When the Employee Engagement Survey is Wrong

I had an interesting discussion a couple weeks ago with a non-HR friend who spent some time venting about his company’s employee survey. Turns out the employee survey rated an incompetent manager as “the best” in his department. My friend was shocked to say the least because “the best” manager in his department is in fact pretty incompetent:

  1. Rarely communicates anything to his team.
  2. Barely understands or utilizes the ERP system that is the lifeblood of the department
  3. Does not follow department processes or procedures

So how could an engagement survey get it so wrong? Aren’t engagement surveys supposed to point out where the “disengaged” employees are and thus the bad mangers? How can an engagement survey identify someone as a good manager when their peers strongly think the opposite?

So there are a couple things to keep in mind about engagement surveys. First, these are only surveys, not a scientific, cause and effect piece of research. Engagement surveys provide insight into how employees at a company feel at a certain day/time.  When the survey is taken can have a huge effect on the results. First thing Monday morning? Or Friday afternoon after a company paid lunch? That is a huge limitation and why many survey companies are now offering “pulse” surveys that ask fewer questions more frequently throughout the year.

Second, I asked my friend what a “good” manager looks like at the company. He didn’t have a definition except to say “they are competent.” That tells me that either the company doesn’t define good management or the definition hasn’t reached my friend. Either way not a great scenario.

After some further discussion, I came to the conclusion that our “good” manager was scoring high because he was friendly and flexible with his team. He basically let them do whatever they wanted. His employees loved him because they could work the hours they wanted and they picked their own work.  All good qualities but his easy-going nature negatively affected his peers in the department:

  • Employees picked the projects they wanted to work on making employees happy but not always matching the best skills for every project
  • His team was not always fully staffed at critical rush periods causing other teams in the department to pick up the slack

The engagement survey wasn’t wrong; it was measuring employee perceptions and this mangers team loved him. The survey either did not take into account peer feedback or peer feedback was restricted to a higher level of management data than my friend had access to.

In my friends case I can’t say much about the survey because I don’t know what the survey was supposed to measure and I haven’t seen the results. But stating that a manager is “the best” likely over- simplifies the results. A good HR pro should be closely aligned with the business and knows when results are questionable.  If you see surprising results, question it. Look into it further before anointing someone as a great manager. Survey data can have a huge impact on the workplace. But it is only a tool to guide us in the right direction.

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Melissa Fairman

Melissa Fairman is the author of the blog HR Remix and has five years experience working in HR. She's super awesome and has an MBA with an HR concentration from Baldwin Wallace College and a PHR certification from the HRCI institute. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter at @HRRemix.

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