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Building a Recruitment and Retention Plan

Employee Satisfaction Survey Tips

The purpose of an employee survey is to obtain an understanding of your employees’ needs and a clear idea of how to improve your response to those needs. It can also show that you are interested in and open to employee feedback. It is one way (along with focus groups and interviews) to listen to your employees.

The employee survey provides an avenue for the organization to gather information concerning what the employee thinks of his/her job, team or work group, the organization, and other specific issues, such as organizational culture or turnover problems. It can aid in understanding or anticipating employee needs as they relate to your organization’s bigger picture. The most important function is to provide a basis for an action plan to build on strengths and improve deficiencies.

Surveys can empower employees by asking them what they think. Acting on their topics of concern can set a tone of partnership and let employees know that their opinions can produce change. Surveys also raise expectations, so be prepared to follow up by communicating results and acting, even if it is to tell employees that actions will be taken in the future or that the issues cannot be resolved. Use surveys sparingly to encourage full participation.

The survey tool itself should be short and allow for flexibility when distributing, collecting, or analyzing.

Survey Planning

Research has shown that surveys conducted by third parties elicit more candid responses. If going outside the organization is not possible, make sure the survey is managed, implemented, monitored, and communicated back by a politically neutral department within your organization.

Employee Involvement from the Beginning
One way to begin the planning process is to hold focus groups or a series of interviews with staff representing all parts of the organization. These steps can identify trends or themes that may not otherwise be included or that can define broad areas of employee concern. Interviews or focus groups do not have to be elaborate.

Along with talking to representatives as part of focus groups or a series of interviews:
  • Consider using open-ended written survey questions to help the focus group or interview respondents feel free to answer, especially if you are doing the survey in-house.
  • Ask representatives for their concerns; discuss what categories and topics you should include.
  • Use some of the items you intend to have in the survey.
  • Get their feedback and solicit their input (e.g., ask “What else should be asked?” or “Is this item clear?”).
  • Consider giving your final draft to a number of employees as a pilot. Their input can help you refine items in order to keep the data useful.
Survey Schedule
Schedule the survey so there is adequate time to use the results in planning and budgeting. Avoid sending out the survey during peak times. Encourage thoughtful responses by providing ample time for reflection, but request feedback within two weeks or less and send out reminders.

Who to Survey
Survey everyone at least annually. Once you have results that provide trends or themes, you may want to survey a specific group, division, position, or level more frequently.

Publicize the Survey and Results
Determine how you will announce, distribute, and gather the information. Involve key stakeholders in the process, especially those that influence others. They can advance the survey by their endorsement or involvement. Communicate information about the survey before it is conducted to increase interest and ensure that all employees are aware of its function and importance. Publicize survey planning and timing, how the data will be reviewed, and what will happen with the survey results. Emphasize that it will be anonymous and confidential.

Shortly after the survey is completed, the results should be announced, even if you do not yet know how the organization will respond to the information. The time from survey completion to the initial announcement should be no longer than 30 days. Follow up with more concrete action plans.

The Survey Items

Plan how you will analyze and chart the data while you are constructing the survey. This will keep the results useful and may help you design each item. Before you develop your survey, make sure that each item will give you specific feedback on how to improve the situation or promote the effective behavior. Many surveys are not effective because the questions asked are too vague.

The following example illustrates the difference between an effective and ineffective survey item.

Please respond with whether you agree or disagree:
Item A: I feel supported by my direct supervisor.
Item B: If I share my work problems with my direct supervisor, he/she would respond appropriately.

Which of the two survey items would be most effective? To decide, ask yourself the following questions regarding each of the two items:
  1. If we get a low score on this item, is it clear how we will fix it?
  2. If we get a high score on this item, do we know what we are doing right so it can continue?
In our example, if Item A receives a low rating by employees, how would you set up a plan to improve the situation? It is not clear what the employees are rating or what “supported” means. If it is given a high score, you do not know what is being done right so “it” can continue or you can train new people to do “it.”

On the other hand, responses to Item B will provide a clear idea of how to set up a plan to improve the employees concerns (e.g., train your supervisors in effective problem-solving and communication techniques) or promote the positive behavior.

It is important to include a question that deals with recommending a friend to this organization for employment. This is a valuable tool for identifying the general health of the organization.

Self-Selection Questions and Comments
Additional information can be gained to identify trends by including the following sections within the survey tool:
  • Self-selected categories to identify the division, program, or position of the respondent;
  • A tenure question to determine how long each respondent has been with the organization; and
  • Age and gender selections, if these factors will advance understanding of the responses or trends.
Anonymity should be ensured by making the self-selected categories large enough in scope to avoid identifying any employee by cross-referencing categories.
Comments or annotated responses help capture employee information or perceptions that may not otherwise be included. Some typical items for comment include:
  • How could we improve your ability to balance your work life and your personal life?
  • What one thing makes working here worthwhile?
  • What one thing makes working here difficult?
  • The one thing I think needs improvement is…
  • Two important trainings not currently offered are…
  • The one thing I want to tell you is…
You should avoid showing word-for-word responses to these questions to non-reviewers by summarizing or grouping together the topics suggested by respondents.

If you are dealing with union employees, consult with union representatives or human resources departments to request items for inclusion or for other considerations.

Survey Item Construction
The most effective survey uses multiple item formats, such as rated questions, yes/no questions, and open-ended questions, as each format has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Rated questions
(e.g., questions with responses on a scale of 1–5) are easy to score but due to their precise nature, they may not elicit answers to important topics you did not include.

Yes/no questions
can provide definitive answers but do not allow for elaboration and may miss an important aspect of the topic.

Open-ended questions
(e.g., questions in which the respondent fills in a comment) are harder to score but capture broader information in areas that you may not have included. However, the summary of these questions could be open for interpretation.

The following are basic tips on constructing rated questions:
  • Avoid terms such as “always” and “never”, as this can provide distorted results.
  • Use questions that are narrowly focused and precise so that the response you receive is useful.
  • Don’t ask about two things in one question. A question on “training and supervision” would make the response difficult to understand.
  • Refrain from using words or questions that have a negative impact or send a bad message.
  • Items that ask the respondent to rank the amount that they disagree or agree require clear instructions and statements so the respondent can understand the item and the implications of his/her answers.
Survey Question Categories
Satisfaction survey items usually fall into several categories. Some broad categories include items related to:
  • The organization;
  • The job;
  • Management and supervision;
  • Work teams; and
  • Specific topics such as questions related to a shift, training, career development opportunities and work/life balance issues.
It is best to use at least three to five items for each category.

Anonymity and Confidentiality
It is important to ensure anonymity and confidentiality for each respondent. This can be enhanced by using a neutral or third party for collection and analysis of the results and using a “respondent number” that is randomly assigned to each completed survey. A neutral party should summarize the results and list the topics raised by open-ended questions or follow-up comments. This prevents the word-for-word response from being seen by management. The steps being taken to ensure anonymity and confidentiality should be communicated to employees prior to and during the survey process.

Interpreting the Results

Once the data has been collected, look for themes. Note the topics and items that received similar responses by the largest group of respondents.

Determine the following:
  • What does this reflect?
  • Are these respondents from specific departments or categories of employees, or is the problem organization-wide?
  • Look for themes within departments or worker category; do the answers reflect a particular feeling?
  • Are responses the same within a group or team?
  • Does one category of employee say the same thing?
  • Are responses the same between two groups?
  • Does the employment tenure, demographics, or organizational position related to these responses?
  • Is there a difference that can be understood?
Note the items that have a variety of responses:
  • Are the results given across the organization or are there consistencies within certain categories of employees?
  • What common denominator links respondents with the same answers, if any?
  • Does employment tenure, demographics, or organizational position relate to these responses?
  • Are there trends within or between groups?
Look for trends in open-ended questions:
  • What topics are discussed in the responses?
  • Which group, department, or level of employee gave the same responses?
  • Which group, department, or level of employee gave different responses about the same topic? What could be influencing these discrepancies?
  • Look for trends concerning the employees’ feelings and their relationship to the organization.
  • Do responses give suggestions for improvement or change?

Determining Follow-up Interventions

Once you have analyzed the survey results, the identified trends, if they are clear and precise, should provide direction for the next steps. Trends within or between sub-groups may lead to logical conclusions that direct you to specific interventions. If not, you may need to do some additional work. Conduct a focus group or brainstorm session with employees who represent the trend to probe for additional information. Include employees such as the manager or direct line staff that will be responsible for the change, or who may have additional insight. Do not look just at trends that have a negative rating; identify and promote positive trends. 

Not everyone surveyed in the organization will see things the same way. Your results may vary from one group of employees, or one department, to another. Part of analyzing the results is to identify the trends emerging from diverse responses.

Once results or trends are identified, there may be several intervention strategy options. Some interventions may require managerial training. It may be best to address one or two organization-level interventions and one or two interventions at the manager or department/division level.

The following are trends often found in survey results and the specific interventions used to address them:[1]
When trends exist:
The results may show:
You can try:
Within a group or team
Negative or low scoring that identifies symptoms that focus around group goals, relationships and roles within the group, or conflict between members.
Interventions that include role clarification activities, problem-solving training, group skills training, coaching of individual members, and team-building skills training.
Between groups
Negative or low scoring that identifies problems between groups. Issues may be verbalized or they can remain hidden, but usually have been apparent to members. Between-groups problems often deal with scarce resources and disagreement over responsibilities.
Interventions that include team building between groups to discuss conflicts and come to a solution, especially for issues that cross over both groups. Use bridge staff and cross-functional teams to fade the groups’ boundaries or merge the groups for a specific project.
Across the organization
Negative or low scoring on organizational structures such as compensation, performance evaluations, management style, and communication, or a pattern of low scoring on mission, vision, or goals.
Interventions that look to a change in the organizational structure that would emphasize the product or customer. Some suggested interventions include profit-sharing instead of individual merit raises or including more line staff in strategic planning and product development. The more widespread these problems are within the organization, the more you have to look at organizational issues.

Managerial Training

According to Leadership IQ[2], in order to resolve many of the negative trends or results identified from employee surveys it may be necessary to upgrade managers’ skills. Managerial training needs most often fall within communication and engagement skills areas. Common managerial training to improve communication and engagement with employees deal with how to:
  • Speak the truth without making people angry;
  • Give constructive feedback to coworkers;
  • Manage different generations in the workforce;
  • Manage talented people with bad attitudes;
  • Hire employees with great attitudes;
  • Motivate employees;
  • Create accountability;
  • Help others embrace change; and
  • Speak so others will listen.

Communicating Results

An appropriate turnaround time between survey completion and communication of the results to employees should be no more than 30 days. If your data tells you that changes should be made, communicate that clearly to employees. If you make a change based on the survey, tell everyone – not just the impacted employees. In any case, even if you don’t know what will be done next or can’t make a change now, communicate that information to employees. Keep everyone updated on the follow-up and implications of the survey, no matter how far in the future the change will occur.

Executive Announcement
A suggested way to communicate results is to have an open forum for all employees, or at least employees within the affected division. Emphasize that the survey data was implemented, monitored, collected, and managed by a neutral or third party. Discuss how management continued the process once the analysis was completed, and how the next steps were determined. The highest ranking executive should showcase the results. This includes a “thank you” segment, followed by an outline of the results, what needs to be fixed, and what positive things the organization has been doing or plans to do. General interventions for improvement can be discussed at this meeting. There is usually a question and answer segment.

An important part of this meeting is the announcement that managers will be meeting with their employees concerning how changes and/or interventions will affect them.

Manager Follow-through
Although hearing the general information from the highest level is important, each employee will want to know specifically how this change will personally affect him/her. It is suggested that the supervising manager meet with individuals or small groups of employees to show appreciation for participating in the survey and to discuss the following:
  • The department or division strengths;
  • Opportunities for improvement;
  • General next steps;
  • Next steps for the manager, as they relate to the employee; and
  • How progress will be tracked.
Once all managers have identified their action plans and discussed them with their employees, all the manager-level plans and any organizational plans should be combined and made available to employees. “Closing the circle” for employees, or showing how their opinions became actions, highlights the organization’s accountability and transparency concerning the survey process.

See also related resources:
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[1] Chaudron, D (2003). Assessing and improving your organization: symptoms, diagnosis and cures. Organized Change, Retrieved August 27, 2008, from
[2] Murphy, M (2007). Why employee surveys fail (and how to fix them). Retrieved October 28, 2008, from Leadership IQ Web site:

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