Some days it feels like it’s raining surveys and certifications. That’s when my inbox is flooded with solicitations to get certified in yet another survey methodology. Every survey methodology claims to be better designed and more accurate than the last in terms of measuring culture and employee feelings about the organization.

For over 25 years, I have been helping to create organizations where employees love to do their best work and customers love to do business. I use surveys and other methods to measure diversity, equity, and inclusion in organizational cultures. While surveys are useful, they can also be misused and create problems.

I was recently called by the CEO of a midsize organization who conducted a generic survey that promised to measure inclusion and engagement. Based on the survey results, she thought they had a real inclusive culture, and everyone loved working there. The company decided they didn’t need to make any changes. But, in reality, there was a large degree of discontent.

Black and Latinx employees felt underutilized, invisible, and were continuing to leave. Young LGBT employees complained of hearing homophobic jokes and people were stuck in silos.

Why was there a discrepancy between the survey results and reality?

The CEO decided that bringing in an outside person was too expensive, so she bought an off-the-shelf survey instrument and it was administered by someone in-house.

After they brought us in and we spoke with employees, we were we discovered three themes.

  1. A substantial number of people didn’t fill out the survey because they didn’t understand why it was important.
  2. Some people of them were afraid that it wasn’t anonymous and were worried about retaliation.
  3. Other people didn’t put any thought into their answers because they didn’t trust the results would make a difference.

“Senior management doesn’t talk to us anyway, so why should we think our opinions, feelings and perspectives count,” stated one employee in middle management. Another employee in customer service asked, “Why didn’t anyone talk to us and ask what we need in order to feel included and participate?”

Beginning of the “fix”

When they brought us in, we began to talk to people. We spent time with the leadership team, observed the culture and how people interacted. We developed a strategy to quickly engage people at different levels and build trust in the data-gathering process.

Our process included individual interviews, facilitated focus groups, and diagnostic dialogues with different groups of employees. We created a customized survey with half the amount of questions and doubled the participation.

Based on our results, the CEO understood three things:

  1. A survey measuring the health of an organization’s culture needs to be customized in a way that is relevant to its employees.
  2. A survey is simply a way of measuring certain aspects of the organization’s culture. It is not a solution and unless you engage your employees you won’t get the data you need to move forward.
  3. A survey alone will only provide quantitative data. It’s necessary to get qualitative data through examples and stories.

A survey does not build relationships in your organization

According to Rajeev Peshawaria, author of “Open Source Leadership: Reinventing Management When There's No More Business As Usual,” "To earn trust, [a leader] should have demonstrated all along that he cared about his employees and should not have waited until the survey to find out that there was a morale problem. Surveys are a very poor substitute for daily face-to-face communication. The idea is to create enough trust such that people can speak up without having to hide behind surveys.”

It’s too common for organizations to want the easiest, softest, cheapest way to assess culture with a generic survey. Based on a survey, they make a few window-dressing changes like sending everyone to bias training.

As we worked with the CEO and the rest of the organization, it became easier for the CEO to move out of her comfort zone and listen to employee feedback without getting defensive.

Conducting interviews and focus groups helped increase employee engagement and investment in building a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) culture. That could never have happened with a survey alone.

Also, the CEO was able to use different data points to engage in conversation with employees with who she didn’t normally interact. While we were developing a baseline to help the organization meet its challenges and achieve a great culture while at the same time, the interaction between employees and senior management is moving the organization closer to its DEI goals.

Creating an inclusive culture where employees love to do their best work requires interaction and engaging people in conversations. You set the example when you listen and learn from their feedback and ideas, as opposed to relying on an impersonal, generic survey.

A survey alone is an event that won’t lead to long term change. Inclusive cultures are forged through long-term strategy, long-term relationships and long-term vision.

The real stories are told by the people who work in your organization, your customers, and people who have left.

Ultimately, even after you view the results of focus groups, interviews and a survey, it’s up to you, the board and the executive team to take the actions, make the changes, and engage people at every level and across every dimension of diversity to create an inclusive culture that lasts.