Collecting employee feedback is a delicate balancing act

Certain industries have been using data to make decisions long before the term “analytics” entered the business vocabulary. The Hollywood practice of holding movie test screenings to assess audience reactions, for example, dates back to the silent film era. And HR professionals have their own time-tested analytics tool: the employee survey.

Today, there are more ways to collect feedback from workers than ever before. The trick is to apply them in the right way, and to the right situations, so that a business can gain an accurate picture of how personnel are doing. There are three big factors in particular that should be considered with every employee survey if this bar is to be met.


Historically, companies have surveyed workers once every year or quarter. Because there’s so much time between polls, HR teams often try to cover as much ground as possible and put together a lengthy list of questions for employees. Such polls can cover most of everything from job satisfaction to how personnel feel about specific business decisions. However, a large volume of feedback doesn’t necessarily translate into a complete view of the situation in the office.

Blind spots form because employee sentiment is by its nature dynamic. In a recent article, Forbes contributor Kelly Andrews highlighted research that shows engagement levels can change even from one day to another. The effects of a particularly tight project deadline, for example, may no longer be felt among staffers by the time the next poll comes around.

As a result, businesses are increasingly using bite-sized “pulse surveys” that can be sent out more frequently. They’re handy for gauging opinions about short-term topics such the introduction of a new HR policy. But the pulse survey model doesn’t necessarily apply as well to measuring overall job satisfaction, which must be approached with a longer term perspective to distinguish real problems from simple day-to-day fluctuations. This is where the traditional annual or quarterly poll comes in. The key is to strike a balance between maximizing the volume and quality of the data while minimizing the hassle to employees, who can be overwhelmed by too many surveys.


The second question that an HR team must answer before surveying employees is whether or not the poll should be done anonymously. On one hand, letting employees provide feedback without revealing who they are can make them more comfortable about sharing frank opinions that might otherwise not reach the appropriate parties. But on the other, anonymity limits the usefulness of the data.

Chris Cancialosi, a partner at management consulting firm gothamCulture and a one-time adjunct professor of leadership psychology, sees this latter issue affecting survey effectiveness in several ways. For starters, anonymous data is difficult to put into the context of a specific person or team, which means that it’s not always possible to piece together the full picture. And HR professionals are unable to follow up with respondents either because their names are not provided.

Consequently, businesses should make an effort to show employees that they can freely share opinions without having to hide behind a veil of anonymity. But anonymous polls still have an important role to play. They’re a handy means of collecting feedback in scenarios involving certain touchy topics, such as when a company wishes to understand workers’ health concerns before setting up an employee wellness program.

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Making employees comfortable about sharing honest feedback is, of course, much easier said than done. Achieving maintain a positive office atmosphere where staffers are actively empowered to share input when it’s needed. It’s no small task, but the return can justify the effort: the more accurate survey responses are, the easier it is to gain insight into the workforce and identify areas for improvements.

The benefits provided by a healthy, two-way exchange of feedback extend to other areas well. If a business succeeds in creating a truly open workplace, then employees will be more willing to share their input not only when filling job satisfaction surveys but also as part of day-to-day interactions with peers and supervisors. This in turn can help improve productivity all around.

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