20 tips on getting the most from your survey

Dr. Gonzalo Shoobridge

How to ensure authentic and meaningful employee survey participation

“An employee survey is not an HR exercise in employee engagement; it’s a life and death trip to the doctor to learn the truth about organisational health”

If your employee survey response rate is low (i.e. less than 50%), then yes, you do need to worry. It is definitely a bad sign when your employees are not even ‘bothered’ answering your survey. Survey response rates are in most cases a relevant measure of overall employee engagement (or disengagement) and a good indicator of how much they trust your overall internal feedback and subsequent action planning processes.

Low response rates usually do not include a true random respondent sample and may bias survey results, especially at lower levels in the organisational hierarchy. Conclusions drawn from unrepresentative data is wrong and can cause serious problems when used to plan HR organisational development changes and initiatives. An employee survey must have a good response rate in order to produce accurate and useful results.

I am always unconvinced when I hear business leaders boast about their wonderful employee engagement numbers when it is known their survey response rates were very low. If we take into account the possibility that those most disengaged employees didn’t even take part in the survey in the first place, their engagement results may actually be worse than what they actually think they are. This sort of unintended ‘window dressing’ misleads by dramatically overstating engagement levels in corporate communications.

Most disengaged employees don’t bother responding to surveys

Yes, it’s a high probability that your low survey participation rate could be linked to low employee engagement, poor morale (which then leads to low performance). Researchers have examined the relationship between employee engagement and voluntary survey participation behaviour. In most cases they conclude that employee survey response rates can be used as a diagnostic tool to examine engagement levels, and to a certain extent reveal disengagement at the group level. Most research on the subject found that there was a significant positive relationship between aggregate employee engagement levels and survey response rates. Moreover, this relationship was stronger in large groups than small groups, suggesting that group size influences the relationship between aggregate employee engagement and survey response rates.

In general, if you get more than 70% you can consider that your response rate is very good. Anything between 60% and 70% is good. Scores between 50% and 60% are acceptable and are considered industry standard for web-based surveys. Anything below 50% is poor. Response rates below 30% should ring alarm bells in your organisation as it simply indicates a complete lack of engagement and trust in your organisation’s internal feedback processes. It doesn’t matter if the survey is long or if the questionnaire is badly designed, engaged employees will always make the time and find a way to answer the survey because they understand its importance and know how strategic it is for their organisation’s future direction.

It is worth noting that those potentially ‘disengaged’ employees that did not take part in the survey withhold very valuable intelligence from the organisation and are a great source of organisational learning. It is vital to encourage their participation to obtain a ‘real’ picture of the organisation’s ‘hidden’ culture, even if it means achieving less positive overall survey results.

However, there are some other adverse aspects (the DOs & DON’Ts that are discussed in this article) that need to be taken into consideration when evaluating low employee survey response rates. These include circumstances in which a company may have done a survey of this kind before and nothing was done with the employee feedback received, or a company’s profile may not facilitate employees to complete employee surveys - for example: difficult late night or rotating work shifts; manufacturing sites with no internet or access to mobile devices such as smartphones or tablet computers; large percentages of non-office based employees, home-workers or part-time employees; imminent M&As or organisational changes that will involve dramatic cost reduction and redundancies, etc. Uncommitted senior leaders and/or uncooperative unions and works councils, the fact that you decided to organise your survey during summer or close to Easter or Christmas holidays among other non-employee related factors, will also affect survey response rates in a negative way.

Focusing solely on driving high response rates is a big red herring

On the other hand, if response rates nudge over 85%-90% then you should worry as well. It’s possible that the “wrong kind of encouragement” may have been applied during the survey process, forcing employees to offer insincere or dishonest feedback. These high response rates could be linked to line-management coercion to meet imposed response rate targets which translate into large numbers of incomplete surveys, with a high percentage of missing responses, being submitted, or data that is not meaningful (i.e. employees simply ticking the boxes without reading the questions). Generating high response rates just for the sake of it is not what an employee survey is about.

This is why social scientists argue that offering ‘incentives’ to increase employee survey response rates is not recommended and should be treated with care. They are just shortcuts to meet the numbers and avoid the root cause of the problem which is the real lack of engagement with the survey initiative and possibly the lack of trust in the organisation’s leadership.

Also, although competition is a powerful motivator that might give employees that extra push they need, don’t encourage your business units, departments or locations to engage in competition for the highest survey response rate. It is not a good idea to pitch managers, departments or locations against each other just to increase survey participation.

Avoid incentives and techniques to elicit response such as direct rewards (i.e. prizes, gift cards, sweepstakes entries, days out, etc.) or indirect rewards (i.e. donations to charities, planting trees, etc.). They do not inspire employees to give ‘authentic and meaningful’ responses to your survey.

Employees need to recognise how important their feedback is for the success of the organisation, how it will help them build a better workplace and work experience -not only for themselves but also for all their colleagues - and how it will enable them to influence the direction of the company as a whole. People should just want to honestly share their opinion for the benefit of the organisation. Organisations need to make sure employees know why these surveys are important and what they’re going to get out of them and they’ll be more likely to participate without the need to resort to any kind of ‘incentives’ to ensure high response rates.

How do you ensure good survey response rates?

As previously discussed, the response rate for your employee survey is critical and you shouldn’t just leave it to chance. If you care about employee opinion data and what you plan to do with it, you need to care about getting the best quality response possible (contrary to only quantity). In this section I outline several ways that will help you improve your employee survey’s response rate without resorting to discreditable incentivisation.

1. Secure full commitment from Senior Management: Ensuring senior management buy-in and full commitment in the company’s survey initiative is the single most important aspect of ensuring high levels of employee participation. Senior managers must believe in the importance of the upcoming engagement survey and publicly announce their support at every given opportunity to promote the initiative. They must also emphasize the significance of the survey to those managers who directly report to them. Before you can expect employees to participate in your engagement survey, your leadership team needs to be fully committed and on board with the initiative. Leadership plays a dominant and significant role when it comes to ensuring high survey response rates.

2. Communicate expectations to managers: All leaders in the organisation should understand the purpose of the survey and what it means to them. Tell them they will receive their team’s results and that they will need to develop an action plan. Managers who know that they will receive data are more likely to encourage participation within their team, but don’t hold Supervisors and Managers accountable for participation rates.

3. Develop a value proposition for participants: Explain how employees will obtain value from the employee survey initiative by clarifying how they and the organisation as a whole will benefit from it. Communicate the basic objectives of the project to all employees. What are you trying to find out? What actions do you want to implement as a result of your survey? A letter of endorsement from the CEO will communicate the importance of responding to the survey. The letter should explain why the survey is being conducted, what the organisation and the employees stand to gain from it, how the organisation will be using people's responses, and reassure confidentiality of survey results. Also appeal to influential employees to get them on board with the survey’s value proposition and there are great chances the rest of your employees will likely follow suit.

4. Make sure employees understand the project’s high-level action plan: Assure employees about the leadership’s real intention to act on the survey results. Manage employee expectations, clearly communicate what you plan to do with the survey data, explain when you will share the results with employees and the potential actions to be taken from the feedback and how much detail is expected to be communicated. Promise to publish your survey results online to all participants. People who take the trouble to respond will want to see results, and promising to show the full results in a very transparent way will encourage employees to complete the survey. Make sure they understand that completing the survey will not be time wasted. Show employees that you are serious about what you are doing and that you have given careful thought to the entire process. If your organisation has taken an employee engagement survey in the past, review with employees the successful actions that have been taken based on the results of past surveys.

5. Ensure a clear and consistent communication and branding strategy: Communicate in advance, alert participants that a survey is coming. Implement innovative and creative survey themes to make participating fun for all your employees. Design clear and eye-catching branding for the survey. Talk about the upcoming workplace survey in multiple formats and channels, and get creative with your campaign. A one-off message in only one format is not going to work as well as communicating the importance of taking the survey in multiple formats and channels. Communication channels include: email blasts, intranet postings, employee meetings, department meetings, management team meetings, video clips from the CEO and other senior leaders, posters and banners throughout the organisation, ,newsletters, branded t-shirts, coasters, etc.

6. Guarantee respondent confidentiality: Give employees full assurance, freedom and security to submit honest opinions, without having to worry about potential consequences and being reprimand by their line managers. Leadership needs to communicate that the engagement survey is completely anonymous, fully inclusive of all employees within the organisation, and that it offers a safe platform that allows employees' opinions and feedback to be communicated upwards. Some employees may be afraid to speak up at work. If employees sense that candid feedback will be received unfavourably then they need to be reassured that their responses will be kept completely confidential. Confidentiality is particularly important in first time surveys; employees rightfully fear a lack of anonymity. Be sure to talk about how the results will only be shared when grouped with others in their team/department and never individually so they cannot be identified. Reassure participants that no reports will contain less than 10 respondents (best practice) and that demographic segmentation will not be offered in smaller reports (i.e. less than 50 respondents in the report). As for qualitative reports, these should not have less than 20 employee comments.

7. Partner with an external vendor: It will also help if participants can see that the survey is coming from a reputable third-party employee research organisation, a well-known brand that will reassure them that all their responses will be kept confidential. Outsourcing the survey to a third party rather than running it internally can encourage employees to share their own personal views and opinions. The decision to outsource the survey to a third party is also something that can be included in the pre-survey communications to boost confidence about the privacy and anonymity element of the survey results.

8. Make it easy to take part in the survey: The survey administration window is crucial to allow full participation. Organisations should not schedule the survey when people are (really) busy. Organise the survey when most employees are free and have the opportunity to more easily take it. Avoid launching your survey during summer or public holidays, Easter, Christmas, etc. when people normally take time off work. A two-week administration period is considered best practice. Larger organisations may keep the survey open for three weeks, smaller organisations only for one week. As a rule of thumb keep the survey window short.

9. Track your progress: Monitor your response rates in real-time to stay on track with your participation goal. If you work with an external survey provider, you can be granted access to an online response rate tracker offering real-time updates on your survey completion rates. Leverage it to track daily progress and help you identify potential organisational laggards. It will allow you to track participation at the location or department level so you can send targeted reminders to groups with lower response rates. Avoid tracking responses of specific demographic groups or job levels; this is unnecessary and sends the wrong message in terms of confidentiality of results.

10. Personalise email invitations: Emails with a personal salutation result in increased response rates. Keep your email invitation short and simple, with just one link to the survey and avoid additional passwords or complications. In your email invitation, you can also emphasise how important the respondent’s feedback is for the future growth of the organisation.

11. Send reminders: Reminder emails are sent to survey recipients roughly one week after the initial survey launch invitation message. This communication serves as a thank-you for those who responded and a reminder for those who haven’t. It is best not to send more than two general reminder emails. You can send additional survey reminders, but only to those who have not submitted a survey, basically to catch people who might have been travelling, on leave or on sick leave.

12. Optimize your surveys for all devices: Ensure your survey benefits from fully mobile- enabled technology. Check on the usability of your survey in desktop PCs to mobile devices. Is it easy to access? The use of smartphones for surveys will allow you to reach more employees. Mobile surveys are the easiest way to reach respondents who frequently use smartphones or tablet computers, which are typically Millennials and business people. The survey needs to be designed in a mobile-friendly way: the whole survey in a single page, flexible and adaptable screen size, no requirements to download apps to access the survey, auto-save and stop and resume survey functionality, etc.

13. Participation must remain voluntary: Do not force employees to participate in the survey, avoid peer pressure by organising department competitions or team rewards or prizes linked to the achievement of response rate targets, etc. Do not make questions in the survey compulsory, allow respondents to be able to skip questions if they wish to do so.

14. Provide time to take the survey: Employees should be able to complete questionnaires in work time. Consider setting aside a designated time during the workday when all employees can fill out the survey at the same time. Plan sessions for those that need to take it on paper to gather as groups to administer and distribute the survey and collect the results. Facilitate on-site administrations where/if possible. With shift employees, be sure to schedule time for them to take the survey while on duty.

15. Make the most of the online questionnaire design (i.e. the ‘look & feel’): A well-designed and attractive survey that is easy to complete will improve response rates as well as data accuracy. Keep it simple and user-friendly. Include a personalised greeting on the survey’s landing page and make this first page as clean as possible in order to get the survey started easily. Use graphics sparingly and strategically. Online surveys generally don't require fancy graphics to be effective – on the contrary, sometimes graphics distract from the content of the survey, or influence answers. Research shows that surveys with extensive graphical treatments have lower response rates than plain clean surveys. Also, it is advisable to avoid using heavily interactive and engaging question styles like rating scales and sliders, this simply will confuse employees and make their capacity to complete the survey much slower.

16. Keep the survey brief: Longer surveys have lower response rates. It is as simple as that. Tell people up front how long it will take them to complete the survey. Generally, surveys that take longer than 15 minutes to complete are considered ‘too long’. Don’t overload the survey with unnecessary questions. Keep the number of open questions low, maybe only one at the end of the survey. It is a good idea to show a progress bar; impatient respondents may want to know how much longer the survey will take, especially when the survey is presented in various separate online pages.

17. Make sure the actual survey content is relevant to employees: Design your survey from the point of view of the respondent. Ensure that the survey topics and specific questions are of interest to those employees in your different business units and roles. The content of the questionnaire should relate to the employees’ environment so that they can recognise the value of completing it. Ensure there is a good survey content balance between their immediate work environment and the organisational functioning aspects of the business. Keep it simple, short and to the point, use clear and concise language. Check on the question wording - is each question easy to comprehend? Don’t use jargon that respondents can’t understand. Check the arrangement and flow of the survey categories and specific questions - does the sequence make sense? Put your most relevant questions at the beginning of the survey, get right to the main objective of your survey to grab your employees’ attention right from the start. Don’t ask too many open-ended comments questions as these take longer to complete.

18. Limit demographic questions: When potential survey respondents see a long list of very personal questions asking them to indicate their age, gender, ethnicity, religion, physical ability, tenure, etc. they will immediately fear being identified and will opt out of the survey. A better way is to tie demographic information to each respondent based on a unique code from your HRIS rather than asking it on the survey. The less employees feel they can be identified by their responses, the better.

19. Avoid complicated response scales: Just stick to five-point Likert response scales. Avoid combinations of various different scales in one single survey, these generate confusion. Also avoid large scales with more than five response options and those scales without a middle point. The latter is not good practice in employee surveys. Absence of a mid-point on a response scale produces distortions in the results by forcing employees to take a stance on a specific subject where they truly have no opinion; there are greater chances of employees abandoning surveys with such scales.

20. Avoid survey fatigue: Decrease the frequency of your surveys. Too many surveys throughout the year may deter your employees from participating. If you are to organise pulse surveys to monitor progress of actions, make sure you rotate different samples of respondents within the organisation so that people do not answer a survey more than twice a year.

I trust these 20 simple ideas and efforts will not only yield better employee survey participation results, but will also drive closer co-operation among your different teams to make a difference when working together to improve employee engagement.

Some final thoughts…

If your organisation is not prepared for the action that follows a survey, then don’t do it. Don’t bother asking your employees for their feedback and opinions unless you’re willing to take their views seriously. Honestly evaluate what they are telling you and take steps to resolve those employee issues identified in your survey. If you’re not willing to make that investment of time and resources up front, your survey initiative will only serve to further disengage and disgruntle your employees, so if this is the case, then expect even lower response rates in future employee surveys.

Don’t be tempted to use your survey’s response rate as a kind of badge of honour for your internal communications. In this respect, keep your employee surveys voluntary and do not force or over-encourage people to participate in your surveys. You may not get high response rates, yes, but those fewer responses that you get will be more ‘authentic and meaningful’ – concentrate on quality, not on quantity. Don’t be tempted to employ 'cheap' tricks to increase your response rates such as gifts, prizes, rewards, donations, etc.

Employees should answer your surveys by conviction. People will participate in surveys only if they feel their feedback will affect something they care about. They will want to share their opinion only if they believe management is willing to listen.

One of the key reasons participation rates are low is because of a lack of trust in the organisation and its leadership. There is a lot of fear around how the data is to be used: Are the surveys truly anonymous? Will employees get into trouble or fired for speaking the truth? Do employees think the survey is pointless and a complete waste of time? Do they view the survey as a simple “tick-box” exercise? Will managers do anything with the results? This lack of trust needs to be tackled head-on in your pre-survey communications.

Finally, there is a common misconception that employee engagement surveys are an initiative solely owned and driven from the HR department and that eventually they are the only ones responsible for ensuring greater employee participation and better response rates. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Employee surveys (and their desired outcomes) should be seen as a key corporate initiative and not only as an isolated HR-driven programme. For this to be achieved there needs to be a close partnership between HR and all levels of management in the organisation. HR only has a facilitation role in these initiatives; ultimately it is senior management who is responsible for driving the success of an employee survey, including those necessary higher response rates…



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