Employee Surveys Fall Short to Improve Recruiting

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Feb 22, 2023

Picture it: You’re a career ER nurse who has put in more double shifts than some people have single shifts in the last three years. Throughout the pandemic, you’ve endured heartbreaking patient emotions over lost loved ones, helped set up triage tents in parking lots to deal with overflow, been spat on and fought for doing your job, grown tired of “healthcare heroes” platitudes and cold pizza while the new temporary co-worker makes twice the pay, and struggled to keep your own emotional center in the most high-stress professional world anyone has ever seen.

You’ve told your story countless times, to neighbors, to co-workers, to peers across the country going through the same things and to the revolving door of managers and administrators above you. It’s amazing how cathartic it can be, but also how exhausting when nothing changes. And then…the employee survey lands in your email inbox with a thud.

This is the same employee survey the results of which won’t be fully tallied, much less used, to make meaningful change for half a year (assuming it is even seriously looked at beyond a basic glance). You quickly fill it out, one of the few who do, but with far less zeal than during the thousands of conversations you’ve had publicly, in person and online, over the last three years.

It’s also likely that in less than a year, you’ll change jobs to the competing hospital down the road. Your exit interview will be perfunctory and with someone you’ve never spoken to. And in the intervening days before starting the new job, you’ll write a heartfelt Glassdoor review of your time at your former employer. It’s likely that no one in management will ever read it, of course, while it’s just as likely that all of the applicants for your old job will.

The Failure of Annual Surveys

Welcome to the current state of the employee survey, an annual process that lacks true utility. Does the survey really give you the glimpse you think it does into company culture? Employer branding? Employee turnover? The answer likely lies in whether you are overly relying on it and if you are mixing other techniques to get the answers you need.

Not only is an annual check insufficient for gathering sentiment, honesty is also at risk. When AllVoices sampled full-time employees at mid-sized companies, they found that less than half who bothered to take their survey said they were “fully honest” on instruments like employee surveys. They cited fear of retaliation and a general malaise about whether employers actually wanted them to be honest.

Additionally, survey length plays into the problem for even the loyal workers who bother to take it. Completion rates plummet for any survey over 20 minutes. Worse, for some employers wanting to blame survey fatigue, it’s also just as likely that employees have watched leadership do nothing with results.

The Failure of All Surveys

But here’s the real problem with surveys: No matter how good you make them, no matter how frequently you run them, they will remain inadequate means to provide actionable insights. That’s because surveys leave major data gaps when it comes to gathering sentiment to inform employer branding and other talent acquisition efforts. What’s more, these gaps are usually flags to go deeper with a mix of other data-collection methods.

To help fill those gaps, one crucial technique is to listen to what your current, past, and prospective employees have to say — not just to you but to each other. The key is to inject behavioral science into social listening, using anthropology to dutifully analyze thousands of comments, reviews, threads, posts, and more.

This entails not relying on automatic dashboards that blissfully (but inaccurately) scrape only the surface channels and fail to understand context, sarcasm, and intent. Instead, employing a trained ethnographer is crucial not just for analysis but discovery. That analysis must occur where employees and candidates often gather online, which are often discussions segmented by job or region, such as Reddit threads where locals discuss regional employers. (In other words, your Glassdoor page isn’t the only place to monitor comments.)

Applying a digital ethnographic approach to listening enables you to track more effectively things like perceptions of high-value executives for a brand and competitors, DEI efforts, company culture, and more.

Point being, it’s vital to gauge how peers discuss you and your brand in places unprompted by you.

Discovering who isn’t talking is incredibly important, as well. When applying a careful ear to public discussions of your employer brand, note who is speaking. That is, which type of people are leaving reviews and which aren’t? Which job types or divisions are mentioned or represented and which aren’t? The answers likely mean prospective employees aren’t seeing themselves or certain job types.

None of this is to signal the death of listening to your employees and candidates; it flatly signals the death of relying solely on employee surveys to make accurate, timely decisions. If nothing else, it means that companies ought to:

  • Measure employer brand with social listening monthly (or at least quarterly). Tracking the trends via this method not only gives you employee and candidate attitudes in the job market; it also allows you to see reactions to crises, competitor news, and more.
  • Allow findings to change the direction of employer branding and recruitment efforts. For example, if you find that your Glassdoor reviews are all written by a single demographic that is not representative of your workforce population, you may have more to prove in your recruitment messaging.
  • Use interviews as a scalpel after other methods give you clarity. So if you uncover that a disproportionate number of employees from the same division are remarking on the same managerial issues, it’s time to deploy interview techniques to suss out the problem

With engagement, loyalty, and persistence at an all-time low, we’re asking a lot of employee surveys, so it’s no wonder they have buckled under the weight of expectations and change. Luckily, listening to your employees and candidates t doesn’t have to only occur through radial buttons and drop-down menus. A mix of techniques can resurrect the original meaning and purpose of the employee survey.

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