Top 10 Reasons Why Job Satisfaction Surveys Are a Waste of Time

I’ve been with my current company for 9 years, and our “engagement score” just hit an all time high in a year when I have heard more employee concerns about the company than ever before.

Over the last five years, I have personally seen a combination of rewriting survey questions and “teaching to the test” that I believe solely explains the reason for the current score that clearly doesn’t match reality.

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Staff satisfaction surveys… many people mistrust and dislike them and yet most workplaces have them.

Conducting, analyzing and acting on these types of surveys can take up a lot of time and money and I suspect that they are just not worth it. I’ve rarely seen job satisfaction surveys have much of a positive impact on a company.

I suspect that the typical approach used by most companies is fundamentally flawed. Here are the the top 10 problems I see with staff satisfaction surveys.

1: They have too many questions (and the wrong questions)

A client sent me their annual job satisfaction survey recently. It had 138 question (I’m not even kidding) and among them were gems like:

  • How satisfied are you with the lighting at your workstation?
  • How satisfied are you with the temperature in the workplace?
  • Do you experience any problems with noise in the office?

Surveys can have upwards of 100 questions and consequently take a long time to complete. I have visited several workplaces where employees complain from “survey fatigue.”

2: They’re conducted too rarely

Typically, staff satisfaction surveys are done annually which means that there can be a huge lag from when an issue arises in the workplace until it’s discovered and addressed.

As a tool for improving workplace conditions and employee happiness, this makes them nearly useless.

3: They measure satisfaction not happiness

One major flaw is that these surveys don’t actually measure how happy people are at work – they measure job satisfaction. While happiness and satisfaction are certainly related concepts, they are not the same thing.

Basically, job satisfaction is what you think about your job. When you weigh all the pros and cons, what do you think about your job? It’s a rational judgement.

Happiness at work is how you feel about your job. When you are at work, do you mostly experience positive emotions (pride, happiness, gratitude, etc) or mostly negative emotions (anger, frustration, sadness, etc).

Of the two, happiness is by far the most important and the most relevant, because happiness more than satisfaction affects employees’ job performance, health and general well-being.

4: Too much time passes from survey to results

Here’s how it may go in many workplaces:

  • April: The survey comes out
  • May: Results are due
  • August: Results become available
  • September: Departments and teams start following up on results

In many cases months  pass from when employees fill out the survey until they see the results. By that time, no one remembers the survey questions any more and the results will most likely be outdated before people ever see them.

This is the age of instant gratification and instant data, so why the huge lag between survey and results?

5: Survey creates an expectation of change – then nothing happens

I have never seen any step taken based on job satisfaction survey.

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I recently talked to a client that conducts an annual job satisfaction survey. They told me that every year for the last 5 years, the same handful of teams in this company have scored very low on the survey. Everyone knows why: The managers of these teams are bad managers. And yet, nothing has been done about it and these teams continue to be miserable.

Asking employees about their situation creates an expectation that the workplace will act on the survey results. Why conduct the survey, if the workplace doesn’t act on the results?

And yet, survey results often aren’t acted upon, leaving employees with the (often correct) impression that this is a sham process and that the company wants to create the illusion that it cares, when really it doesn’t.

6: No perceived value for employees

All of this means that responding to the survey becomes a chore for employees who can’t see the value of the survey and have no expectation that it will improve conditions in any way.

This again leads to very low response rates in many workplaces which is no wonder. Why should they waste time filling it out, if they can’t see the value?

7: Negative focus

I gave a keynote at a bank recently and just before I went on stage, an HR consultant presented the results of their latest employee satisfaction survey.

While their overall results were quite OK, he spent 95% of his presentation talking about the areas where the scores were low compared to other banks or where they had fallen since the last survey.

Looking at the numbers, I could see several areas where results were really good, but zero time was spent examining what those areas were and what the company was doing right. Also, while some teams were clearly much happier than others, they got no attention – all the focus was on the lowest scoring teams.

Of course a survey should be used to pinpoint problems so they can be fixed, but if that’s all it’s used for the company misses a huge opportunity to identify best practices and spread them by learning from the best performing areas and teams.

8: Cooking the books

I worked for a bank for many years that used annual Gallup surveys. As a member of management, it was my job to inform the employees about the questions they would be asked pertaining to their satisfaction with their jobs, co-workers, management, and the company’s values.

It was drilled down to me that these marks needed to be the highest (10 out of 10) in all categories to ensure maximum “satisfaction.” In actuality, if you had worked for the company long enough to take a second survey, you knew that you’d better just put a 10 to avoid the drawn out action planning after the branch results were reviewed.

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I recently heard of a company that wanted to do really well on the Great Place to Work national rankings, which are determined in part by a satisfaction survey among employees. So before the survey ran, management sent out an email to everyone saying how important it was for the company to score well and how it would really help their image and business results. But, hey, no pressure!

I have seen several ways that management can influence the survey results. In some companies, results are not presented to the whole company, before HR and top management have had a chance to see them first and remove any results that are deemed too “explosive” or bad for the corporate image.

9: Little trust in anonymity

Apparently the director of my particular group was unhappy with her ratings. A week after the results were shared, she called an urgent meeting with our entire team, where each of us had to go up to the whiteboard and write down the areas we had ranked highest and lowest.

So much for anonymity — and the credibility of the survey.

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While these surveys are supposedly anonymous to allow employees to be brutally honest, many people don’t trust that. In a recent survey we did, 40% of respondents didn’t trust the anonymity of job satisfaction surveys in their company.

10: No local ownership

The survey is “owned” by either the whole company or HR. Individual departments have no say in how or when the survey runs.

That way there is no local ownership over the process or the results that come out of it and therefore much less incentive to act on the results.

The upshot

So if job satisfaction surveys are so useless, why does everybody do them? I believe there are three main reasons:

  1. Everybody does them because everybody else does them. It’s become one of those standards that every company feels they should have.
  2. It’s an alibi – it let’s workplaces say they do something to improve conditions for workers even if it’s not very effective.
  3. They’re easy to sign off on. Companies just forget that there’s much more to it, than just sending out surveys.

So what to do instead? I would suggest a process that reverses each of the 10 problems above. Some way of surveying employees that lives up to this:

  1. Very few questions
  2. Is conducted often
  3. Measures happiness, not satisfaction
  4. Results are available instantly
  5. Results lead to action
  6. Clear value for employees
  7. Focuses on the negative AND the positive
  8. There is no way to cook the numbers
  9. Anonymity is guaranteed
  10. Survey is owned and controlled by each department

It wouldn’t even have to be electronic. Some companies measure workplace happiness with tennis balls and buckets.

And mostly we can do one thing: We can talk. We can create forums where employees and managers can have an actual dialogue about the current state of the workplace. This will always trump a survey, no matter how good it may be.

Your take

Would you agree with me  or do you think job satisfactions are worth the effort? What does it take for them to actually work and improve conditions for employees? Please write a comment, I’d love to hear your take on this.

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15 thoughts on “Top 10 Reasons Why Job Satisfaction Surveys Are a Waste of Time”

  1. Actually would agree in many scenarios they are a waste of time – However, all of those pitfalls can be addressed. If you move away from satisfaction (which is a less popular topic) and do many of the things you suggest – surveys can be great.

    Action and quick communication are essential. If you do this you can survey more often, get more engagement from employees and better data.

  2. I would agree with many of your comments, the summary being that the surveys are often done to check the box as done instead of those implementing truly believing in their benefits. If they did they would implement differently. I do like the steps you have outlined, however I would add one element. When action plans are developed at a company level, they often miss key actions required to improve happiness at an individual level. Although it is unrealistic to think you can have an action plan developed at the individual level, I think an action plan at the 4 core workplace personality

  3. We experienced that after a short period of time where certain departments score low in certain areas of the job satisfaction survey, it was decided that those ares were “irellevant for those departments” and the questions that scored low was changed to different questions, but only for the “problematic” departments.

    The real problem, it would seem, was that the agenda really wasn’t about employee job satisfaction, but about management satisfying their KPIs, so instead of listening to the survey and changing things for the better, they just changed the survey!

    Imagine the impact on employee engagement!

  4. For the most part we would definitely agree with you. Many of our clients are looking for ways to increase their employee engagement, without using the ordinary ‘box-ticker’ surveys, which they feel, don’t ask the right questions, are too long and don’t have their true interests at heart. Often people get more disheartened afterwards too, because there is no implementation role out. Essentially though the 10 points you pointed out, are the ten features that we feel make our survey stand out from the crowd. It takes 10 minutes to complete, has been scientifically researched, is focused on Happiness not just engagement or satisfaction and our clients Love our instant results. It can also be owned by each department and really is a great tool to open the doors of communication within organisations and teams. We assist organisations with practitioners or consultants to ensure that positive change is implemented and we offer support to clients who are happy to run the survey and self designed workshops themselves. So we like to think not ALL engagement/satisfaction surveys are created equal :).

  5. Theres is no Honesty in most of the surveys. They can be overused and time consuming, which will lead to less thoughtful responses. Surveys are completely useless if nobody is reviewing the results! Consider sending out a summary of the findings, and some possible action steps based on them. Something like: 80% of you said you want more ice cream on the job. So

  6. I think that especially in this tough economy where one is just happy to have or keep a job, employees in general are hesitant to speak up or

  7. I spent years in human resources and did several of these. Several times to results weren’t even released, the worst part is, being in HR we could have provided much of that information and possible solutions. It was frustrating to hold valuable insight but told we couldn’t possibly know the real answers. I think this very experience was an example of how people in the company felt. Thanks for sharing these points, they’re right on.

  8. I have a different view on job satisfaction which is a rather positive one. However, these 10 points seem valid too.

  9. I am afraid I do not completely agree with the fact that job satisfaction surveys are a waste of time though I am not completely against with your views either.
    My colleague had conducted a similar survey in his department with the help of an online survey tool and it was a huge success.
    I personally think that the way you craft questions can change the participants’ perspective towards these kinds of surveys which is why I agree with you on asking 100 irrelevant questions is pointless which only results in survey fatigue. If people send out surveys that will take maximum 10 minutes to participate and act on the feedback immediately, not everyone would have a negative take on it.

  10. Ours is mandatory and doesn’t even ask about pay, benefits, retirement, time off, work hours, nothing. And they call it a “Working Conditions Survey.” As if pay, work hours, benefits, retirement, etc. are not related to working conditions. It asks inane questions and serves to remind how insipid and ridiculous the LLC model is for regular people who are self-actualized.

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