When asking employees for feedback it’s essential that you achieve a high response rate in order to ensure that data is representative. But it’s just as important to focus on the quality of the feedback you receive. Are employees actually being honest when providing answers? Or are they simply randomly ticking boxes, because their manager told them they needed to complete the survey? After all – no matter how high the response rate – if you don’t believe the data paints an accurate picture of people’s views, then how can you use it to make good decisions?

Research in this area is limited, but expert opinion highlights that the factors that impact honesty in employee surveys can be broadly grouped into two main categories – those related to organisational culture (including psychological safety, confidentiality, improvement/action, purpose, communication), and those related to survey content design (including question design, language, survey layout, response scales etc.)

In this post I’m going to focus on the first group by describing four important culture-related tactics that can encourage honesty in employee feedback. In essence these approaches all try to help create a positive, psychologically secure environment in which employees feel safe to speak up, trust that their feedback data will be respected/safeguarded, and that it will help to drive positive outcomes.

1. Deliver confidentiality
Guaranteeing that employees’ responses are either confidential or anonymous is one way to establish an element of trust in the feedback process, and for some initiatives this is entirely appropriate. Employees are more likely to give honest answers if they trust they cannot be identified and so won’t suffer any repercussions from revealing something they are concerned about.

You can reassure employees about anonymity and confidentiality by leaving them to decide if they want to disclose any potential identifiers – such as age, gender, tenure etc – or exclude them completely. The only thing that needs to be compulsory is a respondent’s location within the organisation’s structure – which is required in order to allocate the data/insights to the right place for reporting purposes.

However, there are circumstances in which it’s less appropriate or beneficial to respondents if their feedback is anonymised. For example, it’s impossible to respond to a specific employees’ issue or concern if their identity is protected. This means you need to encourage a culture of trust and transparency, where employees feel safe and are therefore happy for their feedback to be protected and confidential, rather than simply anonymous.

2. Act on the feedback
On the face of it, confidentiality would seem to be the key factor in getting honest employee feedback. But some research suggests that acting on the feedback received actually has a bigger influence.

When you ask employees for their views you set up an expectation that something will change or happen as a result. If it looks like nothing changes, employees will see no benefit in responding honestly.

In fact, research from Cornell showed “that when faced with a questionnaire, 26% of respondents said they withheld information about problems or ideas for workplace improvement purely out of a sense of futility.”

Breaking this cycle is vital to increasing honesty. Therefore, show that you value feedback and give clear explanations of where it has been used to make changes. If it hasn’t been possible to take action, clearly explain why. This will drive greater honesty moving forward.

3. Be clear about your purpose
You should have a clear purpose for requesting feedback and this needs to be articulated and understood by employees. Explain the benefits that are likely to be seen in exchange for their feedback: “we are asking you for your feedback because…….., based on the results we will ……..”

You should also be open about how the data will be used, where it will be stored, and who will have access to it. The constant media stories about data breaches and selling of personal information means providing reassurance on these issues is an important part of the purpose message.

4. Communicate before, throughout and after the feedback period
Clear and honest communication of the survey purpose, the feedback results, and what the organisation will/is doing with the insights gained is essential.  Don’t stop communicating about your feedback survey once it’s up and running. You need to keep a dialogue with employees during the feedback period and after the data has been received. Post-feedback communication should include the survey results, both good and bad, committing to actions that will rectify issues identified, delivering on those commitments, and closing the loop by letting employees know what has been done and the improvements achieved.

And remember that communication should not be one way – employees should be given opportunities to raise any concerns they may have.

For employee feedback insights to effectively drive improvements, responses need to be representative of the target feedback population AND honest. To encourage greater honesty, organisations should work to build a culture of trust and transparency in which employees’ are confident that their feedback will be used in an appropriate way, and therefore feel able and motivated to respond honestly.

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