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What Separates Good Employee Engagement Surveys from Vanity Metrics?


Since you likely arrived here looking for helpful ideas you can use for your next employee engagement survey, I should probably get this part out of the way:

According to various experts, there’s a strong likelihood that 60-70% of your workforce will not participate.

I realize this isn’t the good news you’re looking for, so I’ll cut straight to the silver lining and let you know that you can prevent that from happening.

You just have to forget about a lot of the advice you’ve been getting.

Perhaps you tried a few survey tips, but still experience much lower than anticipated response rates. Or maybe you tested out some popular pulse survey software and aren’t seeing significant outcomes. The market is now saturated with an abundance of survey types and tips. Some of them are valid and valuable. A few are convenient for employees to take.

But how many will result in increased levels of engagement? Based on our extensive research, the answer is “not many.”

A lot of the surveys that rise to the top of Google are “vanity” surveys. The results may look good in a press release but do little to drive on-the-ground engagement. Once you begin to distinguish between these types of surveys and the ones that are psychometrically valid, you can start to influence real change.


The 3 Main Types of Employee Engagement Surveys


1. “Vanity” Employee Surveys

If you’ve ever worked with a management team that felt it had reached “best workplace” status and needed the survey results to prove it, you know what it’s like to participate in a vanity survey. Because these surveys tend measure job satisfaction rather than meaningful connections to employers, they do little to drive true engagement.

Plus, the scores can be places to work

I once worked at a company that provided detailed talking points and sample answers for a “Top Workplaces” campaign. Suffice it to say, the results of that survey did not paint an accurate picture of employee engagement.

Apparently, incentivized and dishonest feedback isn’t unusual.

Companies have been known to influence high marks by tying compensation to Net Promoter Scores. In one study, 48% of senior leadership rated the surveys they were using as “highly valuable,” while less than half (19%) of the rest of their organizations felt the same. And at the United Parcel Service, one particularly memorable annual survey resulted in high ratings for morale just 10 months before the organization was hit with a costly strike.

Bottom line: A survey that results in a high ranking on a “Top Workplaces” list can be a boon for marketing, but it doesn’t mean employees are truly engaged. Relying on these can lead to a cycle of never truly knowing how high (or low) your levels of employee engagement are.


2. Self-Commissioned Employee Surveys

Another common approach is to run your own employee engagement survey. These internal surveys often lead to the same level of unreliability because of another factor at play: the issue of anonymity.

Employees are not only increasingly suspicious of claims that company survey results will be kept confidential. They’re also getting advice from workplace advisors to distrust them.

In one popular workplace column, a concerned reader was told to avoid taking a survey she suspected of being tracked. In another, CBS told workers that, yes, there are surreptitious methods companies can use to trace answers back to individuals.

Whether or not you actually track individual answers, the skepticism is there. When a survey is crafted by an internal team, it’s practically impossible to create confidence that the captured information will be confidential. As a result, many employees will opt to either ignore your survey requests or provide the feedback they think you want to hear.

Either way, you’re left with unreliable “insights” that do little to improve business outcomes.


3. Psychometrically Valid Employee Engagement Surveys

This last type of survey is by far the most reliable, in large part because it focuses first and foremost on the psychological state and well being of an employee. These surveys start with a benchmarking process that allows you to gauge current levels of true engagement—even if they’re lower than desired—so you can measure for improvement.

Instead of crafting survey questions that will lead to high scores, the goal is to get an accurate understanding of actual engagement through increased response rates and honest answers that can be mapped specifically to engagement, instead of satisfaction alone. And by focusing on the right length (7 to 10 minutes to complete), frequency (both an annual survey and shorter quarterly check-ins), and delivery (SMS and email to reach both in-office and non-desk workers), you can uncover employee opinions as they surface and make adjustments in real time—whether that means a company-wide approach or a series of strategies broken down by the unique needs of different teams, divisions, locations, or departments.

Put simply: A survey that’s grounded in psychometrics—specifically meaning, safety, and capacity—instead of mere job satisfaction or desired outcomes will ultimately lead to real and lasting results. So when you do win that “best workplace” award, it’ll be a meaningful reflection of true engagement.

If you’re anxious to dive into option #3 from above, I highly recommended starting with our 10 employee survey questions to inform your engagement strategy


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