you’re one of those companies who think that a year-on-year improvement on engagement scores is a big win.

If you want to truly know how engaged your employees are, you need to listen to what they aren’t saying in the surveys. In fact, water cooler gossip is oftentimes a far more accurate gauge of employee sentiment than any survey you do.

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