When NOT to Survey
There are some situations where doing a survey is not advisable. If you are not in the position to refuse the request to do a survey, at least provide an appropriate challenge to the proposal and suggest some alternatives.
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The political situation is too raw
Sometimes a survey will emerge out of unstated or highly conflicting agendas. It is one very common way that organizations avoid issues; it's the equivalent of "sending it back to committee". Unfortunately the survey data will only provoke the conflict again, but probably not offer any clarification or healing.
If you have the option to do so, it might be useful if someone acknowledged the conflict and asked what data might be useful in deciding on a path forward. For example, suppose your CEO has announced her retirement in two years, and the senior VP's have started their private campaigns to win her position. You might say "We're facing a significant shift in leadership in the next few years. Would it be useful to think about the values or themes we'd want in the next slate of leaders and check on how well established those values are in the company?" Or "Would it be useful to know how today's employees actually see their leadership?" Perhaps you can raise the level of the conflict by highlighting the possible contribution of objective data.
There have been previous survey disasters
Perhaps there is a history of surveys in the recent past that have generated no improvement efforts. Additional surveys will only add to the disappointment or cynicism. It would be best to return to earlier efforts and act on some of the results. Make explicit the link between current actions and former surveys, but don't add insult to injury by doing another survey.
A participant in a focus group once told me of a manager who had gotten a hold of someone's individual survey and berated them in the middle of the office for their answers. Everyone listening in knew that a manager had broken through the promised confidentiality, figured out who the survey must have come from based on the demographic questions, and had taken exception to their comments. At that point, the participant got up to leave; he had only come to the focus group to let me know that he and his co-workers would have nothing to do with any survey. Before he left, I asked him when all this had happened. He replied that it was 5 years ago! In his mind, it might as well have been yesterday. If there have been flagrant, widely known violations of confidentiality, there is no sense in using a survey. It will only distract the organization with highly suspect data.
Some violations of confidentiality are more the appearance rather than the fact of impropriety. In one client company, a survey conducted a few months before a downsizing was widely rumored to be the basis for decisions made to keep or fire certain employees. Although the two efforts were completely separate, the rumor mill is stronger than executive pronouncements.
There is curiosity, but no genuine decision focus
A common and innocent looking situation is the executive group who simply decides that "it's been too long since our last employee survey", so they launch the project with no thought to its eventual use. Asking questions carries with it the implicit promise to listen to the results, and to take appropriate action. I was once approached by a newly hired VP of Sales who managed a widely distributed national sales force. He had introduced a number of new procedures and simply wondered how well they viewed in the field. He was also worried about his perceived credibility, since he had come in from a larger organization in a different industry. Doing a survey was a good idea, but the first step was walking him through the decisions he might make. For every question he thought of asking, I would ask "And if the data came back really low, what might you do differently?". That simple challenge helped him identify the decision options that then created the focus for the project.
The real need is for open dialogue between or within groups
While a survey can be a valuable tool for harvesting the wisdom of employees, sometimes the more pressing need is for open dialogue, for face-to-face interaction. The real issues may not be opinion, but feeling. People sometimes need to explore and excise feelings of betrayal or mistrust. The interaction can be transformative, even cleansing. A survey will provide none of that. If there have been recent traumatic events (i.e., downsizing, merger, divestiture, death of a key company figure), be careful about using a survey instead of giving people a chance to just talk. The survey will capture how they feel; a face-to-face meeting might
the way they feel.
The fear of an impending downsizing will taint any assessment effort
If there are even rumors of a downsizing, employees often fear that a survey is a surreptitious method for figuring out who to keep and who to let go. Those who are "team players", who "buy the company line" are imagined to be more valuable than the rebel. Employees may bias their answers toward what they imagine executives want to hear.