Employee Pulse Surveys: Fad or Solution?

Technology and access to the internet have combined to give us the latest craze in employee engagement measurement: pulse surveys. Proponents of the pulse survey tool argue that shorter surveys, done more frequently, will cost less and result in better response rates. While those arguments may be true, they are not necessarily always true. Here are some counterarguments to consider:

  • Pulse surveys may not be shorter. Although pulse surveys are meant to be shorter (about ten questions) than regular surveys, they are also much easier for HR managers to implement. So often, with additional input from other departments and managers, the survey expands and grows until it is almost as long as the traditional survey, with 30 or more questions. Obviously, this defeats the purpose of pulse surveys!
  • Pulse survey response rates may not be better. Research has shown that the main reason for low participation in employee surveys is lack of belief that management will act on the information. Many years ago, we were approached by the HR department of a major hospitality company. The economy was bad, the company had cut bonuses, and morale was suffering. The EVP of HR decided an employee engagement survey was needed to determine what the company could do to address the problem. We prepared a proposal and went with the EVP to sell the project to the CEO of the company. The CEO listened, but decided against the project because, “If we do a survey, they will expect us to do something, and we simply can’t until the economy picks up.” And he was right. Each and every time we survey employees, whether about engagement or where to hold the annual holiday party, we create an expectation the feedback will be used in decision-making.
  • Pulse surveys may not cost less. While the individual price point for a DIY pulse survey may be attractive, you should consider both how frequently you plan on running the pulses, and how long you expect each pulse to be. When you add everything up and consider the type of information that you can collect in a pulse survey, you may not be getting the bargain you think you are. 

The bottom line is that employee pulse surveys should not take the place of your annual, full-blown employee engagement tracking survey. They can, however, help to supplement that information by occasionally gauging employee reaction to specific topics. Here are some best practices for conducting employee pulse surveys:

  • Survey only as frequently as you can react. If you have not yet responded to or communicated about the results of the previous survey (and the decisions/actions that follow), don’t release another pulse survey. Employees will believe you don’t use their feedback and will be reluctant to respond.
  • Keep it short. Limit your pulse surveys to ten questions on one or two topics maximum. And stick to your guns! Resist the temptation to add another topic or a few more questions “as long as we’re doing the survey anyway.”
  • Plan pulse surveys within the context of an annual calendar. What else is going on during the time you are planning to send a pulse survey to employees. Is it the busy production season? Do many employees have vacations planned? Have you just completed employee compensation and benefits reviews? Just as we avoid surveying consumers during the December holiday, plan the timing of your pulse surveys for maximum response.
  • Frequency matters. Most companies using pulse surveys limit the surveys to those quarters when they are not fielding their major annual employee engagement survey. If the topic is of great interest to employees, you might be able to get away with one or two additional pulse surveys per year. Watch for signs that you have over-surveyed and give it a rest as appropriate.
  • Keep it light. The tone and approach of your pulse surveys can be more light-hearted and entertaining to differentiate from your annual, full-scale employee survey. Of course, you must still observe marketing research best practices in question and response scale wording and design, but you can make the experience a little more fun if that fits your corporate culture and the topic of the survey.

Pulse surveys are not the panacea to all the challenges of employee surveys, but they can be a useful tool. They can also be a very cost-effective way to gain additional information to clarify the results of a more traditional employee engagement program. If you use the tool appropriately and understand that it is not a replacement for employee engagement tracking, pulse surveys can deliver good information cost-effectively.

Need help designing your Annual Employee Survey or Pulse Surveys? Contact Us!

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