One-way feedback: In-house employee surveys and the illusion of open decision making
A recent conversation at a conference confirmed my suspicions: More organizations are using online, “anonymous” surveys to get feedback from their employees. This practice appears to be especially common during strategic planning or organizational assessment stages.
Typically, an employee will get an e-mail in her inbox, inviting her to complete an online survey, often using programs such as SurveyMonkey. Topics vary widely, but usually they cover some aspect(s) of employment relations or management decision making.
Multiple choice, yes-no, agree-disagree questions will predominate, sometimes exclusively, thus sharply limiting the range of feedback.
The catch (or, catches)
So the employee may be thinking, great, they want my opinion! I’m fortunate to be working at a place that welcomes what I have to say!
But hold on. Frequently these surveys are done with an underlying agenda, usually one that seeks validation for an already favored course of action. (A telltale sign is when obvious choices or answers are not provided as response options, or when the survey is framed to exclude entire points of view.)
Call me a cynic, but here’s the usual situation:
1. The raw survey data are not shared with those who participated. Instead, a sanitized summary may be prepared and released.
2. If the survey results favor the desired outcome, they likely will be trumpeted to the high heavens.
3. If the results are ambiguous, you may not hear anything more, or those in charge will say the feedback was inconclusive and requires more thought.
4. If the results run squarely counter to the desired outcome, it’s possible that you’ll never hear another word about the survey, or reasons will be generated to disregard it (e.g., “it’s just a snapshot,” “too few respondents,” “we really shouldn’t be swayed against our better judgment”).
If organizations want genuine exchanges about planning, actions, and evaluations, they should consider making these survey results completely available, edited only for information that is defamatory or confidential — or at least guarantee that the individual tallies will be released regardless of how they come out.