Top 5 Questions We Need to Stop Asking in Employee Engagement Surveys

January 14, 2020 by Victor Agreda, Jr.

Employee engagement surveys are essential tools that allow employers to take the pulse of their workforce. Now, imagine you had a health tracker that checks your heartbeat, and it was strapped to your kneecap. Turns out the kneecap is a terrible place to check your pulse, as there’s not a major vein or artery passing over the knee.

Luckily we know where to ask questions: At work. What about “how” we ask those questions? What about the questions themselves? It’s not enough to ask employees if they’re engaged at work -- that’s like asking a teenager how their day went. You’re probably going to get a direct, positive response. So why ask the question? What does engagement mean? What does it mean to employees? Let’s dive into some questions that seem like a good idea, but might have outlived their usefulness.

1. “How likely are you to look for a new job?”

This question sets off alarm bells in the heads of employees. They know you’ll see this data, even if it’s anonymous. Who wants to tell their boss they’re thinking of leaving? It takes a little more time to craft questions that will answer this question in a less direct way, but it’s worth it. Getting the correct data in a reliable way will allow you to make necessary predictions, or make changes where needed. Instead of asking it directly, ask more meaningful questions about their happiness and connection to their current job.

2. “How engaged are you with your work?”

Employees tend to answer yes to this one by default. But does it mean anything? What does “engagement” mean, exactly? We know it means a sense of connection, but are employees going about their work and thinking about their level of engagement? Perhaps ask specific questions about their work, and how directly empowered they are to impact goals set by the company. Connection can be analyzed, and engagement can be measured, but it’s practically impossible to get a good reading on this key metric by simply asking the question outright.

3. “What parts of our compensation and benefits package do you care about?”

You might as well ask: Who doesn’t want complete coverage? Consumers in product research say they want everything, a sentiment immortalized in a Simpsons episode where Homer designs a car with every ridiculous feature he can think of. The car is a disaster because you can’t possibly make everyone happy, and everyone’s ideal feature set is a lot narrower than they realize.

Steve Jobs once said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” and went on to say “Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” Sound familiar? If you wind up giving employees everything they think they want, you’ll find that they really only cared about a few of those things. Wellness programs are popular today, but are employees likely to give you a better rating with them in place? Is that a priority for them? It’s likely they care more about being able to see the doctor affordably, or other more pressing matters. Questions that get specific about plan features, and how likely they are to be used or appreciated can help you focus in on what’s actually appreciated.

4. “How do you rate your [supervisor / team lead / division head] on the following…”

Again, employees know who will see this data. Answers to questions like this will undoubtedly be glowing, giving the impression that everything is just dandy. This is like passing a note in class with “Do you like me? Y/N” and it’s another example of a direct question skewing results. Instead, you can make implicit predictions based on other data. If employees don’t feel like goals match up with their daily work tasks, there’s a disconnect you can act upon. Asking more detailed, specific questions that pertain to the core concept will give you more actionable insights.

5. “How do you agree that our workplace is nurturing and welcoming?”

People go to work because it’s a job, not because it’s a great place to hang out. Work isn’t a school, church, or support group. Yet is the average employee going to say they feel welcomed? Of course they are, unless the work environment is especially bleak -- in which case there are likely bigger problems afoot. Most employees don’t consciously think about how their work may be “welcoming” let alone “nurturing” so the careless answers you get here will just gloss over any potential issues. If there are real workplace challenges, the junk data from this question will be evidence the workplace culture doesn’t need to change.

All of these questions seem like good ones, at first. They’re somewhat specific, but not as specific as they should be. They’re direct, but honestly too direct to get an honest answer. Today, it’s possible to ask specific questions about a workplace, and obtain results that aren’t 2-dimensional representations along a happy / sad axis.

Today we’re able to take a survey that asks specific questions and turns those into actionable data. The first step is creating questions that will get honest, useful answers. The second step is taking that information and analyzing it in meaningful ways. Finally, you have to take that analysis and do something about it. Meanwhile, ditch these five questions for better ones and see your employee engagement surveys flourish with a better view of how employees are feeling.

Victor Agreda, Jr. has been a writer, producer, journalist, and storyteller for 20 years, leading content and strategy initiatives to build and engage large audiences. He’s also been a teacher and serial entrepreneur, reveling in the exciting intersection of business, liberal arts, and technology. Raised on gadgets and BASIC programming, Victor has spoken at SXSW and 360creative conferences, and narrates audiobooks in his spare time.