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Employee survey - Do's and Don'ts

10/08/2023 2023/08

What do employees want for the summer party? How high is the stress level in the various departments? And how much trust do employees actually have in their managers? From the perspective of the HR department and company management, one would sometimes wish to be able to look into the heads of the employees, but there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to employee surveys. We have gathered some thoughts and best practices here - for specific legal advice, please contact a specialized law office.

In Germany, there is no legal basis on which a company can oblige its employees to take part in an employee survey, therefore surveys of always have to be carried out voluntarily. To protect employee data and reduce concerns about negative consequences in the case of critical opinions, it is also advisable to conduct the survey anonymously. The rule is: collect as much data as necessary, but as little as possible! So if the stress level in the various departments is to be surveyed, you need to know the organizational unit of the participants. What gender someone is or how long they have been with the company is not really important for this purpose. The less personal data you request, the less someone has to worry about being identified based on their information.

The transparency factor is particularly important for getting many responses to an employee survey. Explain in the introduction or in an accompanying text who set up the respective survey, what the interest and goal behind it is, who has access to the results and what happens afterwards with the collected data: "As a department, we are organizing a summer party and would therefore like to know which drinks we should buy for you. The answers are anonymous and can only be seen by our office manager Sabine R.. Once the planning is done, the survey will be deleted." This way, everyone knows what it should be about.

Employee survey and works council

If a works council exists in a company, the vast majority of employee survey topics are usually covered by the works council's right to information. This means that the works council should at least be informed in advance about the implementation, objective and purpose of the survey and can subsequently demand information about the results and access to the evaluations produced. It promises even more success to either create and conduct some surveys together with the works council, or to have the works council conduct the entire employee survey. In this way, possible doubts about anonymity or the intentions of management are reduced, and the answers are likely to be more honest. Particularly in the case of issues that are also close to the works council's heart and potentially explosive, it may be worthwhile for the HR department and management to receive only the results of the employee survey. Sometimes the works council even has the better resources to oversee recurring monthly surveys, for example.

What are the possible areas for using an employee survey?

Employee surveys can be used for a variety of purposes. Here are just a few examples:

  • Employer branding: Here, internal and external surveys (for example, among job applicants) provide information about how attractive the company is considered to be as an employer. How well known are we in the region or throughout Germany? Is our company more associated with innovation or tradition? What can we do to attract and retain talent?
  • Employee satisfaction in general: If you don't just want to read out fluctuation and sickness rates, you have many questions to ask employees. Why do you like coming to work? What contributes to you being satisfied with your job? What makes working for our company special for you? These and similar questions should ideally be asked not just once a year, but captured regularly via short sentiment surveys.
  • Compensation & benefits strategy: The question of suitable benefits is often closely linked to employer attractiveness and employee satisfaction. If you want to score points with real benefits, you should sound out the needs and wishes of the workforce in advance. This survey should be conducted once in a comprehensive form, after which you can ask annually, for example, which benefits are actually used how often (or why not).
  • Knowledge management & innovation: Especially if these topics can still be expanded in your company, it is worth asking about the factors that promote and hinder them. In the past, many companies had a company suggestion scheme or idea competitions - do you know why little often came out of these initiatives? By asking the right questions, you can obtain valuable information for promoting innovation in your company.
  • Personnel development: Short surveys have a fixed place in personnel development for the evaluation of training. If you are working on a new training catalog or changing your personnel development to self-directed learning with an individual learning budget, you should ask employees about their interests and needs.
  • Leadership: Formats such as 360° feedback are firmly established for leadership development. If you ask the right questions here, you can obtain crucial information for improving the leadership culture in the company.
    Occupational health management (OHM): This topic area includes questions about any overload of employees, but the appropriate workplace equipment should also be asked regularly. Employees appreciate it when the company assumes its responsibility for the mental health and resilience of its employees.
  • Quality management & audits: Surveys can cover the entire company or individual sub-areas. For example, if you want to improve your HR processes, you could ask how satisfied your internal customers are with the HR processes.

Goals of an employee survey

An employee survey should focus on improving collaboration in the broadest sense, so that employees will take the time to participate. The first goal, of course, as mentioned above, is to get a more accurate picture of the thoughts and opinions of the workforce. Especially when corporate decisions in favor of employees, for example regarding benefits, are linked to investments, the measures should be as fitting as possible. It doesn't help to make a grand gesture by setting up a parent-child office if most colleagues would have preferred a job bike or a daycare allowance. Another important goal of an employee survey is to give employees a voice. Those who feel asked and are given the opportunity to express ideas and concerns identify more with their company and its decisions. In addition, an employee survey can be used to review the effectiveness of measures already underway or to determine the need for further initiatives to develop the work culture.

Styles for an employee survey

In order to preserve the anonymity mentioned above, most employee surveys today are conducted digitally. Depending on the topic and scope of the survey, this can be a mood barometer on the intranet or a detailed questionnaire filled out on an external platform to further encrypt the source of the responses. Ideally, the operator of such a platform is located in Germany or Europe and offers various options for designing a survey. Those who have many employees without a computer workstation should offer a mobile-optimized employee survey that can be accessed via QR code. Of course, an employee survey should not be too long or too boring so that enough people participate. It is also important here to strike the right tone.

Ask the right questions

Sociology provides a lot of important advice on which questions to ask and how to ask them. At this point, we can only go into a few aspects - the basis for an employee survey lies in questions that are easy to understand and ideally should not ask about too many topics at once. You should definitely avoid formulations that carry a strong value judgement or elicit socially desirable answers, such as "Do you also think that the working atmosphere has already improved a lot?" or "How unappetizing do you find the food in the canteen?". While striving for neutral formulations, the questions and answer options may still sound true to life in order to stimulate a spontaneous response. Instead of "Which option would you prefer?", "Which would you prefer?" has a more human, colloquial tone. Instead of asking yes/no questions, assessments can work well with a scale of 1-5 or 1-4. Free-text fields are valuable for supplementary comments, while too many open-ended questions significantly lengthen the evaluation of the employee survey. Finally, you should consider in advance exactly what you actually want to know - and then also muster the courage to ask precisely about it. What would be worse: learning uncomfortable truths as part of an employee survey - or not learning about them at all?

Working with employee survey responses

The worst thing is elaborate surveys that get turned into a pie chart and then disappear into a drawer or file folder. Conducting employee surveys just to take a survey wastes everyone's time. In addition, the willingness of employees to participate in such surveys decreases rapidly. After all, it's not just about being allowed to express one's opinion, people would also like to see the results afterwards. The answers should therefore not only be used to decorate the slide for the next top management meeting with figures, but should also lead to reactions. The minimum level of transparency therefore means responding promptly to the results of the employee survey at a suitable opportunity and, if necessary, commenting on them from the management's point of view. When asked about desired benefits or potential for process improvements, the responses should result in visible new offerings or work facilitation. A good way of avoiding inactivity is to draw up action plans jointly for each area under the leadership of the respective manager, for example. Six or twelve months later, a new employee survey can then be conducted to check how well the action plans have already taken effect. When creating an employee survey, you should therefore already consider how to continue working with the results.

Insufficient participation in the employee survey

What could be the reasons if our employee survey has too few participants?

  • Too little attention: It is possible that simply too few people learned that there was an employee survey on this topic. The circular email with the invitation may have been lost in the full inbox, or the notice in the hallway may have been overlooked. Maybe it's worth spreading the word about the survey again via team meetings or a banner on the intranet?
  • Too complex: Important topics can quickly become very complex, especially if different aspects and different models are to be queried in the employee survey. In order to prevent the questions from becoming a doctoral dissertation, the first step could be to ask for a rough picture of the mood, and then to collect further details in the second step. Alternatively, the respondents could first be asked whether they agree with variant A and then, a little later, with variant B. The wording of the questions and answers can also be adapted to the needs of the respondents. The wording of the questions and answer options should also avoid double negatives or complex "what if" scenarios.
  • Missing relevance: Topics that concern the HR department or company management are sometimes of little concern to the workforce. "What should I say about HR processes if I only have contact with them once a year anyway?" Perhaps the relevance for each individual can be worked out once again in order to get even more votes? Alternatively, the question about peripheral issues could be linked to a larger survey that asks about enough issues that visibly affect employees.  
  • Overly boring design: many employee survey tools and platforms offer the ability to include images or videos and switch between different question forms. Sure, it's helpful to ask for a detailed opinion using a scale - but sometimes it can be enough to get one to five stars, because that's more fun to click on.

From evaluation to change: ARTS supports you in the implementation of employee surveys

Our experts support you in conducting and evaluating employee surveys. The results enable you to precisely identify, prioritize and target areas for action. 

We help you to interpret the results of the employee survey in a meaningful way and to derive measures that meet the needs and concerns of the employees. ARTS supports you in initiating changes within the company and ensuring that the identified areas for action are successfully addressed. Together, we create a corporate culture that is based on the needs and feedback of your employees and enables continuous improvements.

About the Author
Valeska Szalla
Development Consultant
Since 2017 I have been writing my success story at ARTS, where I can always add a new chapter through the various projects I have been involved in.

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