Improving employee satisfaction has been a goal of organizations since at least the 1930s, when psychologists began earnestly studying employee attitudes and how they were affected by the employer/employee relationship. It was during this time that initial “job satisfaction” surveys were administered, which became the norm for the next 50 years and evolved over time to be more complex and sophisticated.

From Employee Satisfaction to Employee Engagement

By the early 1990s, HR professionals realized that just being “satisfied” isn’t enough to motivate employees to really unlock their full value within the organization. Employers needed a new way to get to the heart of how people were feeling about their company, and how much effort they were prepared to put in as a result. This measure of connection and effort was named “employee engagement,” and has since become the industry best practice for employee surveys.

Employee engagement is something we can all relate to. It’s that feeling you have when you believe in the work you do and want to go above and beyond to be successful. It’s when work doesn’t really feel like work. Imagine a company full of employees who feel like that. With the right direction and guidance, a workforce full of engaged employees can be unstoppable. It’s no surprise that this has become such a crucial measure for organizations.

Measuring Employee Engagement With Surveys

To capture and improve the full employee experience — which goes beyond employee satisfaction and even employee engagement — requires gathering data in various forms and at various points in the employee lifecycle.

Measuring Employee Engagement with Surveys

For much of this measurement, surveys are the perfect tool, including for engagement.

Below, we’ve outlined a more traditional approach to engagement surveys — suitable for one-off, annual, or semi-annual surveys. While there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to running an engagement survey, this type of comprehensive approach serves as the foundation from which any engagement survey can be built.

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Employee Engagement Survey Best Practices

These are the major principles to know in designing employee surveys.

Getting-Started Tips

Before you begin building your survey, consider these five guidelines:

  1. Decide which stakeholders need to provide input.
  2. Set clear deadlines and turnaround times before starting.
  3. Give one person final sign-off authority and clearly communicate that person as the decision maker.
  4. Scrutinize every new survey question request and be sure to distinguish ‘nice to have’ questions from ‘must have’ questions.
  5. Try to avoid designing your survey by committee.

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Survey Structure

An engagement survey isn’t just a questionnaire, it’s a diagnostic tool that will drive employee experience analysis and action. A great survey brings principles of organizational psychology and applies them to your company. For that reason, it’s important to have a strong survey structure. To that end, we recommend dividing your engagement survey into three types of “item banks,” all with a clear purpose:

  • Item Bank 1: measuring engagement. Your engagement items combine into one metric that tells you how you’re doing and allows you to track progress over time. These items measure pride, enthusiasm for work, discretionary effort, advocacy, intent to stay, and overall job satisfaction.
  • Item Bank 2: measuring what drives engagement. These items ask about the conditions that might cause or detract from engagement. In essence, they can tell you what you’re doing well and what you can do to improve. For example, collaboration has been shown over the years to be an important driver of engagement. Specifically, companies may measure how well employees share knowledge, cooperate on work within and across teams, and the extent to which collaboration is encouraged and rewarded. Another important influence on employee engagement is strategic alignment, which taps into a variety of key behaviors.  For instance, how employees see the link between their work and its contribution to strategic objectives and the extent to which senior leaders provide clear direction for the company.
  • Item Bank 3: open-ended comments measuring what’s on your employees’ minds. Open-ended items provide richer employee data, allowing you to dive deeper and understand feedback that you may not have known to look for. These can both be asked as a follow-on to driver items, or as general open-ended input at the end of the survey.

Survey Length

There is no ideal length for an employee survey; the individual needs of your organization should determine the length of your survey. In fact, the key is to find a balance between asking enough questions to be robust, and not asking so many questions that your survey becomes too long (with data too complicated to digest in reports). As a general rule, assuming you’re running an annual engagement diagnostic and not a pulse survey, we advise limiting your survey to around 40 questions.

In order to cull questions in your survey, ask yourself the following:

  • Are we really prepared to act on this question?
  • Is this question repeating something we already asked in another question on the survey?
  • Does this question actually tell us something useful, as opposed to just something interesting?
  • Is this question relevant to all parts of the business?
  • Is this a topic more suited for a pulse, ad hoc, or lifecycle study?

Writing Survey Questions

When writing a survey question, there are a few guiding goals to keep in mind.

  1. Ensure clarity by only mentioning a single subject or construct — failure to do this can result in “double-barreled” questions. For example, “How satisfied or dissatisfied were you with our product selection and quality?” is a problematic question because it mentions two subjects: the selection, and the quality of products. A respondent may feel extremely satisfied with the quality of the products but extremely dissatisfied with the selection. For that respondent, it’s unclear how to respond to the question. The better approach would be to create separate questions to address each construct.
  2. Have the question mean the same thing to all respondents — each respondent should interpret the meaning of the question identically. If respondents have different interpretations of the meaning of the question, the resulting data will be invalid because it will be impossible to determine what question each respondent thought they were answering.
  3. Use words economically. It’s important to use as many words as are needed to convey the idea of the question clearly, but additional words introduce more elements that could potentially confuse respondents. Keeping questions short also means that respondents can read them more quickly, which should help keep the survey duration short.

For word choice specifically, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, words used in survey questions should have only one meaning (this is easy to verify with a dictionary). Additionally, words and sentences should be simple, to maximize ease of reading and comprehension. A useful rule of thumb is that words with fewer syllables, and sentences with fewer words, are typically simpler. Readability scores calculated with online tools are often useful for assessing the complexity of the words and sentences that form a question.

The conventional wisdom — which has been supported by most empirical research on the topic over the years — suggests that, in general, questions should be worded to:

  • Be simple, direct, comprehensible
  • Be actionable (Meaning: if you read the statement, based on the results, it should be clear who and how can make change against it.)
  • Be specific and concrete (rather than general and abstract)
  • Avoid jargon
  • Avoid double-barreled questions
  • Avoid negations
  • Avoid leading questions
  • Avoid emotionally charged words
  • Be read smoothly out loud
  • Allow for all possible responses

If you follow these recommendations, it is much less likely that your survey questions will confuse or frustrate your respondents, and your data are more likely to be valid and reliable.

Sample Employee Engagement Survey Questions

Here are some examples from Qualtrics Employee Engagement items, organized by category. These categories of items have been shown to be core drivers of engagement:

Category Definition Sample Items
Collaboration Employees’ ability to easily work together,
share knowledge, and cooperate within and across teams.
●      My manager encourages collaboration on my team

●      The people I work with cooperate to get the job done

Communication Employees’ access to enough information
from the company and issues that affect them.
●      I receive the information I need to do my job effectively

●      There is open and honest communication at this company

Company Leadership Employees’ confidence and trust in senior
leaders’ actions.
●      I have confidence in the senior leadership team to make the right decisions for this company

●      The behavior of our senior leadership team is consistent with this company’s values

Customer
Focus
Employees’ involvement in a customer
centric company and empowerment to
do what’s needed.
●      Customer problems and concerns are dealt with quickly

●      I am empowered to make decisions to best serve my customers

Engagement  Employees’ feelings of a connection to
their work and the company.
Note: engagement is an outcome measure.
●      I am proud to work for this company

●      My work gives me a feeling of personal accomplishment

Growth & Development Employees’ support in their development
and building a career at the company.
●      Overall, I feel that my career goals can be met at this company

●      This company provides me with the opportunity for learning and development

Inclusion Employees’ feelings that they are a part
of the team and company, are valued, and
that their opinions matter.
●      Diverse perspectives are valued and encouraged in my team

●      I am comfortable voicing my ideas and opinions, even if they are different from others

Job
Enablement
Employees’ feelings that they have the
resources and support to be effective
in their role.
Note: Job Enablement is an outcome measure.
●      My job is challenging and interesting

●      I have the authority I need to do my job

Performance & Accountability Employees’ understanding of their goals
and expectations, empowerment to
accomplish their work, recognition for their contributions and demonstration of
accountability.
●      At this company, people are held accountable for their performance

●      I receive feedback that helps me improve my performance

Strategic Alignment Employees’ understanding of the company’s direction and connection between their work,
the work of other teams, and to what
is important to the company.
●      I can see a clear link between my work and this company’s strategic objectives

●      Senior leadership gives employees a clear picture of the direction our company is headed

Survey
Follow-Up
Employees’ belief in and experience
of actions taken based on prior survey results.
●      I am confident that action will be taken as a result of this survey.

●      I believe that positive change will happen as a result of this survey

Work Processes Employees’ focus on quality, and encouragement to continuously
improve try new things in their work.
●      I am encouraged to come up with better ways of doing things

●      Work is well coordinated on my team

If you’re looking to get start impacting employee engagement immediately, download our free template below. For advanced strategic help or a more in-depth walk through, book a free demo today with our employee experience product experts.

Free Employee Engagement Survey Template

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This post was originally published in March, 2018 and was updated August, 2019.