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What Makes a Good Employee Survey Question -101

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I was asked to put together some suggestions for what a good employee survey question should be like and to illustrate some poorly written items and to make suggestions on how they could be improved. Here is what I came up with.

Among the qualities of a good employee engagement survey question are:

1) It’s actionable. The results I get back direct me to do something, rather than leaving me wondering what the answers really mean.

2) It’s specific. The question deals with one concept at a time, so separate issues are not confused with one another.

3) It’s simple. There are no words or concepts that could be interpreted three different ways by three different people.

4) It’s been proven to be effective. The question deals with issues that have historically been found to matter or are important to the business (as opposed to issues like the quality of the cafeteria food).

Here are examples of employee survey questions that have been used but might not give you what you hoped or need and how they might be improved.

  • Ineffective: “What ____% of people need our protective products.” Scale choices: 81% or more; 80-61%; 60-41%; 40-21%; 20% or less

The problem: Among the issues with this item is a scale that assumes a level of precision that is just not possible for the respondent to give.

Better: Overall, rate our ability as a company in turning potential customers (people who are considering our protective products) into purchasers of our products?” Scale choices: Very Good; Good; Average; Poor; Very Poor

  • Ineffective: “If I should find myself in a jam at work, I could get out of it because I’ve experienced jams before”.

The problem: This is attempting to measure personal characteristics of the worker, the ability to get out of a jam, because of experience. How would the organization improve on this if the results came back poorly? Give people more experience with jams? Organizational surveys should focus on organizational characteristics that the organization can actually improve upon. The not so commonly used word “jam” is also likely to be misunderstood and given varying interpretations.

Better: “In general when problems arise at work I have the resources I need at my disposal to get them resolved”.

  • Ineffective: “I do good work”.

The problem: Come on….It is virtually impossible for someone in a normal state of mind to rate their own work negatively.

Better: “The quality of products and services that this organization delivers are among the best in our industry”.

  • Ineffective: “In your opinion, how limiting are the following obstacles to your career advancement at [company]?”

“a. Stereotypes about my commitment or abilities based on my gender”

The problem: The question presumes the company has this obstacle rather than using wording to cull out potential problems that are actionable.

Better: “Advancement here is based on merit, the most deserving regardless of their background or “who they know” get ahead”.

  • Ineffective: “It is easy for me to complete work assignments and projects within this company.”

The problem: This item comes with a built in bias – easy is good. It may the difficult assignments that get employees’ juices flowing. It’s more important to know whether workers are given what they need to accomplish assignments, whether easy or difficult.

Better: “I am provided the tools and resources I need to accomplish my work.”

  • Ineffective: “My benefits are better here than the benefits at other companies.”

The problem: This question is setting the organization up for failure. It is extremely rare these days for a company to have as a goal “unsurpassed benefits”.

Better: “The benefits I receive are fair.” Or “My benefits are comparable to the benefits I would receive elsewhere”.

  • Ineffective: “Employees are encouraged to work as a team.”

The problem: The underlying issue here is aspiration vs. actuality. The question doesn’t go far enough—is teamwork actually happening? An organization may say it encourages teamwork, but if is rewards system actually discourages it, it won’t happen.

Better: “Where I work, we act as a team to accomplish our tasks.”

  • Ineffective: “The organizational structure here is meaningful to me.”

The problem: “Meaningful” in this context is a vague word that will be interpreted by each employee in his or her own way.

Better: “Our organizational structure is enabling in that it helps us get our work done effectively.”

  • Ineffective: “The business policies, standards of performance and conduct here are seriously emphasized throughout the whole company.”

The problem: Too many questions being asked at the same time, so any answer will be hard to interpret. And they question assumes the employee know what is happening elsewhere, which is never a good assumption.

Better: “Where I work, the organizational standards of conduct are emphasized.”

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 6, 2009 at 3:41 pm

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  1. […] What Makes a Good Employee Survey Question -101 November 2009 3 […]

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