The Best Way to Respond to Negative Employee Feedback

Lori Li
10 min read
Oct 27, 2020


Companies can only reach their full potential when their employees are engaged.

That's because engaged employees are happier and more productive than their forlorn peers. These workers love coming to the office every day and show up ready to make a difference.

Does your company care about employee engagement? 

If so, what do you do to determine engagement levels? Have you considered getting to the root cause of negative employee feedback?

We know that nothing gets at the heart of the engagement issue like the best tool for measuring it — employee engagement surveys.

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If you’re planning to check in with your workforce, kudos to you.

But be prepared: The results may not always paint a rosy picture of what’s going on inside your organization.

When faced with negative employee feedback, it’s tempting to do nothing or take broad, overarching steps that totally reverse course on what you’ve been doing. 

Resist the temptation — especially with the former approach. Not acting on an employee feedback survey may cause greater damage to employee engagement than not taking a survey in the first place.

Our own research on employee engagement discovered the following:

  • 33% of workers feel undervalued at work
  • Only one in four employees strongly agree that their company takes their feedback and suggestions seriously
  • 71% of employees are not recognized when they do great work

There’s also more at stake than just increased disengagement, including employee turnover. Clear goals and engagement from management can significantly impact a person’s desire to stick with the same company in the future. A Hay Group study also found that companies that provide high engagement opportunities can double their revenue and exceed that in time.

The best way to respond to negative employee feedback is with clear, actionable goals — not all of which have to be big shake-ups. 

This implies a process in which organizations discuss survey results, identify specific issues to target for overall improvement, and create a plan to enact necessary changes.

Focus on what employees have told you isn’t working, take specific steps, and you might just turn lemons into lemonade.

With all this in mind, here’s a 10-step game plan you can follow when dealing with negative employee feedback results.

1. Set clear goals from the get-go

Once you have a pool of ideas to draw from, it’s time to decide what can be accomplished and by whom.

Clear goals are important because they motivate both frontline employees and leadership to work toward improving the workplace with concrete steps. They’re also measurable, so it’s easy to assess the process along the way and make changes if necessary. 

Everyone involved needs to buy into the goals, which is only possible in an environment where open discussion is valued. For the best results, managers need to regularly facilitate honest conversations around the proposed goals.

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Goal examples to communicate to employees before sending the surveys include:

  • Increase company-wide transparency
  • Give employees a voice
  • Take action towards improving team culture and workflows
  • Make use of feedback to provide better employee benefits and growth opportunities
  • Build stronger employee-management relations and improve trust
  • Boost employee retention rates and loyalty
  • Fix pressing issues which are impacting both employees and company revenue
  • Create a better work experience for future employees starting with onboarding
  • Prevent bias, employee loneliness, and other problems that affect your team on a mental level

2. Keep your employee feedback survey focused

With a barrage of negative employee feedback thrown your way, it’s easy to get the sense that you can only improve engagement levels by solving every problem.

Believe it or not, doing too much at once may actually harm your efforts to improve things because it stretches everyone too thin, and managers in particular.

So, instead of asking every question possible, select only a few key issues to work on. You'll get better data.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to how you should choose what to focus on. You can select issues across departments or choose the top problems facing each department individually.

Ideally, you’ll be selecting issues that were repeatedly brought up by multiple employees in the survey, as these problems could be characterized as systemic.

3. Ask the right questions to get the details of the negative feedback

An employee feedback survey is only effective if you’re asking the right things. Employee answers need to be based solely on facts — not beliefs they’re making up. 

For instance, don’t ask, “Do you think your company is doing a good job at giving recognition?” Instead, opt for a question that requires proof, such as: “Name an instance when your company gave out employee recognition” or “Tell us how your company is appreciating their employees.”

Follow up each question with a secondary one, like “Do you have any examples to support the claim?” or “How would you like this to improve in the future?” This gives them an opportunity to voice their thoughts or suggestions and provide highly valuable feedback you can apply in the future.

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4. Communicate feedback survey results openly

Don’t hide survey results — even if they reveal widespread dissatisfaction or the findings seem embarrassing. Keeping feedback away from employees only deepens any mistrust that may already exist.

Share the survey results with employees in a way that highlights both the good and the bad. Resist the urge to put a positive spin on the negative employee feedback. Acknowledge that there are things you need to work on. And, most importantly, be sure to clearly outline the steps you’ll be taking to create an action plan.

As noted in our Advanced Guide to Pulsing, increasing communication is a great way to transform company culture for the better. 


5. Clarify issues and misunderstandings

As you’re narrowing down the focus on key issues, it’s also important to get clarification from the source. In this case, that’s your employees.

For example, employees may have said that they’re not satisfied with the way their managers communicate. It would be easy to assume what they’re looking for is more communication because they’re not getting enough.

However, asking employees to put into words what “good communication” means to them may surprise you. You could find out instead that their dissatisfaction stems from the type of communication they’re receiving from their managers rather than the frequency. 

A tool like TINYpulse offers private messages, allowing managers and survey admins to follow up on a piece of feedback without revealing employees' identity.

6. Brainstorm to improve future engagement and workflows

If you’re committed to improvement, you should also be committed to trying new approaches. Conduct a brainstorming process to collect ideas, whether in working groups or within smaller teams in each specific department.

Our previous research found that almost one in five responses from employees on surveys included a suggestion. Be sure to include these ideas in the process.

Of course, managers and leadership should bring ideas to the table as well and not expect employees to be the only source for solutions.

maya-rudolphSOURCE: GIPHY

7. Always evaluate past feedback survey performance

Ideally, you’ll be evaluating your action plan along the way — especially once you’ve established goals.

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Still, if you’ve made a number of changes across departments, you’ll want overall feedback on whether these changes have made a positive difference.

That’s right — time for another survey!

Whether this is as all-encompassing as the last one is up to you. But taking another pulse is the best way to get insight into whether the changes you’ve made along the way have added up to improving workplace culture and employee engagement.

Don't worry that your employees will be repulsed by yet another survey — quite the contrary. Our research proves that employees overwhelmingly support frequent engagement surveys.

If needed, talk to your employees again to clarify pressing situations. Using TINYpulse, companies can send out "flexible surveys" on a fixed cadence and track employee feedback over time. Simply export the results and compare benchmarks during future feedback survey sessions.

To ensure your team is truly happy, use the tool to track the "happiness question" trend, too:

8. Address negative employee feedback properly

Feeling like the feedback you got is unfair? Like it doesn’t do your company justice and you’re putting much more effort than your employees are noticing?

Reacting immediately to this feedback could lead you to impulsively say negative things or take the wrong actions. 

It can be easy to get carried away by a single answer. Wait to get the results from all members of a team before you assess the overall situation.


Justifying every piece of feedback is the second step to consider here. There must be some kind of factual motivation behind each employee’s statements. 

Take the time to analyze why they might be feeling a certain way or just have a second talk/survey with them to get more details. If necessary, have an extra meeting with upper management to see what the best methods of handling negative employee feedback would be.

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Take the time to get all of your thoughts together along with feedback from your colleagues. You won’t want to take any statements personally or misunderstand an employee’s input. While we’re all inclined to be threatened by feedback, make it a goal to use employee comments proactively and fix every issue in the near future. 

Briefly put, stick to the following framework or steps when dealing with negative feedback:

  1. Accept and embrace feedback
  2. Gather the survey results of other team members
  3. Clarify answers with employees through a meeting or second quick survey
  4. Discuss feedback with upper-management and HR
  5. Attribute one target or point of action for each type of feedback
  6. Develop a step-by-step plan for handling your team’s problems

9. Stay committed to making a change every time

The process doesn’t end after the next survey.

The best workplaces are those where managers and leadership are committed to continuing to work alongside their employees to improve things. Yet our research has found that only 25% of employees think their organization takes very effective action on the feedback they provide.

Maybe you’ve accomplished all the goals you set in your action plan. But there’s always something more you can do. If you want to make your company the best place to be, your work is never really done. Strive for continuous improvement.

But how will you handle negative employee feedback when change is not an option within your organization?

Think of the alternatives you can afford.

Can’t raise employee wages because your profits have been decreasing over the past several months? Offer extra benefits, more flexibility, or just support their professional growth efforts instead. The costs are likely to be lower, but the satisfaction level within your company will increase as long as you can meet the requirements they have instead of providing basic perks they don’t want.

You can actually ask your team what alternatives they’d accept in the event one of their needs can’t be met. Surveys, quick polls, and one-on-one talks are great methods of gathering feedback for these kinds of purposes.

10. Dig deeper if you’re not getting negative employee feedback

If all survey results are positive or don’t provide any kind of actionable sentiment, it’s time to dig further.

Ask your employees to point out any negative aspects they're dealing with at work. Every employee has at least one bad thing to complain about — trust us!

No negative employee feedback at all is bad news. It means your employees either don’t care about your surveys or are too scared to voice their real thoughts. 

Support an open culture from the very beginning by encouraging feedback and even constructive criticism. If you do notice your team is too scared to share negative feedback, consider keeping feedback surveys entirely anonymous. Nevertheless, make sure you act upon this negative input too so they’ll be motivated to share more about the things that bug them in the future.

Increase engagement with employee surveys

Employee surveys are an excellent tool to measure employee engagement. But surveys without follow-up action are useless and could even be detrimental to your success.

Negative feedback from a survey can be alarming — and perhaps even embarrassing.

The best response to the sentiments is a clear, constructive action plan.

Survey your employees and act on their feedback, and you won’t be simply measuring employee engagement. You’ll be actively supporting it!


Free Guide to Pulsing Employee Surveys


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