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Employee Engagement Surveys — Are They Really Necessary?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Lavigna
April 14, 2017

satisfactionIn this column and elsewhere, and in my book Engaging Government Employees, I’ve written about what I consider to be a critical step to improving employee engagement — measuring the level of engagement through an employee survey. This is my variation on the “you can’t manage it if you don’t measure it” theme.

I recently spoke to a group of union leaders in a large city we are working with. This was part of a kick-off meeting to launch our survey of the city’s employees. I asked to meet with the union leaders because I wanted to explain—in person—what the survey was about and why we were conducting it.

One of the union guys (and they were all guys) asked me why the city was bothering to conduct a survey. After all, he said, it’s his job to tell city leaders what employees—his constituents—are thinking and feeling.

His question put me in a tough spot. I had to come up with an answer that was diplomatic – explaining our approach without minimizing his role as a labor leader. After all, I wanted to enlist him as an ally, not alienate him. My goal was to convince him to urge his members to complete the survey.

My answer? I acknowledged his key role but also pointed out we would be reaching out to all employees with the survey. Therefore, the survey would complement his input as a union leader.

But his question forced me to question my own assumptions. Was he right – was the survey really necessary?

After some self-reflection, I concluded that the answer is yes. It is important to survey employees, and the survey approach is more effective than relying on anecdotal data. Specifically, employee engagement surveys:

  • Are efficient and inclusive;
  • Collect consistent data on how employees feel about their organization, their work, their colleagues and their bosses;
  • Provide employees with confidentiality; and
  • Enable the organization to benchmark its survey results against comparable organizations

Efficient and inclusive

Well designed and administered engagement surveys allow the jurisdiction or agency to quickly collect comprehensive data from the entire workforce. Surveys are typically open for two or three weeks and, if properly communicated and organized, can generate response rates of 80 percent or higher. This is a highly efficient way to collect and understand how employees feel about a range of workplace and organizational culture issues.

Surveys are also inclusive, by asking all employees the same questions. The engagement survey can be administered online as well as via paper or even telephone for employees who can’t, or typedon’t want to, respond via computer. The survey can also be translated into multiple languages to ensure all employees understand the questions and can respond in ways that meet their needs.

Surveying all employees also sends an important message – that the organization values everyone’s voice. Sure, meetings, focus groups and one-on-one discussions can be very useful but there will always be employees who do not participate or are unwilling to speak up candidly. Confidential surveys solve this problem.

Employee confidentiality

Which leads me to the next advantage of surveys. Most surveys (the good ones, anyway) assure employees that their answers will be confidential. Our organization, for example, guarantees that no one in the employee’s jurisdiction or agency will see any individual employee’s survey responses. We only provide summary reports (and then only if we have 10 responses for a work unit or demographic group).

Most survey organizations provide the same assurance. We don’t guarantee anonymity, however, because we need to know who has responded (to send reminders and break the data down by work unit or demographic group). But we assure confidentiality. Employees can’t get this same assurance in meetings or focus groups. Confidentiality boosts both the response rate and the candor of employee responses.


By collecting consistent data, jurisdictions and agencies can benchmark against other organizations that use the same survey. Alternatively, the employer can benchmark against itself if it conducts engagement surveys on a regular basis. Benchmarking allows the organization to compare its level of engagement to similar organizations, and determine if, over time, the needle of engagement is moving in the right direction.

Consistent data

Organizations that conduct employee surveys ask all employees to respond to the same set of questions. So, if the survey is well constructed, the employer collects a consistent, reliable and valid set of data from many employees.

Moreover, if the organization wants to allow employees to do more than respond to forced-choice questions (e.g., on a 1-5 scale), employees can be allowed—and encouraged—to provide narrative responses. The best of both worlds, really – data-wise anyway.

I’m not suggesting organizations rely exclusively on employee engagement surveys to take the temperature of their workforces. There is certainly a role for input from sources like my new friend the labor leader. But a well designed and administered survey can deliver results that are comprehensive and actionable, in ways other approaches can’t.

Author: Bob Lavigna is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a unit of CPS HR Consulting, an independent government agency. Previously, he was assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin and VP-research at the Partnership for Public Service. Email: [email protected].


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