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Exploring Employee Survey Response Rates

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Employee surveys can be a great tool to assess working climate. Without a good response rate, however, the district sees only part of the picture. 

How Many Is Enough?

Ideally, over 80 percent. The remaining 20 percent would likely hold a mix of opinions, so they would cause items to shift up or down only slightly.

Realistically, for employee opinion surveys across industries, 65 to 75 percent is considered good. We’re typically talking about a survey window of 1 week to 1 month, and during that timeframe, it’s reasonable for a chunk of employees to be too busy or distracted to spend extra time on a survey.

Why Do We Care?

Higher response rates mean you can generalize the results that much more. If you only know what 30 percent of employees think, then it’s a big guess to design a policy or program based on that information—you have no clue about the other 70 percent. If you know what 80 percent think, it’s a much safer bet.

To decide on generalizing, you can also check how representative the survey is. Say 50 percent of your employees are teachers, but 65 percent of respondents are teachers. The opinions are heavily influenced by teachers, and they lack influence from one or more other groups (typically auxiliary).

Why Did Ours Drop?

  • Had it been consistently higher, or just last year? The answer may be that last year was the unusual one, and this year is a return to normal.
  • Were there lots of district changes? Shake-ups in central or campus administration (or opening a new campus) can cause a dip in responses, because employees are still adjusting and don’t know how they feel.
  • What was turnover and hiring like this year? If you had higher than normal turnover or increased staff dramatically, those employees may not have known how much the district values the survey.
  • Did the timing change? If you changed the time of year for your survey, it may be that there were too many competing things in those weeks. We’ve even had a client speculate that the county fair distracted employees that week.
  • How many surveys? Survey response fatigue happens when someone gets too many surveys and stops responding. Surveys may come to your employees from other district departments, but people also get hit up by professional groups, family hobbies or activities, and customer service follow-ups.

What Can We Do About It?

  • Communicate: Before the survey, district leadership tells employees to watch for the survey. Afterward, let employees know how the information was used to improve—it can boost the next year’s participation if employees know it helps.
  • Make it fun: We’ve heard of districts making it a competition among principals, or offering a breakfast for the campus with the highest participation.
  • Check your timing: Standardized tests or local events may distract from the survey. The beginning and end of the school year are usually a crush of other activities and responsibilities. Running the survey for two to three weeks gives some flexibility, without dragging on.
  • Make it accessible (x2):
    • Test the survey on a tablet or smartphone to make it as easy as possible to take.
    • Offer a computer with the survey link for employees who don’t typically use email in their daily work. Common locations are the transportation office, maintenance shop, or child nutrition office. Plan a system to prevent the same staff repeating the survey.
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