Why employees don't tell the truth in surveys—and what to do about it
Est. Read Time: 3 min.
One of the common worries about employee surveys is that people won’t tell the truth. When you spend the money and go through the trouble of doing a survey, you want to believe that you’re getting the truth about what’s going on.
Here’s some bad news. People lie on surveys.
Sometimes they tell small lies and sometimes they tell big ones. Sometimes they don’t even know they’re lying. In fact, even on customer surveys, some experts suggest that as many as 50% of people are less than truthful in their answers. So, even when people have little to nothing at stake, they aren’t totally honest.
An employee survey at work has much higher stakes. As an employee, you’re being asked to critique your workplace, your manager, and even senior leaders. And it can feel like a lot is riding on the survey based on how much of a fuss is made about getting everyone to complete it.
For the employee, it can feel pretty risky to tell the whole truth on a survey. If your manager and leaders don’t seek out and hear the truth on a regular basis outside the survey, why would that change now?
As the people who administer the surveys, we need to be realistic and acknowledge that no survey will achieve full honesty from all employees. Human nature is working against you. Instead, your mission should be to minimize the amount of risk employees feel when they’re asked to take the survey.
Below are some ways to encourage and support employees in being as honest as possible on your next survey.
1. Never connect survey scores to manager ratings or compensation
While this seems like a good way to send the message that employee engagement or satisfaction is important, it dramatically raises the stakes on the survey for everyone. In one organization that did this, managers engaged in both not-so-subtle coercion of employees (i.e., “if you give me low scores, there will be consequences for everyone”) and outright bribery (i.e., pizza parties and incentives happening the weeks just before the survey). The survey score became more important than the employee’s experience. When the manager has more at stake than the employee, the employees can feel this and you will never get honest answers.
2. Describe in detail what will happen with the results
Anytime someone asks for feedback, it creates an expectation that something will be done with it. When nothing is done, it breaches trust and reveals that perhaps the feedback wasn’t all that important or valued. If I’m going to tell the whole truth on your survey, I want to know what’s going to happen with it. When you launch your survey, communicate to employees how the information will be used, what will be done with it, what they can expect, and when all of this will happen.
3. Do what you promised to do
This is how you build trust. If I told you the truth last year and something good came of it, I’ll probably do it again. If not, I’m out. Go ask someone else to do your survey.
4. Ask for suggestions instead of criticism
The design of your survey itself can make it feel risky. Specifically in the area of open-ended questions, what you choose to ask can make a big difference. It’s common to have at least a couple of questions: one that asks about what is working and one that asks about what needs to change or improve. That second question is a big one. If an employee is feeling some angst, this is a tempting place to unleash that frustration. But it’s also an easy place to say too much or to say it in a way that could hurt feelings and cause a backlash. It’s a risky question to answer. Instead, ask questions that focus on suggestions and ideas for how to make things better. For example, “What’s one idea you have for how to create a more fun and productive environment at work?” Another example is “If you were CEO for a day, what one change would you make?”
5. Prepare your managers
Employee surveys don’t have a reputation for being kind to managers. For most, getting employee survey results back can feel like receiving a “you suck” list from your employees. And for managers without much experience or training, this can feel threatening and uncomfortable. It’s easy to overreact or to become defensive when receiving critical survey results. This, unfortunately, can lead to behavior that undermines the intention of the survey, like going on a “witch hunt” to see who made negative comments. Because managers bear the brunt of the survey feedback response, it’s critical to both prepare and equip them with the tools they need to respond appropriately.
- Before the survey launches, ensure that managers understand what types of questions are being asked and what their responsibilities are in the process. Help them prepare for what type of feedback they might receive. A “hope for the best and expect the worst” mentality can be a huge help.
- Provide managers with templates, scripts, and tools for how to respond to feedback and create follow-up plans with their teams. Also, provide them with some insights on mistakes to avoid and why.
People are going to be less than perfectly honest in your survey. They’ve been burned in the past, and they’re afraid of the consequences of telling the truth. Your challenge is to make your survey feel as safe as possible. By following these suggestions consistently over time, you’ll nudge closer and closer to an environment where employees can tell you the truth.
Emotionally intelligent managers are key to a positive employee experience. Learn how to equip them with the tools they need to boost their EQ in the eBook, The Link Between Emotional Intelligence and Employee Experience.
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About Jason Lauritsen
Jason Lauritsen is a keynote speaker, author, and consultant. He is an employee engagement and workplace culture expert who will challenge you to think differently. A former corporate Human Resources executive, Jason has dedicated his career to helping leaders build organizations that are good for both people and profits. Most recently, he led the research team for Quantum Workplace’s Best Places to Work program where he has studied the employee experience at thousands of companies to understand what the best workplaces in the world do differently than the rest. Jason is the co-author of the book, Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships, and author of his new book, Unlocking High Performance, to be published by Kogan Page in October 2018.