Blog | How To Get Honest Feedback From Employee Surveys

Published November 23, 2017

Employee Insight
How To Get Honest Feedback From Employee Surveys

For employee feedback to be useful, you need two things – a high enough response rate to make it representative, and quality answers that accurately reflect what employees feel. After all, if employees are not honest in their responses – for example randomly ticking boxes to get the survey completed as quickly or possible, then the results won’t support good decision making.

According to experts, there are two main groups of factors that impact how honest your employees are in surveys. Firstly, there are those that relate to the culture of your organisation (such as psychological safety, confidentiality, improvement/action, purpose, communication), while the second set are related to the design of your survey, including question design, language, survey layout and response scales. 

This post is going to look at the first group of cultural factors, focusing on four key tactics that can increase honesty. They are all based on creating a positive, psychologically secure environment, where employees are encouraged to speak up as they feel that it won’t harm their careers, that their voices will be listened to, and that their feedback will be protected and respected. 

1. Keep it confidential

Employees are much more likely to answer surveys honestly if they feel that their responses cannot be used to identify them and that they therefore will not face negative consequences if they raise concerns. Ensuring that responses are either confidential or anonymous protects their identities and can therefore build trust in the feedback process. 

Let them decide if they want to disclose any information (such as age, gender or length of service), or even remove these questions completely. All you actually require is to know their location within the organisational hierarchy, to help with reporting the survey results.

Adopting this approach provides reassurance to employees that they will not be identifiable.

However, there are times when anonymity can actually stand in the way of feedback being acted on. For example, it’s impossible to respond to a specific employee's issue or concern if their identity is protected. You therefore need to encourage a culture of trust and transparency, where employees feel safe and protected, and are therefore happy for their feedback to be confidential, rather than anonymous.

2. Listen and act on feedback

While confidentiality would seem to be central to encouraging honest employee feedback, some research suggests that acting on the feedback received is more important. 

This is because asking employees for their feedback creates an expectation that something will change or happen as a result. Failing to act on feedback will undermine this, meaning that if they don’t feel they are being listened to, employees will see no point in responding honestly. 

This is backed up by research from Cornell which found that “when faced with a questionnaire, 26% of respondents said they withheld information about problems or ideas for workplace improvement purely out of a sense of futility.”

Escaping this vicious circle is imperative – to encourage honesty you need to show that you are listening. Give clear explanations of where feedback has been used to make changes and if it hasn’t been possible to act on it, clearly explain why.

3. Explain why you are asking for feedback

Be open with employees about why you are requesting their feedback – have a clear purpose and explain what they are likely to see change following the exercise. Essentially, they are giving their time and ideas and you need to show what they are getting in exchange. Why are you asking them and what will you do with the results?

Also reassure people on how you will protect, store and use their data. This will help gain their consent, which is necessary at a time of growing worries about data breaches and the selling of personal information.

4. Keep communicating

You need to communicate with employees before, during and after the survey process if you want to build trust. That doesn’t stop once surveys have been sent out or results received. Share the results, warts and all, and back this up with the actions you’ll take to overcome any issues that have been identified. Go back once you’ve implemented these actions and close the loop by letting employees know what has been done and the improvements achieved. 

Communication should be a two-way dialogue that gives employees the chance to raise any concerns they may have, particularly if you want to involve them in solving an issue.

If your employee feedback is going to drive real improvements it needs to be representative of your workforce and be an honest reflection of what they really think. That means organisations need to encourage honesty by creating a positive, psychologically secure environment, built on a culture of trust and transparency where employees feel that their feedback is valued and used appropriately.

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