15 Tips for Employee Survey Customization

made to measure

Themes around employee engagement are well documented. All survey vendors have some version of standard survey questions that fall under those 12 or 15 umbrella categories (compensation, professional growth, leadership…you know the shtick).  Yet strategic objectives and corporate cultures vary. Internal corporate-speak and external industry jargon differ. Geography, language and literacy rates compound differences. Sometimes employee survey customization is required or desired, often coming into play when an organization wants to measure the impact of specific initiatives. Your organization can make it personal by following these 15 basic tips.

1. Start with strategy to tie your survey to organizational goals and objectives.

What’s not often talked about is aligning questions with the organization. Meet with your CEO and executive team. Review long range plans, vision, mission, values, and projected goals. Are there hot buttons or issues managers are thinking about?  Sometimes management and senior leaders might miss something because of their business focus; find out what’s on the hearts and minds of employees. Hold pre-polling focus groups. Whenever customizing a survey consider having all key stakeholders involved: executive/leadership/management, HR, the broader employee population, and union leaders where applicable. Uncover concerns or gaps they want to address.

2. Use existing standard survey/s as a beginning point.

Questions are phrased the right way. Biases are in check.  Then you can introduce language internal to your organization and ask questions specific to your business and people interests.

3. Consider the science around the questions you’re asking.

A lot of questions can be found in scientific and academic literature – standard approaches and phrasing determined to be valid. Seek professional assistance from survey specialists. Unproperly trained people commonly design leading questions and build in their own organizational biases (i.e.: we like the recent initiative undertaken by our president). There’s a lot of theory and knowledge behind formulating the right questions. Tap into vendors. They’re often a good starting point. TalentMap has a huge library of proven questions.

4. Decide how to handle benchmarking.

Lots of organizations like asking standardized questions to be able to compare their results with someone else’s. The more you customize wording the less you can compare with other industry benchmarks. It’s a tradeoff. TalentMap’s mantra: Your own benchmark is your best benchmark.

5. Don’t use double barrel questions.

  • INCORRECT: my manager gives me frequent quality feedback
  • CORRECT: my manager gives me
    • …frequent feedback (at least weekly)
    • …quality feedback.

6. Pay attention to the different education and literacy levels within your organization.

TalentMap has done work with lots of companies on this. A global mining company based in South Africa, for instance, needed to survey miners with very low literacy levels. Questionnaires for two different education levels were designed, essentially saying the same thing. The underlying concept was close enough for valid comparison.

  • Advanced Literacy Level: We systematically adopt new and improved ways to work
  • Low Literacy Level: We always try to improve the way we work.

7. Use the Likert five-point scale.

Completely disagree…disagree…neutral/don’t know…agree…completely agree.

TalentMap recommends the Likert five-point scale partially because it’s easier for respondents, partially because it fits easier on a screen and mainly because of its scientific and academic efficacy.  Keep in mind: if your survey is meant to be accessible through a series of different tools and brands (i.e.: computers, tablets, mobile phones) the survey technology you use should be able to identify devices and adapt layouts accordingly.

8. Use open-ended questions – where appropriate

Open-ended questions have a time and place.  Too many and respondents may lose interest, resulting in low completion rates; none or too few and your organization may miss out on important insights.  An appropriate use is if somebody responds unfavorably to a question and triggers an open-ended follow-up question (i.e.: why do you feel this way?).  Contrary to some beliefs, open-ended questions are just fine on mobile devices. In fact, Millennials and their younger cohorts prefer cell phones over other devices and can quickly thumb their answers, no probs. Keep in mind though, open-ended questions are difficult to compile and analyze.

9. Keep it simple, make it easier for respondents.

  • Use the same scale throughout (i.e. Likert 5-point scale)
  • Be aware of survey length; the more brevity the better
  • Use positive wording
  • Make sure questions are short and easy to read; long wordy questions can become too complicated.

10. Use behavioral statements rather than personality traits.

Behavior that’s visible in the workplace is easier to rate.

  • CORRECT: My manager gives me quality feedback (at least weekly)
  • INCORRECT: My manager is a good manager.

11. Consider the flow of survey questions.

Randomized questions. This format slows down the respondent and forces them to read every question making the survey harder to process and longer to complete.

  • i.e. a leadership question followed by a work/life question followed by a compensation question followed by personal development question, and so on.
    • My manager gives me frequent feedback (at least weekly)
    • The amount of work I am asked to do is reasonable
    • I am paid fairly for the work I do
    • My career aspirations can be achieved.
  • Grouped questions. TalentMap prefers this kind of flow. It’s easy for respondents to complete, but not too easy for straight line answers. And rather than having to present each question in full (as is required by the randomized approach, above) you can shorten up key questions, making it quicker and simpler for respondents.
    • i.e. first series of questions relate to immediate manager, next series relates to work/life balance, and so on.
      • My manager … gives me frequent feedback (at least weekly), … gives me recognition when I do a good job, … provides the opportunity to participate in goal setting, … gives me quality feedback

12. Ask general questions first.

They’re easier to answer and draw respondents into the survey. More specific questions can follow.

13. Pilot test.

Sometimes you’re so close to your survey you can’t see the glitches. Ask a few people who haven’t seen any drafts to fill it out, then take a good hard look at what this dry run produces and tweak accordingly.

14. Include branding on your survey.

Use your own branding (logo/positioning statement) to communicate a sense of organizational pride and ownership. To convey and reinforce 3rd party confidentiality you might also want to include your survey vendor’s branding.

15. Decide where you want to redirect respondents from the survey end page.

  • Your home page?
  • A career development page on your website or a dedicated message from the CEO page that supports the survey experience and reiterates your organization’s commitment to engagement?
  • Your survey partner’s website, again to reinforce anonymity and employee peace of mind.

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