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How communication can improve online employee surveys

01 Jun, 2020 Internal communication, PR measurement

Traditionally, measurement has been a weak area of public relations practice. For various reasons, many PR people haven’t used measurement as much as they could to plan and implement PR activities.

The various reasons for the reluctance of practitioners to engage in measurement include:

  1. Pressure of time to start and/or complete communication activities
  2. Lack of interest in numbers (apart from their own salary!)
  3. Lack of professional/research expertise
  4. Inertia against learning new skills
  5. The view that PR deals with intangible, complex matters that aren’t suited to evaluation
  6. Fear of accountability
  7. Competition from other departments for budget funding
  8. Fear that unfavorable research findings will cause budgets to be cut or abolished
  9. Since PR comprise ‘soft’ activity, budget approvals for research may be difficult to obtain.

This is all very well, but measurement provides the figures you need to convince management that your PR is producing good results. You need to be able to show management there is a need for communication and you need to be able to prove your value. If you don’t have proof of your achievements, you are vulnerable to people who may cast doubt on the value of your role.

Employee surveys are an area in which you could play a more active role. The HR department normally manages employee surveys, but the surveys are important from a communication point of view. Workplace communication can always be improved, so the employee survey should reveal the extent to which employees want better communication from their managers and supervisors. The results provide a great opportunity for you to show that the organization needs you.

Whether you are on staff or you are a consultant, you can insist on being involved in the planning and execution of employee surveys. This is because there are important communication elements needed for good survey results and you can review the quality of the communication questions in the survey to give you more usable figures. When you do this you will increase your value to HR and to management.

Conducting effective employee surveys

Most employee surveys of a reasonable length delivered at work should generate a 30-40% response rate. This could rise as high as 60-80% if selected people (usually a supervisor or manager) in each department or location are asked to encourage participation. The response rate will drop if employees are expected to complete a work survey at home. Response rates are higher if the survey is delivered electronically – as long as the questions are not perceived to be sensitive – because recipients in the typical workplace feel too easily identifiable in an electronic survey.

At times employers ask themselves why the response rate to employee surveys has been lower than expected. Employees generally give three broad reasons for being reluctant to participate:

  • “It seems pointless because management does nothing with the results.”
  • “I’m not going to give my real opinions because I want to keep my job.”
  • “I’m too busy.”

The most immediate communication task is to convince employees that the survey responses will be used by management to make improvements. Before this happens, managers need to ask themselves several questions:

  • “Why are we conducting an employee survey?” The survey should be conducted for ‘need-to-know’ reasons rather than ‘nice-to-know’ reasons.
  • “How do we intend to use the results?”
  • “What is our track record in acting on the results of previous surveys and in communicating the subsequent changes?” (What benefits will employees get by participating?)
  • “Have the results of previous employee surveys been used to make managers more accountable?”
  • “What guaranteed commitments can management make to follow up the results?” For example, conducting follow-up focus groups, communication briefings, providing summaries to participants.

Good communication will make the difference

Senior managers need to communicate good reasons for conducting the survey and the specific actions that will emanate from the results. This lets employees know their views are valuable and that their managers will be accountable for acting on the results. If managers try to hide unfavorable results, the news will inevitably leak out on the organizational grapevine, which will undermine the survey completely.

Concerns about confidentiality can be addressed by telling employees that confidentiality is paramount and that a third party [if possible] is being used to conduct the survey, with all results being aggregated so that no individuals can be identified. The measures to ensure confidentiality should be repeated often enough to ensure the message is absorbed.

The “I’m too busy” response tends to be encountered most where employees believe management won’t take the results seriously. They may have good grounds for thinking this because management hasn’t acted on the results of previous surveys. In these cases the onus is on management to communicate credibly about acting on the results.

Incentives may help to increase participation in surveys, but recipients may think you can identify their response if you can identify them for incentives. Also, new incentives would need to be offered for future surveys or the response rate will drop. A way around these problems is to offer a reward to the department or location with the highest overall response rates.

Make the surveys user-friendly

The survey should be easy to complete. It should have a targeted maximum duration of 30-40 minutes per participant and should be easy to access online. The expected time commitment should be communicated to employees beforehand. The response will drop with long questionnaires and too many demographic questions. Responses will improve if the CEO tells managers and supervisors that the survey is important and that staff should be given time to fill in the questionnaire. Paper questionnaires sent to the home will draw a lower response rate than ones distributed to individuals at work. Electronic surveys (web, email or telephone) draw faster responses, but where sensitive questions are asked, for instance about employees’ intention to stay with the organization, the response rates will be lower because employees think they could possibly be identified.

Care should be taken to avoid surveying too often because this reduces the response rate. Ways to improve survey responses include coordinating all employee surveys through a central point to avoid overlapping, and introducing each survey with a summary of the main findings and changes made after the previous survey. When changes have been made in response to the previous survey, the employer should communicate this fact to employees so they know their responses are considered important. In fact, as changes are being introduced into the workplace as a result of employee surveys, this should be communicated as part of the implementation process.

Guidelines for getting the best results from online employee surveys

  • Communicate diligently. Online surveys require more communication support than printed surveys because they are less visible. Printed surveys have a tangible presence that employees are less likely to forget. The communication plan should raise awareness of the survey, confirm management’s support for the process and reassure employees about confidentiality of responses.
  • Provide multiple access points where possible. Participation rates will increase if employees have several ways to access the survey. The most common method for conducting online surveys is to provide employees with a link from an email to access the survey website. Not everyone is comfortable doing this because some employees believe their identity can be tracked when they use their own computer to respond. Employers can counter this problem by setting up dedicated survey terminals in work areas and training rooms. One employer increased their participation rate by 13% doing this.
  • Provide passwords to participants. The survey software program should be able to issue passwords to enable employees to participate. The use of passwords reinforces the confidentiality of the process, it enables respondents to return later to finish an uncompleted survey, and it prevents managers from completing several questionnaires themselves to inflate the response rate and positive scores for their area. Unlikely as it might seem, this has happened!
  • Make it easy. The online process should be quick and easy to use. On-screen questionnaires that are slow to respond are frustrating to use, and when the word gets around, will put off other employees from participating.
  • Ensure IT flexibility. The selected survey software should be able to work on all the organization’s computer operating systems. This can be an issue in organizations spread over several locations and even multiple countries. A careful check is required in multi-national organizations to ensure the survey doesn’t need to be available in languages other than English at overseas locations.
  • Ask open-ended questions. A big problem with paper-based surveys is the cost of transcribing the responses to open-ended questions. This can cause employers to eliminate open-ended questions, which can limit the value of the survey. Electronic surveys process open-ended questions automatically, cutting the cost significantly. Employees tend to offer their feedback more willingly with electronic surveys because they feel more anonymous when typing their comments rather using their handwriting, which may be identifiable.
  • Make the most of the email system. The survey software should be able to link to the employer’s email system to invite participation. Accordingly, it is vital to ensure the email addresses of all employees used for the survey are up-to-date. The survey administrators need to ensure former staff and old addresses have been deleted from the list, along with group email addresses.
  • Use real-time results to enhance the response rate and quality. The software should be able to provide continuous, real-time response rates and survey scores for the overall organization and specific sub-groups such as the sales department or staff in a particular city or country. The ability to check response rates in real time allows management to urge greater participation in areas where participation has been low. From a communication point of view, the response rate for all significant areas of the organization can be progressively checked, and managers can be updated on the response rate for their area in front of each other. This can stimulate managers to lift the response rates in their respective areas.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from

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