• Abigail Sullivan

Are You Really Getting The Truth Out Of Employees From Workplace Surveys?

Updated: May 16, 2019


Written by Karla Chavez Hernandez.

Whether you are an employer trying to understand how satisfied employees are with the company or trying to understand how they perceive a change of structure or leadership- employee satisfaction and engagement surveys are needed to help you gain insight and understanding into your workplace culture. The practice of market research is not constrained to solely understanding consumers tastes and preferences, it can be applied to develop strategic initiatives aimed at improving employee morale as well.

Palmer Morrel-Samuels wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review that talks about workplace surveys “Getting the Truth into Workplace Surveys”, with ensuring anonymity as a vital consideration when thinking about workplace surveys. That is what I want us to think about on this post. Its natural, if an employee perceives that leadership or fellow colleagues will be able to trace back their responses how honest do you think they will be?

Another takeaway from Palmer’s article is that surveys should be 20 minutes or shorter. In an ideal world, all surveys would be less than 20 minutes; however, when thinking about workplace surveys, timing is of vital importance. After all, employees will be needing to take time of their work schedule to answer it.

Having numeric scale questions and measurements are useful and can help you gain an understanding. As Palmer mentions upfront in the article: “United Parcel Service was hit by a costly strike just ten months after receiving impressive marks on its regular annual survey on worker morale. Although the survey had found that overall employee satisfaction was very high, it had failed to uncover bitter complaints about the proliferation of part-time jobs within the company, a central issue during the strike”. Having 120 scale and measurement questions is not only tiring to the employee, but also not the best approach to use in a “short survey”.

If we tie both anonymity and the amount of time spent on workplace surveys, we can challenge the effectiveness of the traditional workplace survey. Even when employees feel comfortable and secure to write down their responses, if you only include scale and measurement questions that will ultimately get you to a percentage, can you really understand how employees feel?

Let’s think about behavioral economics and how some principles can help us create efficient workplace surveys.

Daniel Kahneman, one of the most renowned and influential economists in history, in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” talks about the two different brains. The System 1 brain being the fast, automatic, and non-conscious brain, working under the service of consciousness. The brain that will lock your front door, without truly thinking about it. While the System 2 brain is the slow and conscious way of thinking, the brain that kicks in while some time later and asks “did I lock the front door”?

Using those scale and measurement questions mentioned earlier, would active a System 2 response. If we circle back to our point around anonymity, if an employee is answering a survey about the employer those questions would require them further thought. The answers that you are getting come from their System 2 brain, responses that are logical and effortful. So then how can you make sure you are getting unconscious and automatic response of employees?


At Protobrand, we use System 1 research techniques in collaboration with such scale and measurement questions to “uncover human truths”. This phrase: “uncover human truths” is of vital importance to workplace surveys which translates to being able to understand how employees feel and think.

One of the System 1 research methods Protobrand uses is Metaphor Elicitation, a proven and tried technique for over 20 years. We apply a proprietary image library that serve to tap into the respondent's subconsciousness. If you are conducting a workplace survey and want to “hear” the voice of your employees and go into a topic more in depth, you would probably include an open ended question in the survey. With an open ended response you should be able to hear from your employee and gain a better understanding of that such topic. What we have found is that by using a traditional open ended response versus a Metaphor Elicitation question, the latter provides a significantly greater diversity of words compared to a traditional open end, thereby expanding the verbal universe including more emotional connections.


When employees are faced with an open ended question without any stimuli, they revert back to a more basic language. This basic language or a scale question is not insightful enough to tell employees how they feel and think. However, given that the brain processes visual stimuli below consciousness and 80% of communication is nonverbal with the use of visual metaphors you can get those thoughts and feelings that are much needed for workplace surveys. Let’s say a company is facing a rebranding or a change in leadership, ideally you would like to gain an understanding of how people feel about the change and what their thoughts are about the change.

However as Kahneman acknowledges, the two Systems are of relevance to look at. Hence, only looking at a visual exercise component without any reference to a System 2 way of thinking will not help you gain the “human truth” needed for these workplace surveys.

Another technique we use at Protobrand is Response Latency, a measure of implicit association inspired by academic experiments in which not only the frequency of responses is taken into account, but also the speed in which people select their responses. Let’s say you can give employees a pair of words to look at and you force them to make a selection on one of them that best associates the employer or a topic you wish to focus on. This technique is particularly helpful in workplace surveys, given you can have have scale questions or a metaphor elicitation question and both question types allows people to go back and think of their answers and they are the ones in power of deciding when to continue on with other questions in the survey.

With Response Latency, you are ensuring that you will be able to understand from employees what attributes or what characteristics live in their subconscious mind (represented by the stimuli being frequently selected and selected at a high speed), versus those that are more cognitive and rational (frequently selected but at a lower speed) or those that have a weak association (not frequently selected and selected at a low speed). This is helpful to understand and complement the findings uncovered in the other components of the study. Anonymity is a topic that we started talking about earlier and how it is fair to challenge if employees are answering surveys as honest as they can possibly be. Response Latency can act as a close honesty detector, as employees would select was first comes into their minds and without the opportunity to think about it for a long time as they would in other types of responses.


Workplace surveys are vital to understand how the company is performing and learning about how that performance and other goals track with the company’s most valuable resources, it’s employees. It is time that you explore the benefits and explore the importance of of both System 1 and System 2 question types in a survey will allow you to uncover the truth and ensure strategic vision across your entire organization.

Karla Chavez Hernandez is a Research Manager and Analyst at Protobrand's Boston office who specializes in System 1 research applications ranging from employee engagement studies to brand tracking and beyond. For more information, please reach out to info@protobrand.com to learn how you can apply Meta4 Insight, our proprietary research software to your next employee engagement study."


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