This “think piece” is part of my series designed to expand your thinking about strategic HR.
The Top 40 Problems With 360° Employee Feedback Programs
Whether you design, execute, or you are merely asked to fill them out periodically, you should be interested in maximizing the effectiveness of 360s. I split  the potential issues/problems into seven categories. The remaining four in this second part of a two-part series include: Manager Issues, Issues Related to the Survey Process, Problems Related to Anonymity, and Program Administration. Within each category, the most impactful problem areas are listed first. Note: even though 360° surveys can be used for individual managers, the problems outlined here focus on company-wide surveys.
IV) Manager issues
- There is little evidence that managers actually listen or act differently – the process has no value if the managers don’t act differently as a result of the data. Merely receiving feedback may not be enough to change management behavior. And most processes do not require managers to put together formal action plans after receiving their survey results. When they do, there is no HR follow-up months later. Some managers may simply not be able or willing to change. In addition, if employees see that the survey doesn’t change anything, employees may feel frustrated and even deceived by the “sham” process.
- Managers and employees are not trained – managers are often not trained on how to interpret and use the 360° feedback. There may be insufficient resources to provide managers with action steps, tools, and advice on how to improve after they receive negative information. This may frustrate managers, and it certainly will not increase productivity. In addition, employees are not trained in how to evaluate a manager’s action or on how to give honest and accurate feedback.
- Managers, employees, and customers don’t understand the process or results – HR is often full of excellent psychologists with a full understanding of employee surveys; however, managers and employees can find them confusing. Simply reporting survey data without fully explaining their impact can result in a “that’s interesting” response from managers. Customers may not understand why they are included in the survey, and they may become frustrated if they are not provided with the results or they don’t see things change after the survey. In an international environment, cross-cultural and language issues may make it even more difficult for employees to understand what is being asked.
- Change agents may be punished – most employees and certainly weak performers resist change. As a result, a tough manager who aggressively insists on change may in the short term receive lower 360° scores than a manager that doesn’t push change. This may force managers into making popular decisions rather than tough ones.
- Managers don’t “own” the 360° survey – a quick survey of managers asking “who owns the 360° process” will tell you quickly that most managers believe the program is owned by HR. Unless managers “own” the process and also believe that it impacts their business success, they are not likely to devote much time to it. In addition, employee surveys can also be an “orphan” program within HR. In order to be fully effective, it must be seamlessly integrated with every other talent management process.
- The reporting of 360° scores can be ineffective – the survey process can only be effective if managers read, fully understand, and act on their low 360° scores. How employee survey scores are reported and explained makes a major difference. Managers receive weekly reports on productivity, output, quality, etc., but none of those weekly reports include employee survey scores. Unless employee feedback becomes a part of standard business and financial reporting, it is unlikely that managers will recognize it as a major business impact factor.
- Top management support/participation is essential – if employees see that managers or executives are exempt from participation in the survey process, they may see the process as unfair.
- Reward systems for managers may not be integrated – managers tend to focus on factors that are measured, recognized, and rewarded by senior management. If managerial pay, performance appraisal, bonus criteria, core competencies, and promotion criteria do not include high 360° scores, it is less likely that managers will focus on them. If the different assessment systems are not integrated, this will further confuse managers by sending mixed signals. In some companies, managers are promoted on results and/or politics and in those cases, they may decide that worker opinions will have little impact. If managers are never fired or demoted for weak scores, they won’t take them seriously.
V) Issues Related to the Survey Process
- It is time-consuming and expensive — most HR departments don’t calculate the cost of the employees’ and managers’ time responding to the results. Often managers and employees learn to hate the time commitment. When you include the time costs and the lost productivity, the ROI of the process may be low or even negative. A survey that includes only a statistically representative sample of employees would be much cheaper and almost as accurate.
- Inconsistent participation -- 360° surveys suffer the same inconsistent participation problems as all employee surveys. It is also possible that excited, disgruntled employees or not-very-busy employees with idle time will disproportionately go out of their way to fill them out. Personal motives impact results. Surveys may be filled out to please their manager, to get even with them — or a lack of interest may cause employees to “Christmas tree” their answers. The time of the year that surveys are given (i.e. immediately after bonus season) may also influence the result. And finally, if employees don’t see that their survey scores result in a change in management behavior, they are likely to think, “oh not that again” when the next survey arrives.
- It’s subjective, not objective, data – the data that 360s produce is subjective opinion data. Employee opinions may be inaccurate and opinions are not actions, behaviors, or business results.
VI) Problems Related to Anonymity
- Anonymity may actually reduce overall honesty – almost all 360° surveys are anonymous, in order to encourage employees to be frank. If your organization has values of openness and honesty, an anonymous process runs counter to those values. In addition to sending the wrong message, an overreliance on anonymity may cause workers to “forget” how to give direct negative face-to-face feedback.
- Anonymity does not automatically result in unbiased employee answers – employees who fear their manager may be afraid to give honest ratings because they fear retaliation on the entire team. Some employees may even believe that a manager can identify which individual employees said negative things.
- Anonymous surveys mean you don’t know “who” participated – because of anonymity, you don’t know who filled them out so you can’t be sure that you have a representative sample that fairly represents what all employees really feel. Anonymity does not allow you to follow up and encourage individual non-respondents to participate, resulting in a low response rate. Anonymity does not allow employees to be rewarded for filling out the survey, so they may not find the time to participate.
VII) Issues Related to Program Administration
- Employee data is collected too often/or not often enough – the survey is traditionally done once a year but if employee scores don’t change rapidly, a survey every two years may be more cost-effective. And if employee survey results can rapidly change, 360° scores should be reported instantly in real time, using an employee-sampling technique and an electronic survey. Any process that doesn’t use the latest available technology must automatically be considered a dinosaur.
- Determining who should be included in the survey is complicated – the process of selecting who to survey can by itself be time-consuming and expensive. The broader you make the survey, the more likely it will be filled out by individuals who barely know the person being assessed. Including too few will mean that some stakeholders will not be represented. If you allow the managers to self-select, they may only pick people they believe will rate them positively.
- Weak program success measures/metrics are common – 360° program success measures are often weak or even nonexistent. Program managers must determine up front if “success” means merely improving scores or if they should go further and include increasing workforce productivity.
- Outsourcing the process may limit its impact – using outside vendors may mean that you are forced to use a standardized product that is not customized to your employees and your company’s issues. It also allows sensitive company data to be seen by external parties who may compromise it. Even if the surveys are created internally, the questions are not usually customized to individual departmental or business unit needs.
There are many approaches to 360° surveys, so not every design will face the same problems. Both my research and my experience with corporate leaders have shown me that 360° programs have a great deal of potential. However, their actual business impact is often lessened by the fact that those running them and those who provide vendor services have not continued their due diligence in identifying and addressing the many potential problems that have been presented here. Collecting employee opinions may seem on the surface as sacred as “apple pie and motherhood” but the reality is that a process that is not well thought out and executed can actually hurt your firm.
I encourage you to add additional potential problems in the comments section immediately following this article on ERE.net . The first part of this article can be found here .