You start with the best intentions: You'd genuinely like to know what employees think about what it's like to work in your organization.

So you tip your toe in the water (just a little survey) or go big, spending significant money with an impressive firm that conducts an exhaustive (and, quite frankly, exhausting) employee attitude survey.

Now you've got two major problems:

  1. You've raised expectations. Since you asked employees for their candid feedback, they are now waiting for you to do something. And, by the way, the survey was conducted last week. Why is change taking so long?
  2. Some of the data is clear and actionable--Employees hate the dress code--but a lot of it is confusing and complicated. If employees don't think the performance management program sets them up for success, should the program be changed, or are managers the problem? If employees give low marks to recognition, is a quick fix possible or is the issue more systemic?

And, in many organizations, here's where the whole effort starts to fail. Analysis paralysis sets in. Teams are formed, but they don't have the resources or the authority to make real change. Day-to-day pressures take over, and acting on survey results fades into the background.

No wonder employees get cynical about the whole experience. As one employee told me during a focus group, "Why bother to even take the survey if nothing ever changes?"

Hmm, good point. That's why the first question I always ask senior leaders contemplating an engagement survey is this: "Are you committed to acting on employee feedback?" And my follow-up questions are these:

  • How committed? Willing to allocate a budget and dedicated head count (and not just HR) to work on an action plan?
  • How candid are you willing to be? Will you share even negative feedback with all employees?
  • Are you ready to make employee engagement a top priority--not just this year, but over the next 10 years?

You get the picture: If the answer to any of these questions is "no," the smart thing to do is skip the survey. Asking employees for their feedback and then doing nothing is far worse than not asking at all.