Are you listening?

How asking for employee feedback boosts retention

March 8, 2023
A black woman smiles while standing at the head of a conference table where a group is sitting. The woman and the group are focused on another woman at the table who is speaking.

No matter what else you've heard, the U.S. labor market remains tight. Across the country, small and mid-sized businesses are having trouble finding employees — and keeping them long-term. But it's not totally out of your control. There is a secret sauce to retaining the people you work so hard to recruit and train: listening to your employees.

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It is critical that we listen to our employees, and it can be kind of that secret weapon in our toolbox.

Dora Clements, Vice President of Digital Transformation, Unum Group, parent company of Colonial Life

It's still an employee's labor market

As late as third quarter 2022, there were 1.7 job openings for every person looking for employment.1 And once you snag one of these hard-to-get recruits, you spend significant time and effort getting them onboarded and trained up. You don't want to start the process all over again because the employee jumps ship for a more attractive opportunity.

Employee listening programs build satisfaction

So how do you keep employees happy where they are? Employee satisfaction depends on many things, like compensation, flexible work arrangements and career development. But data shows that another secret ingredient is developing a program for getting employee feedback — and then acting on what you find.

A recent study by Qualtrics uncovered two statistics that every employer should take to heart:²

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61% of employees said their employer needs to do a better job of listening to their feedback.

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62% of employees said they would work harder if their employer treated them better.

"These statistics underscore that there is a huge opportunity for organizations to prioritize employee listening," said Qualtrics XM Scientist Anna Hulett, "especially during those first critical 90 days" of employment.

Colonial Life data backs up this point. We found that when employers asked for employee feedback on benefits, 94% of employees viewing their benefits plan said they felt their needs were considered, compared to just 53% whose feedback wasn’t solicited.3

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Those who stay are very clear that they want and need, and really have been accustomed to, a more flexible, hybrid approach. And that's really requiring us all to consider this new world of work, and that really begins with listening to your employees.

Wendra Johnson, Vice President, HR Technology, Colonial Life

How to create an effective employee listening program

Listening to employees can take many forms, such as organizing focus groups or conducting "passive listening" by analyzing the comments on sites like Glassdoor. But according to Anna Hulett, "By and large when we say employee listening, we are referring to things like engagement surveys or surveys done after the onboarding experience."

Here are the top five ways to craft an effective engagement survey:

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1. Have a strategy and get buy-in from leadership

Determine why you want to implement an engagement survey and what you will do with the information. Get buy-in from your leaders and key stakeholders by describing the strategy and backing it up with data. Start small and build trust, rather than over-complicating your survey and being unable to interpret the results.

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2. Find the right frequency

The right frequency largely depends on your capacity for change. Frequent surveys can capture micro-trends in employee thoughts and opinions, but you must also leave enough time between surveys to analyze your findings, decide how to react and communicate your actions. An annual organizational-wide engagement survey is a great place to start.

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3. Design it thoughtfully

When creating an employee satisfaction survey, make sure it measures both outcomes and drivers.

Outcomes are key performance indicators (KPIs), including variables such as:

  • Level of employee engagement
  • Employees' feelings of inclusion
  • Employees' intent to stay

Drivers are variables that impact outcomes, such as:

  • Access to career development
  • Satisfaction with communication
  • Trust in leadership

Also be sure to follow survey best practices to ensure the survey provides accurate data you can trust. You may need to enlist a research expert to help you craft it. At the very least, make sure you survey a representative sample of employee roles, departments and demographics. You can also segment your survey so you're asking different questions of different groups of employees.

When determining questions, focus on what will give you actionable insights — not just a score. Open-ended questions allow employees to go beyond answering with numbers, stars or "high/low/medium," to provide insights into why they answered as they did and specifics on what changes they would like to see.

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The best thing you can do is really focus your surveys on being concise and utilizing survey design best practices, so that the experience is as little a physical and cognitive burden on your employees as possible.

Anna Hulett, XM Scientist, Qualtrics

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4. Communicate action

Nothing undermines the success of an engagement survey more than a lack of action afterward. When you have compiled the responses, be sure to communicate the results — and how you plan to address them. If there are things you don't have the ability to change, be honest about that. For those things you can change, create and communicate an action plan. Then follow through. This will help you build trust with your employees, which will in turn help them become more willing to share honest feedback and feel more engaged in building a better workplace.

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5. Build on success

After you get the hang of annual engagement surveys, consider surveying employees at lifecycle touchpoints such as onboarding, training and exit surveys to improve your processes. Consistency with surveying will steadily improve the employee experience.

The lasting effect of listening

According to Anna Hulett, employees who believe that their organization acts on employee feedback are more likely to go above and beyond than those who don't think so. This means that employee listening translates to a healthier workplace. And a healthy workplace, in turn, translates to higher rates of retention.

When a workplace is unhealthy, nearly 40% of employees are likely to be scanning the job boards, compared to only 10% in healthy workplaces, according to a study by Mental Health America.4

Take steps today to ensure your workplace is a healthy and attractive place for your current and prospective employees. Listening is a great place to start.

1 CNN, U.S. Job Openings Totaled 10.5 Million in November, More Than Expected, Jan. 4, 2023.
2 Qualtrics, 2023 Healthcare Experience Trends, 2023.
3 Colonial Life, Employee Enrollment Survey, company sponsored, 2021. 1,462 U.S. full-time employees responded to the survey in August 2021.
4 Mental Health America, 2022 Mind the Workplace: Employer Responsibility to Employee Mental Health, 2022.