5 tips for interpreting employee survey results

Why communicators should love data.

RCG co-founder Jim Ylisela is crazy about data and loves to torture young writers about its joy. 

Many moons ago, in the Before Times, I taught journalism in the master’s program at Northwestern’s Medill School. One of my favorite units was … wait for it … budgets.

Rows of numbers. Spreadsheets. Data galore. I tried to keep track of how many students said (and this is a direct quote), “I went to journalism school because I didn’t think there would be any math.” Then I lost count because everyone said it.

But here’s the thing: Data is cool. (Or should it be data are cool?) Numbers can be quite revealing and tell compelling stories if you know what to do with them.

Communicators—the brand journalists I work with today—are just like those students of mine. They don’t like numbers, either, and do their best to avoid them.

But ducking the digits will only hurt your career. Your company is awash in numbers that tell stories. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is more than counting heads; you need to track employment by job category and movement up and through the org chart (or not). Can you write a vivid account of your company’s sustainability efforts by wading through an Environmental, Social and Governance filing? Can you explain your company financials so clearly that employees understand what success looks like and their part in making it happen?

And so it goes with communications measurement. Last week, Katrina Gill and I spoke to a packed room at Ragan Communications’ employee communications conference. Our goal: Help the communicators in the room discover the beauty—and the benefits—of good data.

This is the time to get onboard. Last fall’s HarrisX/Ragan survey of CEOs and other corporate leaders found that the bosses are finally paying close attention to internal communications. They think it’s important, but they also think it needs work, the survey found.

And how do you make internal comms better? By finding out what’s working, what isn’t and what you can make better. Audits include quantitative and qualitative measures, but data—trends, gaps, lows and highs—is at the heart of every assessment.

Here are five tips for finding and interpreting data from employee surveys:

1. Use a five-point measure. For all you nerds out there, it’s called a Likert Scale. It allows you to distinguish between “strongly agree” and “agree” on the top end, “disagree” and “strongly disagree” on the bottom, and “neutral” in the middle.

    • Note the gap between the answers. A 58% overall agreement looks pretty good, but only 10% “strongly agree” is less reassuring.
    • Watch the totals on the bottom end. Anything above a combined 10% to 15% for “disagree” and “strongly disagree” is a red flag.

2. And what about those “neutral” responses? Surveys are anonymous. For someone not to be able to commit to either level of agree or disagree means they’re on the fence. To us, a high number of neutral responses spell opportunity. They are a story unto themselves. Imagine the impact of moving 25% or 30% of responses to the positive side of the ledger.

3. Analyze only the demographics that matter. Asking survey respondents to identify themselves in various ways makes surveys longer and can make anonymous survey takers nervous. Ask the “So what?” question. Will the answer reveal any insights into the workforce? Or will it tell us something we already know?

    • Since the pandemic, we have been measuring the impact of hybrid, remote and onsite work on overall satisfaction with internal comms. The trend: People who need to be on the job (nurses, production workers, etc.) find themselves less served by the overwhelmingly digital communications so easily accessible to people working at home.
    • Pay attention to managers. Do employees feel adequately informed by their direct supervisors? And just as important: Do managers believe they’re getting what they need from the top to better inform their teams? The answers are in the data.

4. Measure levels of employee awareness. It’s not enough to ask if employees are “aware” of the company’s strategic plan or latest initiative. Most are aware because these announcements are usually accompanied by some kind of fanfare, like a company meeting or a promotional campaign.

That doesn’t tell you enough. Besides being aware of the strategic plan, do employees understand it? And the most important question of them all: Do they understand what it means to their job or department? Effective storytelling can help to close the gaps between these three measures.

5. Provide options for change. When polling your audience about your communications channels, ask how you can improve them. Give employees a list of choices and allow them to vote for as many as they like. Include an open-ended “other” category for write-in votes.

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