Our average response rate to employee surveys is 80%, which we consider to be high. Many of our clients have survey response rates even higher than that. How do they do it? There are certain absolutes when it comes to obtaining a high response rate.

  1. Promise confidentiality. One of the most limiting factors in obtaining a high response rate to an employee survey is lack of trust that the results will be kept confidential.  The first step in the process of reducing distrust is to promise the results are confidential. However, this is not enough. You also must:
    • Use an outside firm to collect the data. It’s perfectly reasonable for employees to assume that senior management has access to all data collected through internal means. Some employees will assume that this still is the case when the firm collects data through an outside agency, but the fears are reduced.
    • Ask the minimum number of demographic questions. At the end of our surveys, if the size of the company is sufficient, we usually ask some demographic questions to gather information on such things as the department in which the employee works, how long they have worked at the organization, etc. The purpose of this is to enable analysis of groups of employees, as it often is the case that there are problems with employee engagement in some groups of employees, but not others. Asking too many demographic questions heightens the fears on the part of many employees that we will use the information to identify particular individuals and their survey responses. Of course, we will not, but there is no convincing some people of that fact. If there are 100 people in a company, it would be overkill to ask employees for their department, role in the organization, length of employment, age, income, number of children, and gender. With a company of that size, we would recommend limiting the number of demographic questions to no more than three. Often, asking for the employee’s department is enough.
    • Stand by Your Promise. No matter what you say about maintaining confidentiality, you will destroy it if you do anything that could be perceived as breaching it. All future promises will be moot if management attempts to discover “who said what” though any means, including speculation.
  2. Market the Survey. Before you invite employees to participate in an employee survey, let them know it is coming. You can do this through multiple channels, such as emails, department meetings, all-hands meetings, snail mail, or any other communication method commonly used in your organization.
  3. Make it Easy to Respond. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it isn’t. There are critical steps to take in order to make it easy for employees to respond. These include:
    • The Survey Link Should Be in the Body of an Email. Some firms disseminate much of their information through attachments. In the case of an employee-survey invitation, never use an attachment to communicate anything about the employee survey, as it just adds a step to what employees must do to participate. The body of the email invitation should contain all the salient information, including the survey URL.
    • Let Employees Respond During Working Hours. Make sure there are no barriers to employees responding. For employees who do not have their own computers, set up a kiosk (a stand-alone computer) for them to respond (we provide a special URL in such circumstance that allows more than one response per device). If employees have to fill out time cards to track what they work on during the day, provide them with a code for the employee survey. Managers should insist that employees set aside some time to respond, and they should avoid sending mixed messages by insisting that many other things are more important to accomplish in the near term.
    • Keep the Survey to a Reasonable Length. If a questionnaire is too long, many will get discouraged. Because they have a vested interest in making their workplace as pleasant as possible, most employees will be happy to answer dozens of questions with similar scales, but there is a limit. What is that limit? It depends on the company. We usually like to see between 50 and 75 scale questions and a couple of open-ended (comment) questions. Some companies prefer to ask more. In our opinion, it becomes taxing on the employee when the number of scale questions approaches 100.
    • Don’t Ask Too Many Open-ended (Comment) Questions. Employees will be happy to respond to a couple, or even a few open-ended questions, but if you ask too many questions, you will tire respondents. This will result in a lower response rate and also could result in employees putting less thought into their answers to questions near the end of the survey.
  4. Give a Clear Deadline. Make sure employees know the deadline for the survey. Reinforce this through all communications about the survey:
  5. Send Reminder Notices. Despite the inclination of some employers to feel that most employees will be eager to respond, it is nearly impossible to obtain a high response rate without sending reminder notices. We provide our clients with access to our online tracking system where they can see how many people have responded by day, by department, and by any demographic variable of interest to them. We present the daily responses in graphic format, so it is easy to see when reminder notices are needed.  Usually, responses slow to a trickle three days after the initial survey invitation and any subsequent reminder notices. Two or three reminders usually suffice.
  6. Communicate Why It Is Important to Respond. In all survey communications, let employees know how you intend to use the data.  Be as specific as possible.  For example, you might say “once the survey results have been tabulated, we will distribute a summary report of the findings to each employee and form employee task forces to address any issues the survey identifies as being in need of correction.”  If this is not the first survey of employees, tell them what actions the organization took after the last survey, which leads us to the next point.
  7. Act on the Survey Findings. If you do not act on the survey findings, not only will you have wasted your money and your employees’ time, you will have sent a message to employees that they shouldn’t bother responding to future employee surveys.  After all, why should they?
  8. If Necessary, Use Multiple Languages. In most companies, particularly those in white-collar fields, one language will suffice. However, in our diverse society it is not uncommon to have large numbers of employees who communicate better in a different language. It isn’t expensive to translate a survey into a different language. It does lengthen the survey process by a few days and it can increase monetary costs if the comments employees make have to be translated, but the cost of not obtaining accurate employee responses from employees who communicate better in another language is much higher. If you often formally communicate to employees in more than one language, that’s a very good indication you need to conduct the employee survey in the multiple languages.
  9. Don’t Force Employees to Answer Demographic Questions.  We have the ability to force employees to answer particular questions in a questionnaire before proceeding. However, we prefer to use this ability sparingly. If employees are uncomfortable indicating their department or any other demographic item, forcing them to do so will result in one of the following:
    1. Some employees will refuse to respond to the questionnaire, driving down your response rate.
    2. Some employees will answer the required questions accurately, but will not answer other questions accurately. They may go back and change their answers, or they may already have answered earlier questions inaccurately if word got around that the demographic answers are required.
    3. Perhaps the worst possible outcome is that some employees will lie about their answers to the required demographic questions, such as department. In this case, the data of other groups, such as departments, is tainted. We would prefer an employee to skip a demographic question rather than taint the results of other demographic groups.