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.
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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.
Madison uses her experience in organizational science to diagnose problems and build solutions. With years of experience in applied research, Madison leverages her knowledge in research methods, design, and statistics to develop and administer assessments. She enjoys translating data for practical use and partnering with clients to create better workplaces.