If you recognize the quote above, congratulations – you have excellent taste in TV viewing.  In Season 2, Episode 13 of The Big Bang Theory – The Friendship Algorithm – one of the stars of that excellent series, Sheldon, develops a survey to determine why his current friends like him.  His survey is 211 questions long and, as he reassures another character, Penny, it should take no longer than 3 hours to complete.  In response, Penny questions whether the survey is the best way to approach the paradigm of making friends.  Before an employer uses a survey in the workplace, that same question should be asked.  When is a workplace survey appropriate?

Personally, I’m on the fence about workplace surveys.  There are many pros and cons to be considered.  Plus, the conditions under which surveys are conducted can really impact the efficacy of the results.  In fact, just since my last column, I’ve taken and re-taken several on-line quizzes which can be used by employers to assess their employees’ skills.  I got different results each time, and while I completed them in the same location (my office), I can tell you that – for example – the weather conditions outside my window were different (sunny vs. cloudy), just like my attitudes on those days (also, sunny vs. cloudy) were different, as well.  The point is that there are factors outside your control when you administer a workplace survey, and those factors can have a big impact on your results.  Also remember that the survey is a snapshot in time.  You should consider this when you evaluate the information you receive from the survey.

If you do choose to use a workplace survey, one suggestion for controlling certain environmental factors is to conduct the surveys in-person, in a group setting.  This has several advantages.  First, you tend to get much higher participation rates than if you ask that an online or mail-in survey be completed.  Second, you can control the atmosphere in which the survey is taken.  Lighting, temperature, timing – all of these can be adjusted to ideal conditions.  Finally, anonymity (perceived or actual) is enhanced in the group setting.  Employees believe that their emails can be tracked specifically, so using email to conduct a survey leaves a perceived trail back to the employee.  This perception can stifle free expression.  It is only through honest and open communication that you can obtain the information you need to improve your organization.

Speaking of this last point, let’s spend a moment talking about communication.  A workplace survey is one form of communicating between employees and management.  Surveys allow an employer to obtain their employees’ views on a wide variety of subjects.  In turn, this can focus management on the areas of business in need of attention or on what it is doing right.  A good survey can empower employees to share new ideas which may otherwise go unheard because the employee can take a chance on voicing those ideas without fear of retaliation or humiliation.

A bad survey, on the other hand, can damage an organization.  Workplace surveys must have top management buy-in.  If your business is not willing to make changes based on what a survey reveals to you, then don’t use one.  It will kill the morale you were hoping to build with your employees when you ask them to be included in the change process and then never follow through.

Poor communication during the survey process can be damaging, as well.  You cannot assume that your survey is self-explanatory.  What is an employee to do when their answer is not included amongst the choices?  Who does an employee ask for clarification?  Beyond that issue, think big picture.  You should explain the purpose of the survey to your employees.  You also should communicate the results to them.  Additionally, you should narrow the topics the survey covers (211 questions with a 3 hour time expectation – whether about friendship or otherwise – would be an example of a bad survey).  Further, you should tailor the survey to your organization.  The surveys you find on-line won’t necessarily work for you or gather the information you require to meet your goals.

Workplace surveys have become ubiquitous.  Thoughtful use of them can have beneficial effects on your business.  However, there are obstacles to using surveys, too.  Overuse, failure to tailor, and lack of communication can lead to poor results from employees who simply won’t take the surveys seriously any more.  Don’t fall into the trap Sheldon made for himself.  In my view, use workplace surveys correctly, or don’t use them at all.


Vanessa Towarnicky's primary focus is in the area of labor and employment law. She has been involved in representing clients in various employment cases, including sexual harassment; deliberate intent; age, race, and disability discrimination; wrongful discharge; and various other employment-related torts. She is admitted to various state and federal courts as well as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
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