“How is the team feeling about our company being bought by our competitor?”
“How can we make our product customizations more profitable and efficient?
“Does my team trust my judgment when it comes to hiring decisions?”
“How can I better support Jane in developing her ability to lead sales team meetings?”
The above are just a few examples from the thousands of questions that I've struggled with as a leader over the years. Odds are you’ve had similar questions yourself, and wondered how to get feedback from employees in order to help you answer them.
There are many, many ways to get feedback from employees, ranging from broad organization-wide employee surveys to casual conversations over coffee.
You’ve probably already gathered feedback in some way, shape, or form, but maybe haven’t done it in a conscious and deliberate way, or considered the ins and outs of each.
In this article, I’ve drawn on my own experience working for a Fortune 500 company to highlight eight of the most effective methods I’ve used to gather feedback.
I briefly describe them, outline the pros and cons of each, and rank some of their more important characteristics relative to each other (there's a useful table at the bottom).
NOTE: This article does NOT focus on giving feedback, such as providing performance feedback to a member of your team. You can find this covered in our article here. It also doesn’t go into significant detail on HOW to implement these employee feedback methods, but I do link off to relevant articles.
- What Is Employee Feedback?
- Why Is Employee Feedback So Important?
- Where To Start With Gathering Employee Feedback?
- Eight Methods To Get Feedback From Employees
Let’s dive in.
What Is Employee Feedback?
You likely already know this intuitively but, before we jump into how to gather employee feedback, here’s my definition of what I mean by employee feedback.
Employee feedback is information provided by an employee to another employee about the organization and/or their unique experience working within it. This information can be thoughts, ideas, opinions, or facts, and can be communicated verbally or nonverbally. The information may be in the form of positive, constructive, or negative feedback.
There’s a lot to unpack with this definition, so let’s break things down a bit.
- Employee feedback could be received by anyone: a co-worker or colleague, a friend on another team, the employee’s manager, or another manager.
- The information can be about the organization itself (e.g. “I think the town hall meetings are a great way to communicate”) or someone’s unique experience working within it (e.g. “I love it here and told my friend Beth to apply”).
- You can gather positive feedback (e.g. “I think the new product we launched is awesome!”), constructive feedback (where specific suggestions for improvement are offered e.g. “Our social media expense is too high, and here’s how we can reduce it.”), or negative feedback (e.g. “I really don’t like Dave from accounting”).
Why Is Employee Feedback Important?
It’s likely that if you’re already reading this you don’t need mountains of research and statistics to convince you of the importance of gathering employee feedback from your employees.
Feedback can have a huge impact on the overall success and health of the business and its people, and can help to:
- Create a positive employee experience
- Maximize employee engagement and employee satisfaction
- Develop a high-performing workplace culture
- Foster effective internal communication
- Support an environment of continuous improvement
- Increase employee retention and reduce turnover.
All that said, if you still need an interesting stat to convince you of the value of employee feedback, check this one out courtesy of Salesforce:
Employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work.
Where To Start With Gathering Employee Feedback?
There are many ways to gather employee feedback, and it all starts with being laser-focused on the question, problem, or challenge you’re hoping they can help you answer. Once you’ve figured that out, you can determine who you’re gathering the feedback from:
- Individual team member(s) (e.g. Jane from R&D, or Bill from accounting);
- Team (e.g. corporate marketing, or a regional sales team);
- Group (e.g. all Director-level managers in the company); and/or
- Organization (e.g. the entire company).
Once you’ve determined that, then you can start to figure out the best practices to help you gather that employee feedback, where “best” may vary from person to person and organization to organization. For example:
- Small startups and early-stage companies with limited time and cash may value quick and low-cost ways of gathering feedback.
- SMBs (Small to medium-sized businesses) may still look for economical ways to gather feedback, but have resources for more structured methods and programs.
- Large corporations may have lots of resources to gather employee feedback, but struggle with getting honest feedback and dealing with larger teams/groups with different needs.
Eight Effective Methods To Get Employee Feedback
Employee Feedback Surveys
We’ve all heard of, and probably participated in, an employee feedback survey at some point.
I remember one company I worked for would conduct an annual survey that took about 10-15 minutes to complete. Responses were anonymous, and we had extremely high participation rates (greater than 90%). We found it extremely useful for gathering feedback and evaluating employees’ opinions and feelings on a wide variety of topics, including:
- Overall employee experience and job satisfaction
- Career development and growth opportunities
- Workplace culture and work environment
- Employee engagement and motivation
- Compensation and rewards programs
Pros of employee feedback surveys
- Anonymous: Unlike other one-on-one forms of gathering feedback, you have the option to make employee responses to the survey anonymous. Assuming employees believe that their responses are truly anonymous (a whole other subject in itself), choosing this option may encourage a) more participation; and b) more honest employee feedback.
- Efficient Delivery: An employee survey allows you to gather feedback from a larger group of individuals, ranging from a single team to the entire organization. Asking the same questions of every individual, one at a time, is typically more time-consuming.
- Structured Format: Unlike an impromptu casual conversation, you have time to determine what goal you’re trying to achieve, or questions you’re trying to answer, with your survey. You also have time to prepare your set of questions and know that they’ll be delivered exactly the same way to every individual.
- Quantitative Results: An employee survey is typically a mix of free-form (e.g. “Describe how you feel about the CEO getting fired.”), multiple choice, and rating questions (e.g. “On a scale of 1-10 how satisfied are you with your salary?”). The latter allows you to attribute a number to the employee’s feedback, which allows you to do quantitative analysis, such as taking the average across the group being surveyed.
- Organizational Impact: If nine out of 10 employees respond with negative feedback to a question (e.g. “How satisfied are you with our vacation request process?”), there’s a good chance that addressing that feedback and making changes will have a much broader impact on the overall engagement and motivation of your organization.
Cons of employee feedback surveys
- Anonymous: Anonymity can be a double-edged sword, and in the case of employee surveys the downside is that it doesn’t allow for any further individual discussion or clarification if you receive constructive or negative feedback. You may occasionally find yourself scratching your head, wondering, “What do I do with this feedback?”.
- Costly: Employee feedback surveys can be costly. There can be a direct cost depending on how you conduct a survey e.g. using employee survey tools, but the bigger cost often comes from the time to create the survey itself; collect, tabulate, and analyze the responses; and communicate results. Before starting, estimate the total time and multiply by the average wage to get a sense of the total opportunity cost.
- Expectation Management: When you send an employee survey out to a group of people, you automatically set the expectation with them that you will take action on the feedback that they provide. Be prepared to communicate before and after how you will use their feedback to make their workplace experience better.
When it comes to surveys, you may want to send out a big one annually. However, a lot of companies choose to send out regular pulse surveys to gather feedback on business decisions or questions raised from other forms of feedback.
For more on employee surveys, check out: Employee surveys: an easy guide with questions.
A skip-level meeting is a meeting between you and people who report to someone who reports to you.
The meeting “skips” one or more management levels in a typical hierarchical organization to enable you to get feedback from people who don’t directly report to you, and who you may not ordinarily engage with.
If you’re the Chief Financial Officer, for example, and one of the people on your team is Jane, the Director of Finance, you would conduct a skip-level meeting with people who directly or indirectly report to Jane (e.g. your Controller, Accounts Payable Clerk, etc.).
Pros of skip-level meetings
- Honesty: A skip-level meeting that’s done well can result in honest feedback about the manager (Jane, in the example above) allowing for discussion and constructive feedback about team systems and processes. It can also create a feeling of “safety in numbers”, where co-workers feel more confident sharing negative feedback if they know others feel the same.
- Team Impact: You may have greater ability or authority to effect positive change than someone who reports to you. Hearing constructive or negative feedback directly may allow you to take faster action versus having it run through someone else.
- Engagement: It can be engaging and motivating to feel like someone more senior than you cares enough about your opinion to sit and talk face-to-face. I remember thinking it was pretty cool and an exciting opportunity to sit as part of a group with the CEO of my former company.
Cons of skip-level meetings
- Meeting Facilitation: The effectiveness of a face-to-face meeting greatly depends on your ability to lead and facilitate it. You need to be prepared to tackle a wide variety of challenges that can affect the quality of the feedback you’re getting, including meeting biases, psychological phenomena like groupthink, and enabling people who are uncomfortable talking in public or sharing in a group to contribute.
- Second-Hand Opinions: It can often be harder for someone to hear feedback about themselves second-hand, rather than directly from the person whose feedback it is. For example, Jane would probably prefer to hear feedback about how she runs meetings from her team, rather than from you.
For more on skip levels, check out: skip-level meetings, a powerful leadership tool.
One-on-One / Performance Review Meetings
A one-on-one meeting (aka 1:1) is a face-to-face meeting between you and someone else, often someone who reports directly to you.
Formal performance reviews are, by definition, more formal than a regular 1:1 meeting, but the pros and cons are similar. There may be a bit more structure in the types of questions you ask, but you’re typically searching for the same types of feedback from your employee.
- Deeper Feedback: An effective one-on-one allows you the time and space to discuss feedback more deeply than other one-to-many methods like surveys and skip-level meetings. It’s an opportunity to deliver feedback to your employee as well as solicit their feedback, whether it’s about you, the team, or the workplace.
- Less Structured: 1:1s enable you to ask more open-ended questions like, “How can I support you in achieving your goals?” or, “How is your new teammate integrating with the team?”. Their feedback may prompt new questions you hadn’t even thought of.
- Individual Impact: The collaborative nature of a 1:1 enables you and your employee to determine what changes can be made as a result of their feedback that would most directly impact them. For example, if they’re unhappy with their compensation, you’re most likely in the best position to respond and, if necessary, take action.
- Honesty: Employees may feel uncomfortable providing feedback to you about their workplace experience or about you personally. There may be many reasons for this, whether it’s a fear of reprisal or being perceived as a “whiner”, or maybe because they don’t believe it will do any good.
- One Voice: Remember that the feedback in a 1:1 is the perspective or opinion of just one individual. If that feedback is around team or organizational systems or processes, for example, it’s important to check whether other individuals feel the same before taking action and making changes.
- Rabbit Holes: The less-structured format of a 1:1 makes it easy to get sidetracked with a line of questions or discussion that doesn’t actually help move the employee or organization forward. This requires good facilitation skills to keep the conversation focused.
360-Degree Performance Reviews
360-degree feedback, also known as multi-source or multi-rater feedback, refers to feedback about employee performance or observed behaviors gathered from various sources, such as peers, managers, subordinates, and even customer feedback.
I’ve had my own experiences with 360 feedback, and I found each experience positive (and challenging) in its own way.
One company I worked for hired a professional facilitator to lead a 360 review process for the entire leadership team. They used very detailed forms to gather the feedback and then presented each person with their own comprehensive report. We then had a leadership team session where each of us presented and discussed our personal takeaways with the group.
Another company’s process was more informal but aligned with our annual performance review process. The 360-degree feedback was collected by human resources using a simple form. It was then left to the manager to review and present the most relevant pieces of feedback during the performance review, while making sure to keep the sources anonymous.
- Specific: This performance management mechanism, which is typically incorporated into formal performance reviews, allows you to gather performance feedback about you specifically. It’s less about organizational systems and processes, and more about your personal abilities, effectiveness, management style, etc.
- Anonymous: Like employee surveys, the feedback that’s collected can be kept anonymous, so your peers and subordinates may be more willing to provide you with honest feedback.
- Organizational Impact: If you’re a senior leader or member of the C-suite in your organization, performance feedback that results in positive changes in how you lead and manage can have a far-reaching impact.
- Anonymous: Again, anonymous feedback doesn’t allow for any further individual discussion or clarification if you receive constructive or negative feedback.
- Disempowering: If you feel you’re having to make decisions based purely on the feedback of others, you may feel that this disempowers you and your ability to make decisions for your teams.
- Cost: Like employee feedback surveys, the investment of time and money (if an external consultant or facilitator is used, or 360-degree feedback software deployed) can be higher than other forms of gathering feedback.
Onboarding interviews can take place at any time, and more than once, during the onboarding process. Onboarding is a phase of the employee life cycle that many define as including employee recruitment, hiring, and training.
Questions in an onboarding interview might include:
- “How accurate was the job posting in describing the job you’re doing?”
- “What additional information could we have provided about our company and/or the position to help you make a more informed decision?”
- “How would you describe your first two weeks at the company?
Pros and Cons
The general pros and cons of onboarding interviews are very similar to those of one-on-ones.
Onboarding interviews are best conducted by an HR leader or professional, since they often oversee many aspects of the onboarding processes.
However, if your organization doesn’t have a dedicated human resources person, consider conducting the interview(s) yourself.
Exit (Offboarding) Interviews
Exit interviews are an important part of the offboarding phase of the employee life cycle, and can be used to gather valuable feedback about employee retention, workplace culture, and job satisfaction.
We’ve all heard about the “great resignation” that’s happening in today’s workplace, and exit interviews can provide valuable insight into why someone decides to leave your organization.
Pros and Cons
Exit interviews have similar pros and cons to onboarding interviews and 1:1s.
However, you may receive more honest feedback from the employee, whether it’s negative feedback or constructive, since the fear of negative consequences may be less.
To ensure greater honesty, it’s best practice to have the interview conducted by someone more neutral or objective, such as your HR leader or a fellow manager.
Real/Virtual Suggestion Boxes
Suggestion boxes may seem outdated, but they can still play an important part in demonstrating a company’s commitment to the employee experience and continuous improvement. Of course, you can get some great ideas too!
Pros of suggestion boxes
- Easy way for employees to submit ideas anonymously or otherwise
- Focuses on solutions to problems, not just problems themselves
- Encourages innovation and problem-solving.
Cons of suggestions boxes
- Can take a while to sift through suggestions
- After the initial excitement, usage over time can decrease. Counter this by prominent placement and acknowledgment of suggestions.
The last, but not least, effective way of gathering feedback is through casual conversations.
Meetings, whether they’re skip-level meetings, 1:1s, or performance reviews, can sometimes feel more formal and structured. This can impact the willingness of employees to share more critical or constructive feedback.
Whether it’s at the water cooler, during a sunny outdoor walk, or over lunch or coffee, keeping things light can help an employee feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions.
Don’t set out with the intent to gather (or provide) feedback. Simply be ready, if an opportunity presents itself over a friendly sushi or cheeseburger, to be curious, ask some general questions, and see where the conversation goes.
Ways Of Gathering Employee Feedback - Rated
Now that we’ve worked through the most effective ways of gathering employee feedback and presented some of the pros and cons of each, let’s summarize the main differences between them in terms of:
- Reach: is the method most effective for gathering feedback from one or more teams (including the entire organization) or one or more individuals?
- Cost: in terms of both time and money, is the method high, medium, or low cost?
- Structure: is the method more formal and structured, or informal and casual?
- Frequency: is the method most effective when used often or only sometimes?
- Honesty: will the method typically yield more or less honesty than other methods?
- Scope: is the method most effective for getting general feedback on various aspects of the workplace or employee experience, or more specific feedback on a particular topic?
Some Final Thoughts On Employee Feedback
Like with product management or improving the customer experience, it's best to gather feedback using different methods.
This way, you counter the shortcomings of each of the methods outlined above and… more sushi!
Also, nothing will turn employees off quicker than if you ask them for their time to give feedback and then do nothing with the results.
If, for example, you find employees feel like they’re not receiving enough recognition, find ways to recognize those who achieve results or live your company values (here are some fun ones). It’s that simple.
Some further reading to help you gather employee feedback and improve the employee experience: