Call it the cardinal rule of surveying: If you aren’t willing to act on feedback, don’t ask for it.
But even if your company makes good on survey feedback through action planning, it can take months or even quarters before those efforts yield results. In some cases, you need a more immediate response — coming in the form of an acknowledgment from HR, a department head, or even executive leadership.
“Directly responding to survey comments is a good idea in situations where it may otherwise feel like feedback is being brushed aside,” said George Santos, Director of Talent Delivery at 180 Engineering. Filling out a survey shouldn’t feel like “shouting into the void,” in his words, but rather starting a dialogue. “If people are taking the time to express something, it is important that management takes the time to respond,” Santos said.
The problem? Survey anonymity encourages honest feedback but makes it hard to respond individually. With a recent update, Lattice empowers leaders to facilitate that dialogue without compromising privacy. We asked HR teams to share their tips for responding to employee survey feedback.
1. Don’t get defensive.
Psychological safety is core to surveying. You shouldn’t expect to receive honest feedback if you tend to react poorly to it. Before replying to survey feedback, HR leaders recommend weighing your tone — are you coming off as defensive? Ask others on your People team for a second (or third) opinion.
“No matter what, don’t be defensive. You’ll just make employees feel uncomfortable about expressing themselves in future surveys,” Santos said. Avoid describing your perspective on the issue if you disagree (or even agree) with what’s been shared. At this stage, focus on intake, acknowledgment, and next steps: “Thank you for your feedback, subject X is important to us, and this is what I’ll commit to doing next.”
“If employees feel confronted, they will regret being honest. Thank people when they express themselves and demonstrate that you are open to working towards solutions,” he said. Santos added that no matter the issue’s scope, word tends to spread if a manager or HR team came across as dismissive in a private response.
2. Pull in the right stakeholders.
As an HR professional, you already know to weigh your words carefully. That’s especially true with something as sensitive as survey feedback. Lattice empowers your team to pull in other stakeholders, like managers of managers and senior leadership, to craft the right message.
Still, be mindful of precisely who you decide to “loop in.” Experts shared that less experienced managers, or those who might be the subject of the feedback, likely shouldn’t be the ones responding directly. The experts we talked to recommended leaving that to the People team — even if those leaders are part of the behind-the-scenes deliberations.
“The problem starts when someone sees the negative feedback and starts acting chaotically, not knowing what to do next,” said Pamela Ilieva, Head of HR and Recruiting at Shortlister. Managers may fail to identify what warrants a response, or worse, contest the feedback and try to defend themselves. They may need to be reminded to “focus on the point of the message instead of who said what,” Ilieva added. Depending on the nature of the feedback shared, the feedback-giver may also be mortified to see their direct supervisor respond. Give your People team the last word on messaging and who gets to press “reply.”
3. Ask clarifying questions.
Kris Osborne, Chief of Staff at FinanceBuzz, uses employee engagement survey software to respond to anonymous feedback from his team. In cases where a comment might seem unclear, he doesn’t have to infer what the employee meant — he can just ask.
“Anytime someone gives constructive feedback, I can ask follow-up questions and for recommendations, all while keeping the individual anonymous,” Osborne said. For more widespread issues, his team continues that dialogue by meeting with select leaders or employees. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, doing so gave him a better understanding of his team’s most pressing challenges.
“The next step is to discuss this with your leadership team and get on the same page about how employees are feeling...We begin by having managers ask their teams about the data during one-on-ones or team meetings. That way we can collect more feedback, but also be transparent about the areas we need to improve,” he said.
4. Set realistic expectations.
But the dialogue shouldn’t stop there. HR leaders shared that it was just as critical to set expectations, especially for more systemic issues that won’t be resolved overnight. Be wary of overpromising.
“There will be, at times, bigger questions or topics raised that require more thought from leadership and the HR team,” said Kim Beaver, Director of HR at Shop LC. It isn’t enough to thank employees for their feedback around issues like equity and inclusion; you need to make it clear in your response what you plan to do next. Provide updates on progress and milestones along the way — either as an individual follow-up message or in a company-wide update, when appropriate.
“Some areas require a more systematic and strategic approach to make a lasting and impactful difference,” Beaver said. Rather than set expectations around how you’ll implement a solution from start to finish, share your next steps, like meeting with executive leadership, and follow up with more digestible updates.
5. Address issues broadly when you need to.
If you see the same feedback being shared across multiple departments, it might be time to acknowledge the elephant in the room. While responding to these comments in your engagement survey tool is a helpful start, consider bringing it up in a more public forum, too.
“For concerns around topics that impact the entire company — like safety measures, COVID updates, company policies — we ask that leaders address or answer them during our all-hands meetings,” Beaver said. Sharing commitments company-wide (while preserving anonymity) also fosters accountability. “Under this approach, we’ve seen a very positive response from our employees, and better employee survey results for feelings of being heard, appreciated, and validated for voicing questions or concerns.”
Doing so also sends a powerful message about what behavior is and isn’t tolerated.
“It’s the responsibility of the employer to condemn any offensive actions publicly and lay out a specific plan for addressing those issues,” said Cara Hunter, Senior Vice President of Talent and Culture of livingHR. “Swift, genuine reactions can solidify cultural norms and lead to a workplace where all employees feel a sense of safety, inclusion, and belonging.”
It’s one of engagement surveying’s most stubborn challenges: While anonymity facilitates more open and honest feedback, it makes it harder for leaders, managers, and HR teams to respond to comments individually. In the past, closing the loop on important issues or acknowledging a great piece of feedback wasn’t feasible without issuing broad statements or breaching employee trust.
With Lattice’s recent launch of anonymous comment replies, we’ve taken a major step in facilitating that dialogue. To learn more about the new feature, read our product update or request a demo from one of our engagement experts today.