How Listening Transformed SurveyMonkey’s Employee Benefits and Review Process


Back in 2017, SurveyMonkey asked employees to weigh in on where the company was falling short of its employee value proposition to be the company “Where the curious come to grow.” One surprising — even curious — answer emerged: The annual review process didn’t work for employees. 

“What we heard from our employees is this big annual cycle that’s backward-looking just wasn’t doing it for them,” says Becky Cantieri, chief people officer at SurveyMonkey. “They weren’t able to see a clear line of sight into the impact that they were having. They certainly didn’t feel like it was helping them grow and advance in their career, and it wasn’t an opportunity to get aligned.”

This revelation inspired Becky and her team to completely reimagine SurveyMonkey’s performance management system. And since surveys are at the core of their business, they realized they could be using them more successfully to make the changes employees actually wanted. 

So, I recently talked with Becky to learn how SurveyMonkey created a stronger dialogue between its employees and its HR team. Our conversation is now an episode in my 21st Century HR podcast series, in which I pull back the curtain on some of the most exciting work companies are doing to redefine HR. In this episode, we explore how SurveyMonkey used their own tools to let employees drive the performance review process.

SurveyMonkey replaced its backward-looking annual performance reviews with impact-driven quarterly discussions and ongoing feedback

Realizing that the annual performance reviews weren’t working for anyone, SurveyMonkey has scrapped them and started over. To figure out how to successfully restructure, Becky’s team used the NeuroLeadership Institute’s SCARF Model (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness). 

SCARF assesses the differences in social motivation, and the results helped the team understand why the traditional feedback model wasn’t working.

“What the SCARF Model really helped us with,” Becky says, “was understanding why [our performance review program] has failed in the past and why feedback can be such a threatening experience for employees.”

Employees were not wild about a feedback tool that seemed built on fear and focused on the past. They wanted something forward-looking instead.

The ability to make an impact on the business was one of three key objectives that SurveyMonkey developed for its new program, based on employee feedback. The other two were growing and learning, and collaborating more successfully to “win together.” 

Taking these objectives into account, along with core business goals, Becky’s team developed GIG, a three-phase program of growth, impact, and goals. The first phase revolved around a quarterly, employee-led conversation where team members weighed in on a series of questions:  

  1. What impact did you have last quarter? 
  2. What can you learn from last quarter that will help you be more impactful in the quarters going forward? 
  3. What are your goals for the upcoming quarter?

The second phase amplified these efforts by establishing ongoing feedback channels. Employees can then use this feedback to improve their work and inform their upcoming quarterly conversations. 

“It’s self-driven by employees,” Becky explains. “They’re leveraging the SurveyMonkey platform to ask for peer or manager feedback throughout the year, whether it be at the conclusion of a project, a particular launch, [or] a certain deliverable going out.” 

The third phase will focus on creating strategic, long-term, sustainable goals moving into 2020. But even before that phase is rolled out, SurveyMonkey is seeing powerful results. 

“Eighty percent [of employees] feel that they’re aligned [with managers] on goals for the upcoming quarter,” Becky says. “Even before we formally start working on goals, we’re already seeing them practice the behavior.”

The GIG initiative was especially impactful because it was truly a team effort. Becky’s team tapped key stakeholder employees to weigh in on the program design to create something everyone could be proud of. 

“It wasn’t just an HR-led program,” Becky says. “It really was one that was anchored in voices from across the organization.”

The HR team got in front of an initiative to add fertility and family planning benefits

The performance management revamp was just the beginning of SurveyMonkey’s feedback-driven changes. 

The company has always surveyed its employees going into the open-enrollment planning cycle to understand how satisfied they are with their benefits. Recently, the topic of infertility started coming up more and more. 

This is an issue Becky has had personal experience with. And so, as the company began exploring coverage options, she decided to share her experience publicly in the hopes of helping others find the support they need. 

“I just kind of thought back to all of the great insights they had shared through that survey,” Becky says, “plus the numerous anecdotal conversations I had in the cafeteria and the hallway where people were sharing their experience with me and I was able to share my experience with them.”


Related: 5 Unexpected Job Perks That Make a Meaningful Impact on Employees’ Lives


Today, SurveyMonkey works with fertility startup Carrot to offer fertility and family planning benefits — something that’s still rare, even in Silicon Valley. Becky’s willingness to be so open and personal had a major impact on the initiative’s success. It signaled HR’s empathy for the lived experience of employees.

“Opening up the conversation,” Becky says, “and being vulnerable and sharing my experience really allowed people to not be embarrassed or hide behind the challenge, but rather to embrace it. It really starts with being willing to support employees in their journey.”

When employees voiced concern about the benefits offered to vendor partners, SurveyMonkey showed they were listening and willing to act

The annual open-enrollment survey provided another crucial piece of feedback in 2017. While employees were highly satisfied with the various plans and programs offered to them, some were concerned that these benefits were being distributed unequally. 

“One of the responses . . . named three of our janitorial service workers and asked if they had benefits on par with ‘the troop,’” Becky says. “It caused me to pause. I knew the answer to the question was, ‘They don’t.’”

This sparked a discussion among Becky’s team. While these workers came through a third-party vendor, they worked incredibly hard every day right alongside the onsite employees. But they didn’t enjoy the same benefits. 

Knowing it was something employees cared deeply about, Becky finally connected with the company’s benefits broker to determine what they could offer in terms of medical, dental, and vision plans, time off, and transportation support. The vendors were amazed that SurveyMonkey was willing to contribute — and employees were over the moon. 

“It was about a $200,000 investment from a SurveyMonkey perspective,” Becky says. “But to be honest with you, it has been probably the single best investment we’ve made in a long time in this particular category. Employees have been delighted by the impact that we’ve had on the lives of these partners, and I think they’re really, really proud of us being a small company but a first mover in this category.” 

The decision had a measurable impact too. The same year the policy was implemented, SurveyMonkey went public, and employees ranked the benefits plan as their second-favorite moment in a year-end highlights survey. 

Listening is one of the most powerful tactics available to HR

SurveyMonkey’s mission is to power curiosity. And by embracing curiosity themselves by really listening to and acting on employee feedback, the HR team has managed to build an environment where employees feel empowered to help shape the company’s future. 

Becky thinks this is the natural evolution of HR as a function.

HR in the 21st century is “very focused on talent, employee experiences, and employee-powered experiences,” she says. “That’s really, really rooted in great insights and input from the employees that you are serving or empowering to do great work.”

To hear more from Becky, listen to the full episode now.

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* Photo by SurveyMonkey


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