Best Practices Employee Engagement
6 min read

Employee survey comments: How to interpret and take action

Fresia Jackson

Fresia Jackson

Senior People Scientist, Culture Amp

One of the great benefits of employee surveys is that they allow companies to collect feedback at scale. However, surveys can’t replace face-to-face conversations. Over the years surveys have evolved to better accommodate the need for both quantitative (numbers-based) and qualitative (written) insights.

For companies using the Culture Amp platform, all employee engagement questionseven those asked on a rating scale, also collect comments from employees. Here are some statistics we’ve found when it comes to adding comments to rating items: 

Employee survey comments infographic

So, if the percentage of people leaving comments on rating questions is small and they’re typically negative, do employee engagement survey comments matter?

Absolutely.

Open ended questions like “What’s one thing we’re doing great here?” have much higher participation rates (around 60%). In this guide, we’ll explain why all types of employee survey comments matter, and how to interpret and take action on them.

Why do employee survey comments matter?

People want to have their voices heard. One look at the explosion of social media and online rating sites like Yelp can tell us that. The same holds true in the workplace. Having an employee survey process is important and demonstrates that you want feedback from employees. Giving people the ability to provide feedback in their own words is equally valuable.

People often want to justify or add context to a response, and providing them with the ability to leave comments enables them to do that. Monique Hughes, Senior Customer Success Coach at Culture Amp says, “Not providing the ability to add comments can create a distinct source of friction in an employee survey.”

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When and how should you review employee survey comments?

There can sometimes be a desire to read the comments first. It’s satisfying to see what people are saying in writing, but it can be misleading to start your survey analysis with employee comments. That said, the question remains: when is the right time to review employee survey comments?

  1. When reviewing employee survey data, start with your participation rate. Make sure you have enough of your organization represented to be confident in the data. See this guide for the right employee survey response rate for your company’s size.

  2. Take a look at your overall engagement score. If you've surveyed over time you may also be comparing your score to historical results and other benchmarks.

  3. Check for outliers or significant differences. In the Culture Amp platform, we have guides that help you find the micro-cultures in your organizations - e.g. Is the Sales Department getting a result that is different from other departments. See how the Heatmap can help you find outliers.

  4. Use driver analysis, and within Culture Amp, the focus agent, to choose key areas for action.  

  5. Finally, once you’ve selected a focus area, use the comments to provide context to your action items. Depending on the volume of comments you may want to quickly assign them to your themes. This will place the comments into the analytical context you've already developed.

Monique advises customers to view comments as a secondary and supplementary data source. She also encourages caution in over-interpreting comments. “Don’t use comments to decide your focus area, use them to provide additional understanding. Once you have your focus area, you can always pull out 1-2 especially illustrative comments as an example to help humanize the data,” she says.

How to use comments to tell a story with your data

“When people fill out an employee survey, it’s a personal and sometimes vulnerable act. Hearing that aggregated data back in a way that is detached (as numbers-only storytelling can be) separates the person from the results,” says Myra Cannon, People Scientist at Culture Amp. Using comments to humanize the data when presenting your employee survey results can help people relate on a deeper level. For example, saying Learning & Development is at 60% doesn't resonate as well as a comment summarizing that sentiment.

Text analytics can also help you determine what people are talking about and their general emotions about those things. The image below shows Culture Amp’s text analytics tool, with negative comments on the left and more positive comments on the right.

text-analytics-screen-comments@2x

Lastly, sorting your questions by the number of comments on each shows you the "noisy" things within your organization. These are the things everyone is talking about. That doesn't mean you necessarily need to focus on that, but you should make a point to include that theme when sharing results to ensure people feel like their voice is heard.

A word of caution on sharing employee survey comments

Sharing employee survey results is incredibly important to building trust in the feedback process and involving everyone in taking action. However, it’s also important to ensure that people feel they can be honest when leaving comments. This is why companies should use caution when it comes to sharing employee survey comments broadly.

Dr. David Ostberg, Director of Cultural Enablement at Culture Amp says, “Comments (aka, qualitative data) are an important piece of the feedback puzzle and can help provide context and color to the more quantitative data collected via surveys. With that said, comments need to be handled with care as they tend to elicit much more of an emotional response than numeric results do, and comments tend to be heavily skewed to the negative.”

David recommends sharing company-level quantitative results (i.e., numeric data) with leaders, managers, and employees first and give them time to digest the key outcomes before sharing the comments. Also, he says, “Have one or two members of the People/HR team review comments before sharing them with the company to ensure there’s nothing inappropriate or mean-spirited that calls out a specific employee or team. Feedback, including comments, should be collected in the spirit of driving positive change, and inflammatory comments toward individuals don’t help drive learning and growth in an appropriate manner.”

Examples of positive and negative employee survey comments

When it comes to the type of comments you can expect to see on an employee survey, some people just like to describe their answer or get something off their chest. Others like to offer praise for a person they work with or express gratitude to their employer.

With Culture Amp, text analytics provides a useful way to answer the high-level question of, “What are people talking about?” and, “Generally how positive or negative are people’s sentiments on a certain topic?”

Example positive employee survey comments

"We continue to hire very good people for product development and all other areas of the company. Everyone I work with is passionate about their jobs and collaborates well with other teams."

"My ability to relate to my managers is what makes this place great."

"Pushing our dream and values. Good places for people to work and flexible work patterns. Plenty of activities for employees such as Hack Day and social events. Learning development courses."

Example negative employee survey comments

"I think some more attention needs to be given to help get the negative people on track instead of reprimanding the whole group when there is an issue."

"We are growing. We could use some more permanent desk spaces for employees at HQ. There are hot desks near my team, but it's always a question when I come into the office if I'll have somewhere to sit near my team."

"Policies and benefits should be front and center, not hidden away."

Start collecting employee feedback today

With an employee survey that includes the ability for people to leave comments, you're provided with richer data to take action. If you're ready to get started, the People Geeks at Culture Amp are standing by to help you. 

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