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A company with locations all over the US finally decided to run an employee survey.  The company’s noble hope was to measure levels of employee engagement to better understand the causes of rising attrition rates.  After an inspiring meeting with the VP of HR (let’s call her Susan), the HR team put its entire weight behind the survey project.  The HR team was excited about this new opportunity to leverage employee feedback.

Download: Sample Employee Engagement Survey

In the coming weeks, Susan led her project team to design and implement the survey internally.  The survey launched and ran for two weeks—plenty of time for employees to respond.  When Susan received the survey results one week before her next meeting with the executive team, her heart sunk—only 37 percent of the employees responded.

employee-engagement-survey-participation-rates3What went wrong?  Why were so many of the employees unwilling to respond to the survey?  Susan’s story represents a common issue we hear from new clients, especially when trying to run an employee survey for the first time.  We’ve found that poor survey participation can be traced to a failure to implement one or more of the following 10 best practices:

  1. Get stakeholder buy-in.  Yes, support from the executive team is critical, but communicating that support throughout the organization is impactful. Have the CEO communicate the importance of the survey in multiple ways: a simple email, company newsletter article, or announcements in meetings will do the trick.
  2. Communicate expectations to managers. All leaders in the organization 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.
  3. Guarantee confidentiality.  Our database of over 20 million employee survey responses highlights a number of workplace issues that need to be addressed.  One of the most shocking issues is that 34 percent of employees are afraid to speak up at work.  If employees are afraid that candid feedback will be received unfavorably (odds are about a third of your employees feel that way) then they need to feel like survey responses will be kept completely confidential.  Outsourcing the survey rather than running it internally can give employees confidence in speaking their minds. Don’t let your employees’ fear of retribution damage your response rate.
  4. Limit demographic questions.  When employees see a long list of questions asking them to indicate their age, gender, and tenure, they will fear being identified and opt out.    A better way is to tie demographic information to each response based on a unique code rather than asking it on the survey.   The less employees feel they can be identified by their responses, the better.
  5. Keep the survey short.  Sometimes it is difficult to limit the number of questions because there are so many things that leaders want to know.  We recommend about 50 questions total.
  6. Limit open-ended questions.  While open-ended questions are excellent tools to use to capture employees’ true thoughts and feelings, a survey with too many open-ended questions won’t be well received.  Limit yourself to two or three precisely worded questions that invite open, candid reflection on company strengths and organization-wide areas of opportunity.
  7. Target survey reminders. A two-week administration keeps the survey window short, yet catches people who are traveling, on vacation, or on sick leave. Send several survey reminders, but only to those who have not submitted a survey. When using an online tool, track participation at the location or department level so you can send targeted communication to groups with lower response rates.
  8. Provide time to take the survey. With shift employees, be sure to schedule time for them to take the survey while on the clock.  Plan sessions for those that need to take it on paper to gather as groups to hand out and collect the results.
  9. Offer incentives.  Consider holding a competition across the entire company.  One effective method is to hold a competition between company locations, with the location(s) with the highest participation rates receiving a prize.  Companies without multiple locations can instead compete on a department level.  Incentives make the employee survey process more memorable and engaging.
  10. Promise to share the results. When employees know that the results will be shared with the entire company, they are more invested in the process and likely to participate.

What are some ways your company has tried to increase employee survey participation?  What successes have you seen?  Share your stories with us.

Employee Engagement Survey

Kristin Chapman
Kristin Chapman

Kristin is the Director of Client Services at DecisionWise. She holds a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from Brigham Young University and an M.B.A. from Washburn University. Kristin currently works extensively with DecisionWise's global client organizations, administering surveys and assessments in over 30 languages. Her experience and interest in different cultures resulted in extended international study and residence in the Middle East, South Africa, and India. View Bio

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1 comment — View
  • Number one should be what’s the purpose of the survey. Since a commonly held definition of employee engagement has yet to present itself, what result would the CEO like to see if engagement were increased. Would it be obvious or would it take another survey to find out? If you don’t know how you’re going to measure the results, why do it? More participants might make you feel better, but it’s no indicator of better results.
    Comments on the ten:

    1. If the CEO isn’t willing to sponsor the survey you can half the results you might expect to get. We require the CEO to video has message to the employees, the why, who’s managing the process and the one and only question that’s going to be asked.

    2. Management gets a slightly different message dictating their response to the suggestions, execute immediately, debates between the contractor and a manager are escalated, sometimes all the way to the CEO. Now you’ve got everyone’s attention.

    3. You can outsource the questions, but if you don’t outsource the collection and execution, then you
    are managing by committee, nothing truly great, nothing truly stupid, just the average wrong answer. The contractors must report to the CEO, otherwise the culture, politics and silos will win.

    4. Rarely will the demographics be required. With open-ended questions it’s pretty easy to determine to demographics.

    5 & 6. You only need one question and I’m certain asking 50 questions would require more interest than the average employee has. That’s almost like getting an extra assignment. We ask only a single open-ended question

    7. The survey has a start and an end and the end needs to be far enough out so that as changes are made nearly every day, people can see that something is really happening.

    8. ditto

    9 & 10. Since we’re taking action nearly every day and announcing it, that takes care of the incentive issue. The more that changes the more the participation. And if a sacred cow or two gets killed, all the better. That really gets them involved.

    If there’s any value here at all, having outside support for the collection and fighting the political, cultural and silo blockers is what makes a survey work.

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