Employee Surveys: More is Not Necessarily Better- A Pulse Survey Strategy that Makes Sense

The annual employee survey is under fire because leaders think it doesn’t work well and has little to no value. At the same time, there are thought leaders and vendors purporting that doing MORE of them is the answer!? Our view: strong disagreement. Adamant about results and ROI, we are providing some guidance on when and how to conduct pulse surveys in this post. But, let’s first start with an analogy for any of you monthly pulse-sayers.

Is Continuous Listening to Your Body Effective?

Consider a simple analogy that most anybody can probably relate to – weight loss. Let’s say you set a personal goal to lose 20 pounds over a three-month period. That seems aggressive, but reasonable. Now, by using the same logic as “continuous listening,” you would weigh yourself at least twice a day, every single day. You don’t have to do anything other than weigh yourself more frequently – it can be called “continuous listening to our bodies.” If that is all you do for the next three months, it’s probably safe to say that you won’t meet your goal of losing 20 pounds. The point? Measurement (or listening) by itself is not the desired outcome.

So, continue with the analogy, but with our four steps for employee surveys as the framework: (1) Listen to employees to uncover how you can help the business; (2) Diagnose drivers of business results; (3) Take action to improve those key drivers; and (4) Demonstrate impact. Using this approach, our recommended plan would be as follows:

  1. Listen to your body – Take a baseline measurement and weigh yourself. Let’s say you weigh 200 pounds and want to lose 20 pounds (target weight of 180 pounds).
  2. Identify the drivers of being overweight – Identify root causes of your current weight. For example, you are only working out one day a week and eating no breakfast, a fast-food lunch, and a large dinner on most workdays.
  3. Take action to improve those key drivers – Build an action plan and execute against that plan. You decide to work out three days a week and start eating balanced meals, which include eating breakfast and packing a healthy lunch every day.
  4. Demonstrate impact – Measure to assess the impact of the plan and make adjustments to your action plan for the next three months. At the end of three months, measure yourself again to see if you met your goal of losing 20 pounds. Imagine that you lost 15 pounds and feel much better. At this point you could set a new goal, revisit root causes and make adjustments in your action plan. You know what you did was working since you lost 15 pounds, but you decided to increase your workout routine of three days a week from 45 minutes to an hour, as well as reduce the number of meals eaten out during the weekend.


SMD has found that clients perform best on business outcomes and survey results when they survey annually and in alignment with their fiscal year so that the survey becomes a business process and not an outlier event. A check-in pulse survey at the mid-year point is useful but only if it is going to be used strategically. Just doing a pulse to see if a score is moving will make employees less likely to take the next survey that is asked of them. In the weight loss example, you should probably measure your weight a time or two between the baseline measurement and the target date, but build those check-ins (pulses) based on a strategy. Maybe a once a week weigh-in to check on progress makes sense for the three-month period, but measuring yourself twice a day makes NO sense.

Key Elements & Approaches

The approach in the weight loss example mirrors how everyone should measure employee attitudes. The organization should identify the business objectives of the survey process (and YES this should be around a tangible business outcome – not engagement scores or listening or other NON-business outcomes) and build a measurement process around achieving those business objectives.

So, our recommendation: a pulse survey strategy should be based on two key elements: (1) driving actual business outcomes and (2) helping struggling leaders.

How do you follow these approaches? Read our white paper “More Data or Better Data? A Pulse Survey Strategy That Makes Sense” or reach out directly to our director of research & analytics, Dr. Hannah Spell at hspell@smdhr.com to learn how you can make a difference in your organization.

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