Employee Satisfaction Surveys. a Time for Honesty?

Banner image for the article

From time to time we encounter a survey sent out to all staff to check on employee engagement. If people were to answer these honestly it would give executives and HR an amazing insight to the culture of the company; but, sadly, most people do not feel like they can answer them honestly.

I could write an entire article about psychological safety and workplace engagement, but I’ll save that for another time. Instead, this article is about what happened when I did answer the survey honestly. I’ll talk about the response from the organisation, and what happened in my thoughts, but first some background.

# Background

I’d been at my employer for around one year. I started on a product team (the team I was in, and several others, developed the web interface for the service we offered), and after 7 months with the organisation I was assigned to a newly formed cross-functional team for a consolidation project.

Although I worked with some amazing people in the first team, I never really felt like I’d properly integrated. The new team was different, we all got on well and we were open with each other. Despite a massive variation in experience and age, the team acted like a very mature, long-standing team. There’s a lot of research about the benefits of long-standing teams, so I won’t cover that here, but within a few weeks the team had developed a level of openness and trust that often takes months to develop.

Part of the reason for the rapid bonding of the team was likely due to the shared view that the project was likely to fail. Externally, expectations were set high and support was low; we knew there would be conflicting priorities and that we would be required to support other projects to the detriment of our primary project. As a team we also struggled to see the benefit of the project in relation to the company’s stated values and goals. I think it would be fair to say we bonded over a shared disillusionment and disengagement with the workplace.

Within the team, and also across the wider organisation, there was a reluctance for anyone to speak up about issues. Nobody wanted to rock the boat, people were concerned they would be punished (or at least restrict their chances of promotion within the organisation) if they raised any issues. I was a bit different, I’m passionate about employee wellbeing, I was willing to be vocal, and I would actively seek out ways to raise my concerns with appropriate people.

My passion for employee wellbeing came at a price, but it was a price I was willing to pay. I was placed on performance management, I was overlooked for potential promotion, and some people saw me as a trouble-maker. Although the performance management had an impact on me and played a significant part in my disengagement from the organisation, I could cope with the other issues as long as it was for the greater good.

When I was placed on performance management, one of my reactions was to stop being vocal about problems. When I did this I found that the “performance” issue went away. As the performance management period ended and I became more vocal again, the warnings restarted. At this point I disengaged, I started looking for a new employer, I stopped raising my concerns and I just went about doing the minimum required to fulfil my job.

# Actions and Reactions

Not long after this, two things happened. The first was an engagement survey was sent out to all staff; the second was the 1 year anniversary of my employment which triggered a meeting with HR to get feedback on my experiences and thoughts.

When these two events happened I was in a place that not many people will encounter. I was disengaged from my role, I was (and still am) passionate about employee wellbeing, and my skills are in demand so job security is low on my priority list. This combination of mindset and external factors allowed me to be completely honest in my assessment of the organisation. The people in HR knew me well enough that they would be able to identify my survey responses from my writing style, and the one year check-in was face-to-face, there was nowhere to hide.

I provided my honest opinion to all the questions in the survey, I gave honest feedback in the check-in interview (including using stronger terms about issues I’d mentioned in the six month check-in). To the question (and I paraphrase), “How often do you think about leaving?” I answered “frequently”.

Unsurprisingly, this caused a bit of a stir. The results of the check-in are normally forwarded to my line manager, in this case they also went further up the chain of command (I think this unusual, but I am not certain). I was invited to meetings with senior staff so we could openly discuss some of the issues; I was asked to document some of what I perceived as issues; I made suggestions about how I would like to see some things improved. The response was amazing, the company had found someone who was willing to be open and honest, and they weren’t going to miss the chance to get as much from me as they could. Unfortunately, without some massive changes in a very short space of time, there was little hope of me staying at the organisation.

Not long after this experience I found a new role, this allowed me to become even more open; I hadn’t realised the culture of the organisation was still holding back my openness, but as I was answering questions in the exit interview I started to realise there were things I hadn’t said. I opened up even further and again the response was above what I expected. It led to another flurry of meetings and emails so the company could get as much from me as possible before I left.

One of the final actions before I left was a half-day session to review the progress, impacts and learnings of the major project my second team was a part of, and the outline the roadmap for the future of the project. In this meeting I saw that some of my concerns were being addressed by the executive team; I also got validation that some of my concerns were not specific to me but were more widespread. I also saw some examples of people not feeling safe to raise issues, so I raised these observations with appropriate people.

# What Did I Learn

Although I struggled at various times while I was with this employer, I ultimately look back at my time as a positive experience, especially near the end of my tenure. When I allowed my unfiltered feelings to become known I found the company was much more willing to respond to my concerns. When the company realised I wasn’t just venting and that I was truly wanting things to improve, they listened much more intently.

I believe there are a large number of influences that caused me to be more open, and also that made the organisation more interested in listening to me; many of these are not appropriate to be covered in here, but I think some are okay to disclose. I know the company believes their staff attrition rate is too high (even thought it’s comparable to industry averages), so this likely played a part. I know that the attrition rate of staff in a particular project is above average and the company is actively working to resolve this through cultural changes at senior levels and through greater transparency. I know I changed during my employment at this company and I grew significantly as a person and in confidence levels.

If the knowledge I have now was available to me at the start of my employment I believe the situation would have been significantly different in my mind. Likewise, if management had the understanding on me that they now have, I believe my journey in the company would have been structured very differently, and I may not have received an offer for the particular role I held (I may have received one for a very different role though).

# Conclusion

After this experience, I’ve recognised the value of being open and honest in feedback to an employer. If you find a senior staff member that is willing to give you the psychological safety to be open, embrace the opportunity, show your emotions, tell them about the small issues before they become big ones.

Employers, remember to listen to your staff, provide safe avenues for the to provide both positive and negative feedback. If someone is willing to put their name to some feedback make sure they know it’s been heard and let them know what actions it has triggered (or if it isn’t going to be actioned). Most importantly, listen to the small issues and resolve them before they become larger ones.

# But That’s Not All

While writing this article I realised that people internal to the situation may think I’m saying too much in a public forum; some people may also interpret this article as being harsh on the company. This was not the intent of this article, the intent of this article is to highlight the importance of being open and honest with the right people and to show that, when handled correctly in the context of an organisation, negative feedback can be beneficial to all involved.

Despite how this article may sound, I would actually recommend this employer to a lot of people. For those who are extremely passionate about employee wellbeing, this would be a fantastic place to be in the executive team; there is a passion for improvement and you could make a real difference to the lives of many. For developers who are not yet ready to launch into management this is a great place with some amazing tech and people, and I know many people who are very happy working there. The only people this employer is not likely to suit is those who are in a position similar to where I was, those who are wanting to break into a leadership role, but are currently in a technical role; when I left this employer it wasn’t the sort of place that was able to facilitate this journey, but I think this will likely change in the future.