5 Things you Don't Want in your Survey

5 min. read

Build these into your workplace surveys if you want to irritate your people

Ever start a discussion about holding a workplace survey and hear employees grumbling that they would rather not do one? We know a lot of workplaces with this experience. To most leaders and folks in human resources, a survey sounds like a great idea, and they are excited to send them. But often, employees are not excited to participate. There are plenty of reasons why this can happen, and we know the big ones.

Confusing Words

The quality of answers received from a survey depends a lot on the quality of the questions asked. The questions must be short, understandable, and answerable. A survey should only use words that (1) every participant will know or (2) are simply defined within the survey.

Depending on who you ask, there are 600,000 to 1,000,000 words in the English language. The average English-speaker knows about 20,000 of them, and even a college graduate typically knows about 40,000. Keep it simple! Survey questions should use words that most elementary school kids would know, and the words should not be long ones.

Using words in ways other than their common meaning is also confusing. For example, a survey should not ask employees how "engaged" they are feeling at work without defining that word. Most people do not know that "engaged" is a word that leaders use to describe employees feeling dedicated and enthusiastic. Employees might not know what it means, or they might think of when a machine or device is "engaged," or they may think of when a couple is "engaged" to be married. Instead of using words in unusual ways, surveys should use words that require no explanation or provide definitions that make their usage clear.

Trick Questions

A trick question is "a question which is very difficult to answer, for example, because there is a hidden difficulty or because the answer that seems obvious is not the correct one." Employee surveys are not the place for trick questions. People need to feel safe to express themselves candidly.

Employee surveys sometimes include questions that challenge employees to show their knowledge about the company or industry. These make people feel like they are being tested and they should not be included in employee sentiment surveys. Instead, let team leaders, training resources, and mentors help employees learn key information about the company.

Employee surveys also sometimes have tricky ways of asking or answering questions. The most common cause of trickiness is when the question includes one or more negative words (like "not"), and the answer selections prompt the employee to say how much they agree or disagree. For example:

I do not have problems understanding assigned work.

Agree Strongly

Agree Somewhat

No Opinion

Disagree Somewhat

Disagree Strongly

For employees to choose one of these requires a series of mental steps that are may not get them the answer they intendedand it feels frustrating for them!

Things that People Don't Care About

It's no surprise: people will only answer (or answer thoughtfully) about subjects they care about. Questions work when they focus on thoughts, feelings, and needs that employees have some experience or connection with. If you want to see more apathetic answers and lower participation, ask questions about subjects that not everyone cares about, like sustainability programs, volunteering, and company charitable works. These are great things, but many employees do not relate to them. Survey questions should focus on employees' jobs, compensation, and feelings. To get feedback on optional initiatives, open an optional place for feedback elsewhere.

Dragging out the Survey too Long

Researchers have studied this, and to get the best participation and accurate results, surveys should be easy to complete in ten minutes or less. If the questions are well-written, that shouldn't be more than about 40 simple questions. Many major workplace surveys run upwards of 100 questions, or they waste a lot of time on extra steps or administrative details. As soon as employees are stuck answering questions for more than 10 minutes, they'll be much more likely to quit the process or start rushing through the answers—and neither of these are good for the quality of the results.

Keeping Tabs on Who Said What

Of all the mistakes in workplace surveys, this one is the biggest. Surveys will fail if they do not keep responses anonymous.

Many employees will skip non-anonymous surveys altogether, while others will alter their answers to say what they think leaders would like to hear. After all, they may imagine that their job could be in danger if the results make the bosses unhappy. Instead, surveys should be designed and deployed so that participants' identities can never be associated with their answers. Those conducting the survey should assure participants that it's impossible for anyone to know what answers they gave.

Does this list ring true? We know it is, and that's why our surveys are built better. At Amazing Workplace, our Employee Happiness Survey™ is the best in the world, using the latest research and cutting-edge technology to get great participation and make completing the survey a pleasure. Check us out here, or can email us at info@amazingworkplace.com!