Employee Engagement Survey Design (Part I): Six Key Considerations

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This article is a first in a 2-part series in employee engagement survey design. It summarizes six of the most important steps involved in designing an employee engagement survey. Each of these steps are designed to lead to a greater degree of precision, clarity, analysis, and interpretation

It’s time for that annual “all-hands” annual employee survey! You’re charged with going to your employees and asking “how are we (as a company) doing?” Putting together a set of survey questions may seem fairly intuitive – and it is… for the most part. However, there are at least a couple of key things to consider to ensure that you maximize the interpretive value (i.e., the amount of value given to the collected information) of your data. I discuss two broad considerations below designed to help you create an employee survey that is both comprehensive in its coverage and that will help with later interpretation – or what measurement experts call “psychometric soundness.”

Survey Content:
Occasionally, I run into people who believe that their employees need to be happy about everything. This type of idealistic thinking is not only unrealistic, but can lead to blurring or watering-down of those aspects that are critical for an organization’s survival.

Let’s consider two drastically different types of training for two types of athletes – a long-distance runner and a sprinter. Long-distance runners train to develop their slow-twitch muscles which are designed for repeated contraction over a long period of time. Sprinters, on the other hand, train to develop their fast-twitch muscles designed for power and speed.

While the above analogy may seem dramatic, depending on their competitive landscape, organizations also differ in their need to emphasize one competency more so than another – e.g., training over diversity; efficiency over transparency. One key to creating a “comprehensive” employee survey thus lies, not in including all possible topics/issues in existence; rather with your organization’s goals and its strategic plan to achieve them. From this perspective, an organization’s strategic plan should be used as a guide for developing its survey content.

Developing High Quality Survey Questions:

As you will see below, creating survey questions is straightforward for the most part. However, there are some basic rules that one should follow in order to avoid confusion – both for employees and during the data analysis phase. Here’s a partial list of considerations.

1. Choosing the right number of scale-points: The most popular scale in use today is the Likert-type scale with 5-point response options – ranging from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree. Extensive research on the reliability of 5-, 7-, and 9-point scales has shown consistently that 5- and 7-point scales are more valid than 9- or 10-point scales (per Jon Krosnick’s research).

2. Keep it simple: Be sure to use language that your audience can understand. This ensures that your questions will be understood by most, if not all, of your employees.

3. Keep it short: Use as few words as possible for each question by omitting unnecessary words. This helps to minimize not only comprehension time but also misinterpretations.

4. Keep it specific and actionable: One objective of surveys is to create action plans designed to address identified issues. Survey questions can facilitate this process by being both specific and actionable – i.e., I have received sufficient training to perform my job duties effectively.

5. Avoid double-barreled questions: While many of you know this, they still exist. Survey questions should address one topic at a time to avoid confusion during analysis.

6. Open-ended “qualitative” questions: These questions provide helpful insight into some of the issues identified via the quantitative portion of the survey. Due to the time involved for analysis, these should be limited to one or two at most. Furthermore, because the responses to these questions are typically voluntary, they tend to be anecdotal and less reliable than the quantitative data. Hence, one must be careful not to give these more weight than they deserve.

In sum, there are many more challenging things that confront today’s HR/OD professional than creating an employee survey. However, it is just as easy to create a survey that provides little or no insight into how employees actually feel about an organization. While the above points admittedly do not capture the myriad of issues that can arise, they should provide a good starting point for those new to employee surveys.

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