An epidemic of employee surveys is killing knowledge and wisdom. Fueling this epidemic are two erroneous beliefs: 1) anyone candesign and administer an employee survey effectively; and 2) the results of employee surveys are the property of management. I want to address each of these myths and maybe succeed in immunizing a few readers against further spread of the disease.

Myth 1: Anyone Can Do It. Many managers seem to think, “How hard can it be? It’s just a list of questions, followed by a numbered scale. The hardest part is deciding whether to use a three, five, seven, or nine point scale.” (A typical question I get is, “We’re doing a survey; how many points should we have on the scale?”) Unfortunately, commercial online survey services like SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang have contributed to the perpetuation of this myth. In the hands of a professional, these services are extremely valuable tools, but in the hands of a novice, they can cause more harm than good. There is an art and a science to survey design. It takes expertise to design and administer a survey that gives everyone confidence that the responses are valid, reliable, and useful.

I've been reminded of this myth listening to the national health-care reform debate: every day another survey with different results. The explanation is that it depends on how you ask the question, to whom you ask it, and when you ask it. Dalia Sussman’s column in the N.Y. Times talks about how this makes a difference in health-care surveys. The headline for her column says it all:

Myth 2: Management Owns the Data. Employees who take the time to thoughtfully fill out a survey in good faith are the real owners of the data. They expect that the results will be interpreted competently and will influence decisions in the organization. It is their data and they deserve to have it respected and used responsibly. This means giving them an opportunity to explain their answers in greater depth than can be measured in a survey. And it means their attitudes and opinions are used in decision-making. If an organization cannot provide an opportunity for feedback and reflection and does not intend to use the data for decision-making, management should not conduct the survey. Otherwise, employees will lose trust in leadership. If the survey is intended to promote engagement, it will have the opposite effect.

A survey can be a very useful tool for assessing employee opinions and attitudes, as well as building employee engagement, but only if it is designed, administered, and followed-up in a professional way. It’s not a job for amateurs!