HR & Leadership

Most Employee Surveys Are a Huge Waste of Time. So Use This Instead.

April 6, 2021

A robust, vibrant, living company culture needs strong feedback loops. It’s pretty easy to accomplish this when it’s you and your co-founder in a garage, a team of five in an apartment, or even 20 folks in an office suite.

As a business grows, these loops get tougher to maintain. Colocation, pizza, bowling nights, and escape rooms as a way to get to know people no longer scale. This challenge gets even more difficult in a remote-first or remote-only workplace.

But the bigger your team, the more critical it is to formalize and automate these loops and make them as simple as possible. One of the best ways to do this? Surveys. They’re quantifiable, and with the right tools they can be friction-free.

I know, I know—a lot of people are hesitant to use surveys, and rightfully so. It’s become incredibly easy to create and send a survey, and this ease combined with the urge to quantify everything means most surveys wind up being way too long. They add cognitive load, get too structured, and when combined with other scaling stumbles, create a soul-sucking, hellacious maze.

Putting out a survey that’s genuinely meaningful to your employees, leadership team, and yourself requires the help of trained professionals. For young startups and businesses, this kind of service might be way outside of the budget. So what do you do if you know you have to survey your teams, but you have to work on a shoestring budget? Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) saves the day.

eNPS is a highly structured survey that requires no work on question/response design. The execution can be done free or with minimal investment in tools. It takes longer to read the email that announces it than to actually respond to the survey.

The eNPS solution

To be happy where you work is a good thing, but do you love it enough to recommend it to a friend? More importantly, would you stake your reputation on the recommendation? And how deep is your loyalty to the business?

The quality of the answers to these questions reflects the strength of your company culture.

According to Stanford’s Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao, strong cultures create a feeling of “I own this place, and this place owns me,” where people do the right thing even when no one is watching over their shoulder.

In Scaling Excellence, Rao and co-author Bob Sutton call out this feeling of accountability as the first step in operationalizing culture. eNPS is a sure way to test this feeling.

By no means is this an exhaustive review of the subject, but to frame the conversation I need to give you a short primer on the two types of net promoter scores (NPS):

1. Transactional NPS 
This is based on a purchase or on a one-time transaction like cell phone repair. It asks the question, “Are you happy enough with your purchase (or with your repair) to recommend the service provider?”

2. Relational NPS
This is based on the time of the established relationship. It asks, based on how long you’ve known the surveyor, if you’d recommend them.

Both NPS types measure a feeling towards a relationship or towards a brand.

How does NPS work?

First, anchor your employee list to tenure. Then use a second layer like department, gender, location, title, or some other way to segment the population.

Note that adding additional layers compromises anonymity, especially for small teams. There’s a way to get around it by using double-blind surveys, but as you’ll see when we discuss comments, there are ways to hack it. So it’s best to acknowledge that while the surveys are private, no one outside of PeopleOps should see the details—it’s not anonymous.

The one-question survey

The question is simple. It could look something like this:

How likely would you recommend <BrandName> as a workplace to a friend or a colleague?

The unspoken emotional tug is:

Would you stake your reputation on this recommendation?

The response, while captured on a 10-point scale, is an intentionally steep one:

  1. Detractor (No): Someone giving 6 and below is a “No.”
  2. Indifferent (Passive): 7 or 8 is “Passive.”
  3. Promoter (Yes): 9 or 10 is considered a “Yes.”

NPS is a hard scale because it’s a departure from the conventional grading scale. It disallows interpreting a 6 as satisfied when the respondent is only 60% happy. You may have some employees who assume that a 7 or 8 rating is favorable, not understanding it’s actually a negative.

You could try explaining this, but you run the risk of skewing your results. It’s best to accept the misinterpretation as an inevitable side effect.

The three employee archetypes

In eNPS land, a Promoter lives and breathes the company. This Promoter is actively saying to their family or friends, “You’ve got to come work here.” And you need to understand why this is so. The answers may surprise you and they may be all over the place. Regardless, it’s indicative of an incredibly engaged employee.

An Indifferent, or Passive, is a B-player. They’re fully employed. Yes, they may even be performing well. Still, either they’re dissatisfied with some aspect of their work life, their career path, their job, or the company’s prospects. They’re also the easiest to convert to a Promoter.

A Detractor is a dangerous employee. In an eNPS context, they’re actively telling potential hires not to join the company. They are the archetype of the person you meet at a conference who is bad-mouthing their employer, possibly writing negative Glassdoor reviews.

Calculating the score

You can do this manually or compute it live using tools like Retently, Glint, Lattice, or any other tool that fits your budget. The key is in the interpretation. This is where multiple layers of anchoring are critical. In our example, if you’re anchoring to tenure and department, here are a few scenarios that can unfold:

  1. You have a good NPS score, but your organization is not meeting its growth goals
  2. You have a great NPS score overall, but your long-tenure employees are detractors
  3. You have an imbalance of Promoters vs. Detractors by departments

For example, if you have a good NPS score but your longest-serving employees are skidding into Detractor territory, maybe you aren’t doing a good job communicating the company’s changes.

The opposite, where the new employees are Passives or becoming Detractors, is even more dangerous. This indicates a hyper-tribal, insular culture that isn’t open to new people. Maybe you need to fix your onboarding.

Related read: Hiring a Remote Employee? Use This Onboarding Checklist

If you’re getting good, bordering-on-excellent scores but you’re also presenting missed metrics to the Board, that’s also a problem. Are you pushing your teams hard enough towards their goals, or have complacency and apathy set in?

Is eNPS the ultimate question?

NPS is a relatively new concept and came in response to customer service surveys that seemed to show no correlation to company growth. The core challenge was that if a customer was more than 50% satisfied, they were considered a happy customer.

The NPS was reportedly invented by Bain & Company to counter that reporting bias. Their research showed that the more Promoters you have, the more likely your company is a growth leader. It also simplified the customer survey. Suddenly it became a much easier survey to administer and yet a much harder one to understand.

This last point is often overlooked. Just because it’s one question doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand and analyze. Here’s the challenge: The only way to get an “I LOVE THIS COMPANY!!!!” response is to get a score of 9 or 10. Layer on the fact that most employees are generally harder on their place of employment. They’re emotionally invested, and this investment is directly proportional to their tenure.

This emotional layering makes eNPS a volatile metric. Not only is it the proxy of how your employees feel about your company, it’s also how they feel about their lives. Suppose something is going on in their community or their country. If they feel, perhaps unfairly, that their company isn’t taking a strong enough stance on the issue, it’ll show up in the survey.

As an employer, you take up a significant portion of their time—so expect their feelings about life reflected in their feelings about you.

eNPS is such a dynamic metric that it has to be done regularly, ideally quarterly. You have to trend the eNPS over time and ensure that the deviations are acceptable. You also have to ask a second question, the eNPS version of “tell us more.”

One more question

Answering the rating question in the survey is required, but the comment is optional. Many times the real magic is revealed in the comment. Of course, not everyone provides comments, but participation can be high with the right incentive structure. Promising that you’ll publish all comments anonymously is one way to get the rating up. Declaring that the CEO will read all comments is another way to ensure high-quality comments. Some may even voluntarily disclose their identity in their comments.

While long-form responses are a great way to get experiential data, they’re tough to tabulate. Pie charts don’t help you capture the rich feedback of natural language, and reading each response may prevent seeing the key themes.

This is where creating a word cloud helps. They’re easy to do, and the sizes of the words help act as a jumping off point about critical themes that may reveal themselves.

It’s just a number

In Skyfaring, Boeing 747 pilot Mark Vanhoenacker talks about how the venerated plane’s avionics has three separate inertial systems to tell it one thing: its position on the Earth.

When aviating, knowing where you are on the planet is that important. For a founder, knowing where your culture stands as your company grows is just as important. eNPS gives you clarity on your culture. It’s a reflection on what the company is doing (or not doing) and how the employees feel about working there.

It’s a call to action to reaffirm what’s working or to correct what’s not. It can also lead to subsequent surveys, more in-depth town halls, reverse town halls, coffee with the CEO, etc.

Any HR professional will tell you that surveying employees is an intensive planning exercise requiring attention to detail. But for a rapidly growing company where a day in PeopleOps can feel a lot like Scotch-tape triage, the eNPS is an incredibly efficient way to show what needs immediate attention.

Very much like an NPS tells you your product’s emotional response, eNPS measures your company culture. Culture is the product that your PeopleOps department curates. And as a founder, you are your company culture’s chief evangelist.

More posts about building a strong company culture

Founder<br>EZ Texting

TJ is a founder of EZ Texting. A software engineer by training, TJ has spent two decades building teams across multiple industries, including government, automotive, and telecom. He also serves as an advisor to early stage companies in the Finance, Healthcare, and Big Data spaces. He blogs on Software, Startups, and Simplicity on