Wharton’s Dr Peter Cappelli suggests in the August 3, 2020 Wall Street Journal C-Suite Strategies that employee surveys should be retired for six reasons.
While each of the reasons he cites might be true with certain surveys, I believe the better approach is to correct the concerns rather than to dispense with employee surveys. Further, the alternatives Cappelli offers also have weaknesses.
After reviewing his concerns and suggestions, I suggest a more actionable, proven approach that almost always has positive impact for the employees, company, and the customer.
Cappelli’s Six Reasons
- Too long – Solution: A properly designed survey that addresses issues important to the staff.
- Surveys might not be anonymous, which can result in fear of retribution and failure to give honest feedback. Solution: Use an outside administrator who can analyze results in a way that protects employee identity.
- Not representative – Solution: A well-designed survey can obtain 70-80% response rate, especially if it addresses barriers to success like lack of empowerment and needs for information and support from other departments.
- Not acted upon – Solution: Properly designed questions allow quantification of the payoff of action to include cost savings and customer satisfaction. Action requires commitment from executive management. Sometimes getting buy-in requires quantification of the cost of inaction, easy enough to do.
- Some managers do not look at results or act on them – Solution: Top management support and review of actions taken.
- Actions were precluded – Solution: Perhaps immediately, but never say never. Cappelli’s example that cafeteria food could not be fixed due to a contract ignored that the company could renegotiate contract in the future.
Dr. Cappelli suggests that other information sources can provide the company with better, more actionable information. Specifically, he suggests using:
- Pulse surveys that only ask about two or three things at a time.
- Concern: While response rate might be high, it would be more difficult to identify priorities across different issues identified in different surveys.
- Analysis of exit interviews
- Concern: Exit interviews are useful but looking the rear-view mirror often misses the full picture, especially barriers to job success such as broken processes.
- Analysis of project management software to identify bottlenecks
- Concern: This will only help with processes which are managed by software. Most inter-departmental support is informal and often the main source of frustration.
- Monitoring of employee chat rooms and employee emails
- Concern: Such monitoring raises far greater privacy concerns than employee surveys.
CCMC’s Employee Service Frustration Survey Approach
CCMC has found that identifying the frustrations (barriers and points of pain (POP)) that impede an employee’s ability to deliver service to their customers, whether internal or external, provides actionable data.
Results allow a company to make their operating employees more successful. This success, coupled with recognition, fit perfectly with the results of Dr. Paul Zak’s research as reported in the 2017 Harvard Business Review article entitled, The NeuroScience of Trust. 
Dr. Zak concludes that employees are successful when they have flexibility, tools, and authority for executing their processes. These plus ongoing recognition for their excellence results in higher oxytocin levels and high agreement with the statement, “I look forward to coming to work each day.”
CCMC’s frustration survey identifies the barriers to job success that Ted Nardin of 5th Talent calls “meaningful work.”
Such work includes activities that make a difference in someone else’s life, and, combined with the POP research, can predict with 65% accuracy an employee’s intent to leave the company.
Proper job design coupled with elimination of frustrations produces jobs that provide meaningful work with high employee and customer satisfaction.
The key aspects of the Employee Service Frustration Survey are:
- Ask employees about the prevalence of POP and frustrations in servicing their customers, whether internal or external. While the list can be 50-70 items, the items relate to specific aspects of the customer journey and, therefore, are relevant and involving, assuring strong response rates.
- The list is developed from interviews with employees as well as customer complaints. One of the most demoralizing interactions an employee has is handling an unhappy customer when the issue was not their fault (almost always the case), and/or they are not empowered to handle it.
- Set priorities by the amount wasted on the most serious issues as well as their damage to employees’ willingness to recommend the company as a good place to work.
- Gain advance commitment to action and drive action with an executive sponsor, not HR. Management must accept that there will always be bad news and heavy lifting.
- Use an outside administrator for guaranteed confidentiality.
The Extra Bonus Payoff of the CCMC Frustration Survey – Higher Customer Satisfaction
There is an extra bonus to fixing employee process POP and frustrations. In a half -dozen recent studies, CCMC has found a 50-70% overlap between primary employee POP and customer POP. Therefore, rectifying them creates a win-win-win for the company, the customer, and the employee.
In sum, while traditional employee surveys have earned well deserved cynicism, companies should employ outside administrators, ensure well-designed surveys, and ensure action on survey findings rather than throwing out the whole baby.
For more on this, read an article by me, Scott Broetzmann and Ted Nardin that provides much more detail on frustration surveys and the importance of meaningful work.
 Paul Zak, “The Neuro-Science of Trust”, Harvard Business Review, , Cambridge, MA, January, 2017