HR Headaches: How Do I Get Honest Feedback in Employee Surveys?

There are several reasons why employee surveys don’t garner honest feedback. The good thing is that if you’re not getting honest feedback in your employee surveys, there are plenty of tips and tricks you can adopt to turn things around.

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Here's what you need to know about how to get honest feedback in employee surveys:

  • Surveys that allow for anonymous responses get the best, and most honest results.
  • Being clear about why you're conducting the survey and what you're trying to learn will improve your response level.
  • Getting leadership and manager buy-in to the survey's value and importance is critical.
  • Taking time to determine which questions you need to ask to get to the information you need will ensure better responsiveness.
  • Being transparent and sharing the survey results with your team members, as well as the planned next steps, will let your employees know that their feedback is valuable.

You’ve done the research, labored over creating the perfect questions, have sent out the survey, and reminded, reminded, reminded everyone to fill it out. You even got a high response rate on your employee survey.

But then you look at the responses, and they’re all relatively bland and pretty much the same. Various forms of “everything is fine” or “this is the best company ever!” are echoed throughout the responses, and you’re left with little to no information that’s actually useful or actionable.

This is a dreaded and much-hated situation by anyone who has endeavored to survey their employees. The good thing is that if you’re not getting honest feedback in your employee surveys, there are plenty of tips and tricks you can adopt to turn things around. So, let’s dive in and figure out what you can do to improve your information.

First, understand why you aren’t getting honest feedback

There are several reasons why employee surveys don’t garner honest feedback. Below we list 5 of the most common reasons your employees are holding back.

The surveys you are using aren’t anonymous

It will be much harder to elicit honest feedback if people have to attach their names to their responses. Anonymous responses can mean that people really let loose in a way that they wouldn’t if their name was on feedback. Still, if you’re looking for honesty, anonymity is probably the way to go.

Your employees fear retribution

You must ensure that people won’t be penalized, both directly and indirectly, for the answers they give. This applies whether or not your survey is anonymous. If people give feedback that managers don’t like and retribution follows on the team or company-wide levels, don’t expect honest feedback the next time around.

The survey lacks clarity about its purpose and goals

Maybe the issue isn’t that you aren’t getting honest feedback, but that you’re getting feedback that’s just off the mark. In addition to picking the right questions, be sure to explain the survey clearly. Outline exactly what the purpose of the survey is and what you plan to do with the information you receive.

The more communication and guidance you can give about what you are looking for, the more tailored the feedback will be.

Previous surveys lacked follow up or communication

If you’re getting vague, canned responses rather than honest, detailed ones, it might be because employees feel like their answers don’t matter. One way to help ensure that you’ll get the feedback you’re looking for is to act on the information you get. This shows people that their time and insights are important. The more that people feel like what they say matters, the more likely they are to take it seriously and answer honestly and appropriately.

Managers and leaders who don’t take the survey seriously

If leadership doesn’t treat the survey as the important feedback mechanism that it is, the chances are those under their leadership won’t either. If it’s seen as unimportant, it’s unlikely that employees will put in the time it takes to reflect on the questions and provide honest answers.

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How to get honest feedback on your employee surveys

Once you know why you aren’t getting the honest feedback you’re looking for, how do you go about changing that? Once you identify the issue or issues that are holding your employee surveys back, consider some of the 5 common solutions we’ve provided for getting more honest feedback.

Be transparent about survey results

If employees fill out a survey and their answers seem to be sent off into the void because they never hear about them again, you’ll have trouble getting honest answers. So, be clear and transparent about the results when you have them. Share results in an easily accessible and digestible format so that the respondents can have a chance to learn from the data, too. Don’t leave out anything unsavory that you’d rather not share — transparency is key.

Create and share an action plan with timelines

Once you have responses, the key is to do something with them. Meet with managers, leadership, and employee representatives and develop an action plan for making changes based on the information you’ve found. Then, attach timelines and outcomes to the action plan to keep things moving.

The more you can ensure that changes will be made based on the information you receive, the higher your chances are of getting sincere, honest feedback in the future.

Opt for a user-friendly format

Sometimes the problem is as simple as a wonky platform that makes filling out the survey a major hassle. Imagine that you just typed out a whole long, honest answer to a question… and then it didn’t save. Are you going to type that all again, or maybe just put in something simple and move on?

Make sure you’re using a system that not only works but is easy to use as well.

Ask the right questions

It can be challenging to figure out the best questions to ask, but it is very much worth it. If your questions are off the mark or otherwise confusing, or if they feel unrelated, you’re going to get ineffective responses. Make sure that the respondents find your questions to be:

  • Well phrased
  • Non-repetitive
  • Relevant

Consider doing pulse surveys

Maybe your employees have honest answers to give, but they’re just short on time, so they submit something short and sweet. Try doing shorter, more frequent pulse surveys rather than administering longer surveys a couple of times a year. This way, you can not only reduce the effort required to fill out the survey, but you can keep a more consistent finger on the pulse of your employees. You’ll have a better feel for things from their happiness to their engagement and much in between.

Getting effective results

You might not see the changes you’re looking for the first time you try something different. And that’s ok! It’s a process to get from where you are to where you need to go when your goal is honest feedback. Try one or two different things each time and see if you get better results.

Then, once you find something that works, don’t just stick with it, but try to improve it over time, so your surveys just keep getting better and better.

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