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Think Before You Ask: Designing Employee Surveys for Actionable Data

POSTED ON 
July 22, 2020

With all that’s going on in the world right now, companies and individuals alike are doing a lot of internal reflection. Organizations are taking a beat to ask themselves hard questions and creating space for employees to share thoughts, feelings and concerns. They’re doing this by way of roundtable discussions, focus groups, Town Halls and yes, even the trusty survey.

But before you ask your people to provide feedback – especially on sensitive topics – I urge you to consider these pointers. [Note: This post was  updated September 2022]

ALWAYS BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND

We’re firm believers that you shouldn’t ask your people for feedback unless you’re prepared to ACT on it. 

Remember, survey fatigue is (still) real – but not in the way you think! 

It stems from frustration over a lack of company response after people have taken the time to share their feedback. In many cases, taking action may mean making additional investments – in time, budget, training, technology, programming, increased communications — to make a real change in your people’s experiences.

Before asking your people a single question, follow these three crucial steps (plus a bonus tip on how to select your engagement survey questions!):

1. Review what you already know. 

What existing data or insights can you draw from that might be a helpful predictor for the research you're about to do? What do you already know about your people's sentiments on this particular topic? 

💪 ACT ON IT: Use what you already know to inform survey questions and multiple-choice answer selections. You can even acknowledge if/why you've asked a particular question before by adding a bit of extra context throughout your survey! 

2. Hypothesize about what you might uncover. 

Think through as many hypothetical outcomes for the survey as you can. What's the best case? What's the worst case? What's the most far-fetched scenario?

Please do your best to think through it all. From there, work with your team (or with Brilliant Ink!) to begin brainstorming some of the ways you would address those outcomes.

💪 ACT ON IT: Hint – this would be a great time to plant the seeds with the powers-that-be for any potential post-research asks. Proactively clear as much red tape as possible so that you can act on feedback quickly!  

NOTE: THINK FAST! There’s a big difference in hypothesizing possible scenarios vs. making assumptions about how your people may answer certain questions.

This step is meant to help you begin thinking proactively about hitting the ground running post-survey. If you need to enact real change, who are the different stakeholders you may need to loop in? 

Get organized, but do so without making assumptions about your people’s sentiments. And when it comes time to analyze your results, do as we do at Brilliant Ink: go in with an open mind and stay curious. 

3. Pledge to report back. 

Finally, commit to reporting back to your people openly and honestly, both on your findings as well as your roadmap for an improved employee experience. 

💪 ACT ON IT: Create a project plan and a timeline to analyze your results as soon as the survey closes (or better yet, begin while it’s still in-field!). Hold yourself accountable by sharing your timeline when you invite people to take your survey. 

next, CURATE YOUR SURVEY QUESTIONS CAREFULLY

If you aren’t thinking about what you’re asking – particularly during a time when everyone’s bandwidth and emotions are spread so thin – you risk damaging your credibility, and maybe worse, pissing people off.

There are plenty of resources out there with example survey questions – but even when you have your list of questions complete, there’s still work to be done. 

At this stage, you’ve thought carefully about the possible outcomes of your survey – you’ve even begun making some plans.

Now it’s time to test your questions to make sure they’re designed to help you fulfill your goals. Carefully and thoughtfully take each of your survey questions through the following decision tree to test its validity. 

Think through these three questions with each question you plan to ask:

  • Does this question align with our goals?
  • Will the data from this question be actionable?
  • Are we prepared to act on this data?

If you can answer yes to all three questions, keep it! If not, toss it.

Bottom line: If you aren’t sure how you could act on the data from a particular question, don’t ask the question.

THINK CAREFULLY BEFORE YOU ASK!

Asking for your people’s input right now sends a clear message that the organization is focused on the future and committed to making improvements in their employees’ experiences.

Just think carefully before you ask! For more on surveying your people, check out our posts on

Download our guide: How To Get Employee Surveys Right To Drive Meaningful Change

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Jackie Berg
HEAD OF RESEARCH & BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT

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