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Workforce Surveys: What’s a Good Response Rate?

It depends. It's far better to focus on the survey's results than how many people have contributed to them

Employee surveyClients often ask us what qualifies as a ‘good’ response rate in an employee engagement survey. We frequently respond that “it depends”. It depends on a number of factors, and in no particular order. To give a qualified answer we tend to ask the following questions:

  • Has your company done a survey of this type before?
  • What is the profile of your company (office-based, production, etc.)?
  • Do you have unions/works councils, and are they involved and supportive?
  • What is the proportion of your employees who will be completing the survey online versus on paper?
  • How supportive are your leadership team of the survey?
  • Is your survey well designed (concise, relevant, etc.)?

Show Employees the Value of Participation and Make Engagement Surveys Relevant

The most frequent cause of high participation is successful communication of how respondents will benefit from contributing to the survey. In other words, if employees and managers can answer the question “What’s in it for me?” half the battle for high participation is already won.

Good participation rates also come from making both the survey and its outputs relevant to employees and managers. If people can’t identify with the content and the outputs, chances are they will not complete the survey nor act on the results.

So, for employees, instead of focusing on the response rate during pre-/mid-/post-survey communications, remind them about key changes made as a result of past surveys. And, for managers, link past survey results to business outcomes, such as sales performance or absenteeism. Remind managers how their actions on survey topics (and the encouragement they give to their teams to respond) can improve things that matter to them.

So… What is a Good Response Rate?

That said, most readers of this post will still require some hard data. In 2012, the average response rate across the 200+ surveys we conducted around the world was 76%, with some substantially higher and lower.

Label us cynical but, in our experience, it’s difficult to get people to complete surveys, so they need encouragement. It is tempting to believe that the higher the response rate, the better, but if response rates nudge over 85%-90%, we tend to worry. It’s possible that the “wrong kind of encouragement” may have been applied during the survey administration.

One common misconception about surveys is that response rates are correlated to results. When survey results are out, we often hear things like “I had a 93% response rate, why are my results so bad?”, that should be an indicator that the manager has missed the point that the real work starts after the survey, not when the final response rates have been communicated.

We recommend to clients that response rates are only communicated internally at a very high level or not at all. This certainly applies when we present survey results to senior leaders. The valuable time in a presentation should be spent focusing on key themes and actions, and not quibbling about whether the company 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 of the discussion required. Often, this can be a surprisingly low proportion of the overall population.

This post was edited to include new links in August 2017.


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