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Job Satisfaction Surveys Often Fail to Satisfy

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Jan 31, 2023

When assessing ongoing workplace issues such as stress and lack of engagement, companies still cannot assess job satisfaction accurately, despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars on those efforts, the New York Times reported.

Annual surveys, which could include regular check-ins, may not yield useful information for a variety of reasons, including incomplete or less than truthful answers from workers—possibly for fear of retribution—or lack of regard for the results on the part of managers.

Alexander Kjerulf, co-founder of Heartcount, which creates software designed to measure employee happiness, told the Times that “the traditional approach has become a rote exercise that’s done because everyone does it. But few people actually see any value in it—and that goes both for employees and management.”

Workers are discontented due to poor managers, a GoodHire survey found, while unfair treatment at work was a top reason found by a Gallup burnout study in 2020. Other issues, such as workload and promotional opportunities, were cited by the surveys.

Despite many studies such as these, there is little in the way of studying employer follow-up on employee responses to job engagement surveys, the Times reported. Increasing numbers of job satisfaction studies may not pinpoint reasons for satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

“You may be satisfied because you don’t have to do much,” Anne Maltese, director of people insights at software company Quantum Workplace told the Times, but that doesn’t mean you’re actually inspired by your work. Her company sells employee engagement surveys and other assessment tools, and compiles an annual “Best Places to Work” list.

Heartcount sells an app that asks employees three questions, which change weekly, every Friday. A sample question could be about the employee’s relationship with his or her manager. But the answers are not anonymous, which could allow for addressing individual concerns, but could also be used against people.

Sarah Jaffe, the author of Work Won’t Love You Back, said that surveys often serve as as window dressing for companies that fail to provide “basic needs, such as decent wage and autonomy on the job.” She including among such basic needs “[n]ot feeling like your boss is spying on you all day” and "[f]lexible scheduling and basic respect for you as a human being.”

Managers who ignore results or spin the data to make them seem more positive than they are feed cynicism, talent management consultant Leigh Branham, an author of several books on employee retention, told the Times. He said that employers should be transparent with employees about how they plan to use surveys.

“Many companies that do engagement surveys are so disappointed in the results that they can’t bring themselves to share them with employees,” he told the Times. “Or they aren’t as fully committed to the difficult work of culture change to take action.”