Open-ended survey questions allow employees to speak up anonymously, offer context surrounding their multiple-choice and numeric survey responses, and provide additional understanding around topics of interest. These qualitative responses to open-ended questions can also feel empowering to employees because they want their voices to be heard.
Unfortunately, many organizations that gather employee input via surveys are reluctant to openly share responses to open-ended questions (aka “comments”). We see this scenario frequently:
A client includes an open-ended item on their engagement survey. Employees share feedback about how they are feeling and what is needed to improve their experience. This information never makes it past the internal survey team into the hands of those who can drive the most meaningful action.
In this post, we outline our point of view and provide guidance on how to best share comments.
Feedback is meant to be shared
When employees take time from their busy schedules to write responses to open-ended survey questions, they expect someone to read their feedback. Therefore it is up to the survey team to identify appropriate stakeholders and provide proper access to this information.
When deciding who should have access to this data, consider the following:
- Leaders (managers, frontline leaders, supervisors) who interact regularly with frontline employees often understand the day to day more than anyone else with comment access. As a result, they are often the people who come up with the most realistic and effective solutions.
- The maturity of your organization’s listening culture matters. When listening is a normal part of the working environment, comfort with providing access to open-ended data might be higher. On the other hand, if your organization is newer to this process, people might need time to build trust before giving leaders access to open-ended comments. In this case, it can be useful to only release comments to HR, the survey team, and the executive team.
- If providing open-ended verbatim comments does not feel like a good fit for your organization’s survey culture right now, you might consider only sharing high-level themes with leaders.
In all cases, it’s important to strike a balance between making information as accessible as possible while maintaining the trust of employees. Here are four guidelines to follow for building and maintaining trust.
1. Explain how comments will be shared
The process has more integrity if people know who is getting the data. Be upfront with employees about who will be reading their feedback. The best opportunity for this is to provide the information in the survey instructions. For instance, let employees know their comments will be reported verbatim to a specific level of leader in their department.
2. Protect anonymity
If you feel your leaders/managers will be able to know who said what, leverage the reporting options that are built into your reporting dashboard. For example, with the Qualtrics platform you can raise the minimum reporting threshold for open-ended comments to ensure greater anonymity.
The Qualtrics platform offers a wide range of options for releasing data and sharing responses to open-ended comments. For example, here are four ways to manage access.
1. Set Thresholds for Reporting Comments
Setting minimum thresholds for reporting comments restricts the dashboard from showing data if fewer than a specified number of people (e.g., 5 employees) provided responses. This also works when filters are added. Thus, if there were 10 people in the department (6 men, 4 women) and the Gender filter is applied to look at women, their data will not be visible because the sample size (n=4) did not meet or exceed the reporting threshold of 5 individuals. This helps to protect confidentiality and prevent the people leader from knowing who said what.
2. Set Separate Thresholds for Numeric Responses Vs. Comments
Different thresholds can be used for numeric/quantitative data and open-ended comments. If you are concerned the minimum reporting threshold is too low for the open-ended comments, you might decide to set a higher threshold for the qualitative data to protect anonymity (because sometimes it can be easier to determine “who said what” from comment voice). This might look like a threshold of 5 responses for numeric data and a threshold of 8 responses for open-ended comments.
3. Utilize Distinct Roles Based on Users
It is possible to give access that varies by dashboard role or user type. For instance, you might decide admin users and executives can see all comments, but managers can see comments only if their team has more than 30 survey responses. There is flexibility in thresholds across different user profiles.
4. Distribute Comments Manually
If leaders will be receiving their survey information as a report instead of via dashboard access, open-ended data can still be shared with them by downloading the comments manually from the dashboard. This can also be a useful way to control the level at which the comments are viewed. For instance, you might decide each leader should have comment access at the department level instead of the team level due to small team sample sizes. This can be achieved using filters in the dashboard.
3. Prepare leaders
It is important to provide those who will be reading the open-ended comments with the right skills. We suggest holding an informational meeting or training to discuss how this data should be (and should NOT be) used. First and foremost, it will be critical to speak with these leaders about psychological safety and trust. Employees are providing potentially vulnerable information, and leaders should respond in a way that makes people feel safe to voice their opinion now and into the future. This includes responding to feedback at the group or team-level and not singling people out, disclosing any details that might identify a person, or play “who said what.” Leaders should never argue or debate with these comments and should thank employees for providing insight. It can also be useful to coach leaders in handling difficult feedback because the comments might include suggestions for them personally.
4. Base actions on overall themes – not specific comments
When leaders are determining where to focus, they should think big picture. It can be counterproductive to focus on a single comment. Instead, they should read for themes that describe what many employees are feeling or suggesting – this way the impact is wider when changes are made.
Your employee listening approach should be adapting and changing as your organization evolves. Work to build trust as the first step of your feedback-sharing plan. This will provide the foundation needed to make both qualitative and quantitative date available to everyone – not just HR and senior executives. Remember that broadening access to employee feedback will ultimately help to inspire constructive action.