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What to do when employee survey results are bad?

So you want to know how your people feel about working in your organization. Why not do a survey? But the results can be an unpleasant surprise. What to do when you get feedback you did not expect, when you think is unfair or even irrelevant. Here are 5 things you should not do.

Hide the Survey Results

You asked for feedback and you got it. Hiding the results is one of the worst things you can do. Next time nobody will be willing to take part and whatever the bad negative might be, you will destroy a lot of value.
So the best thing you can do is give the brutal facts back to the audience. It’s an opportunity to get into a dialogue with those who have given a negative feedback.

Question the participation rate

You might want 100% of people to take part. It never happens. So if you have more than 50% participation it’s OK. If you use low participation as an argument to flush the results, think again. The reasons why people do not take part might be bad for you: no trust, no time, no belief it will help.
There’s always a lot of discussion about the reasons why people does no participate and if they have an even more negative view. You cannot know. But if people think it’s not important enough to spend some time giving feedback, you might assume they have something on their mind.

Criticize the method

You chose the method, so live with it. If you say that you will not take the results into consideration because of the method, you insult all those who have participated.

Do nothing

Doing nothing with the results is a destruction of value. You have the results, you should open all communication channels to reach deep understanding and start remediation. At least bad results give you a reason to talk to as many people as possible, try to understand them but also explain the reasons why the strategy is what it is. Don’t be defensive and you’ll learn a lot.

Stop Listening

Business strategy depends on how well you listen to people. You depend on them for its execution and they might know how to get ahead. So you’d better keep on listening. It’s not because the results of your survey (in whatever form) are disappointing, that listening is not important.
Next time you might consider not going for a survey but for a process of continuous listening. As long as you listen, show that you listen and do something with the information you cannot go wrong. There are alternatives to survey to gather information in a participative and fun way. But don’t forget that the reasons why people do not participate in your survey, will be the same reasons they do not take part in the other forms of exchange.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.


  • Jim Smith says:

    Five terrefic things to not do. I can not imagine these things happen when there’s an executive involoved. Whyis the survey being done in the first place? A few thing you shoud do, when a suggestion comes in and has merit, just do it and make an announcement thanking the employees for the idea. If you do this while the survey is open you will grab their attention, especially if the item might be considered a sacred cow by the employees. You will see participation shoot up.
    The fewer actions takes the fewer responses you will get the next time around. This is why it is so important to engage a third party as sort of a coach calling foul when something is ignored or to eseclate upward something turned down by management. EE and EX are not a game, the things that should be done are frequently very uncomfortable and require some tough conversations. If the culture doesn’ allow that type of communication, then the whole process is a waste of time and the lack of results are likely to further erode employee engagement and morale.
    The things David warned not to do are a sure sign whoever is sponsoring the EE initiative is not positioned to accomplish much.

    • Unfortunately they happen. For instance when one unit is yielding worse results than the rest of the organisation, its executive may start to question. Sometime we just don’t want to hear bad news.
      What I have described are immature reactions.

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