Workforce Surveys: What’s a Good Response Rate?

Numerous factors affect response rates. It’s far better to focus on the results of employee engagement surveys than the number of people who participated.

This article has been updated from a post originally published on September 17, 2013 by CEB, now Gartner. Current research may include updated and/or alternative positions on these issues.

Heads of human resources obviously want a “good” response rate for employee engagement surveys. But what is a good rate? It depends. There are various things to consider:

  • Have you ever conducted a workforce survey of this type before?
  • What is the profile of your company (office-based, production, etc.)?
  • What proportion of your employees will participate in the survey?
  • How supportive is your leadership team of the survey?
  • How well-designed is the survey (concise, relevant, etc.)?
  • What do you want the survey to accomplish?

The value of employee participation and engagement surveys

The best way to elicit a high response rate is to communicate effectively how respondents will benefit from contributing to the survey. In other words, if managers and senior executives can answer the question “What’s in it for me?” half the battle for high participation is already won.

Another way to get good participation rates is to ensure that both the survey and its output are relevant to employees and managers. If employees are disconnected from the survey, there is a high chance that they will either ignore the survey or fail to act on its results.

Instead of focusing on the response rate, business leaders should instead remind employees of the key changes made as a result of past surveys. If possible, managers should link past survey results to positive business outcomes, such as higher sales performance or lower absenteeism. This approach gives employees examples of how survey participation can improve issues that matter to them.

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What is a good response rate?

It might seem that the higher the response rate the better, but if response rates nudge over 85%-90%, we tend to think participants have been overly encouraged or incentivized to complete the survey. This kind of survey participation is likely to generate skewed results.

It’s common to hear executives say: “I had a 93% response rate, so why are my results so bad?” That should be an indicator that the manager has missed the point — the real work starts after the survey, not when the final response rates have been communicated.

We recommend to clients that response rates only be communicated internally at a very high level — or not at all. Post-survey discussions should focus on key themes and actions, not on arguments about whether the organization achieved a 78% or 79% response rate.

As long as the number of responses gives a statistically representative and reliable sample at sufficient levels of the company, that should be all the discussion required. Often, this can be a surprisingly low proportion of the overall population.

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