Survey response rates, or participation rates as we prefer to call them, are themselves often a measure of engagement; a measure of how engaged employees are with the survey and feedback process.
We’ve also done some analyses and found a moderate relationship between participation rates and employee engagement levels. However, the relationship is nowhere near perfect and there does appear to be a trade off effect above the 85-90% mark.
Is 100% participation on a staff survey good?
We recently found a company with the lowest engagement score (in the last 12 months) had a 100% participation rate. In fact, a 100% participation rate can be a bad sign and it is usually accompanied by comments about coercion and a large number of missing responses or unmeaningful responses (e.g. all ‘strongly agree’ or ‘strongly disagree’). So, having a 100% response rate is sometimes associated with poorer quality data – and it is quality of data that we should be focused on, not the quantity.
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In employee surveys we are not trying to generalize from a relatively small sample to a much larger population like we often are in customer or political research. In employee surveys we are mostly talking about participation rates well above 50% (which is about the rate achieved in US elections) and generally in the 65-85% range. These are rates that political scientists and market researchers can only dream of.
So, what is a good participation rate in employee research?
In small companies or teams (<50) we should be aiming a little higher, perhaps 80-90% is a good minimum benchmark allowing us to hear from 4 out of 5 people on average. As we move to larger companies we can scale our expectations down – with 500 employees we will probably get a good sense of where we’re at with 70% of employees so 70-80% is a good benchmark. Moving up to companies of 1000+ we can probably aim around 65% as a lower bound – even though higher rates allow a stronger sense of involvement psychologically.
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Sometimes there will be reasons for even the above participation rates to be difficult, and one can certainly still get good statistical estimation from smaller samples in large companies.
How to increase employee survey participation rates
Putting participation rates into perspective is often one of the first steps towards a healthier attitude to employee feedback that your organization can make. In the medium and longer term the best way to increase participation rates is to share results quickly and openly and demonstrate a genuine intent to make practical changes – those who didn’t respond this time may just be ready to join in next time.
You should also be sure to talk about the importance of participation in pre-survey communications. Great participation leads to great data, which leads to great results.
Andrea Reyes, Director of Field Training at Journeys says that opening up live participation results for managers made an impact. "This helped leaders to encourage their team to participate and it did lead to and increase in participation for us," she says. At Vend, who have had participation rates above 90% on their engagement surveys, the same is true. There is a high level of buy-in on the feedback process from managers, who are always happy to try to increase their team’s participation.
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