How to Increase Employee Survey Participation?

Launching an employee engagement survey? Here's how to increase staff participation.

Creating and distributing an employee engagement survey is hard work.

Getting people to actually take that survey can feel like a downright impossible task.

Employees tend to focus on activities that fall into their job description, because this is what they’re evaluated on.

So when an invitation to participate in an employee engagement survey arrives in their inbox, it quickly shoots all the way down their priority list.

When there’s widespread participation, employee engagement surveys give you valuable insight into how your employees are feeling.

They help you identify trends, spot challenges, and address issues before they transform into business threats.

They also give you the hard data you need to win support for your employee engagement strategy.

Why is it hard to convince employees to participate in employee engagement surveys?

This question has a complex answer. Everything from a full workload to distrust of business leaders’ intentions to poor survey design can reduce participation rates.

In this article, you’ll learn more about these common roadblocks and discover strategies for how to address them.

Top strategies to increase employee survey participation:

Is 100% participation in an employee survey good?

A 100% participation rate can be a bad sign, as it's often a sign of coercion (e.g. including survey participation in the performance review). This can lead to satisficing or straight-lining. Satisficing is when respondents don’t put much effort into answering survey questions. They only provide “satisfactory” answers to get the survey out of the way. Examples of satisficing behavior include:

  • Choosing the first response option that seems reasonable instead of reading the entire list of possible responses for the best fit
  • Choosing “don’t know” instead of putting forward an opinion
  • Randomly choosing options

Straightlining is when respondents simply provide the same answers in a response scale, like choosing “3” for every question. This compromises the integrity of your data.

What is a good survey participation rate?

In small companies or teams (under 100 employees) you should be aiming at 75-85% participation. At Sparkbay, we usually recommend an 80% rate to be a good minimum target, as it allows 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 you can get a good sense of where you’re at with a 70% participation rate, so 70-80% is a good target. Companies of 1,000+ can probably aim for a survey participation rate of around 65%.

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Company Size

Target survey participation rate

Under 100






Sometimes there will be reasons for even the above participation rates to be difficult, and one can certainly still get a good statistical estimate from smaller samples in large companies.

Insure buy-in from senior leadership before the survey

Any experienced project manager will tell you that before embarking on a big project, you need buy-in from senior leaders aka your project sponsor.

A project sponsor is the person who advocates for the project and supports it to other business leaders.

An employee engagement survey may have the support of HR leadership, but since it’s a cross-functional project that requires participation from teams you don’t oversee, it’s important to secure buy-in from other senior leaders.

Start promoting your survey before you even start writing it

How do you get buy-in from other senior leaders?

You start by promoting the project way before you start writing or implementing it.

If you’re a newer organization with no history of conducting employee engagement surveys, this will get your colleagues and leaders familiar with the concept and how it would work before it needs to be executed.

If you’ve conducted employee surveys in the past, but struggled to get enough participants, this will help you stress the importance of encouraging employees to participate well in advance.

Promoting your engagement survey to senior leaders ahead of the survey’s development also gives them an opportunity to participate in the survey’s creation.

They may have questions they want to ask employees or areas of interest they want to address. If the survey reflects these elements, they’ll have greater interest in promoting it.

Illustrate the positive impact of employee engagement

Most people agree with the importance of employee engagement in theory, but they struggle to see how it can be fostered in a specific, measurable way.

They also don’t have an understanding of how higher employee engagement rates translate to better business outcomes.

While conducting “pre-promotion” for your survey, share easily digestible statistics and information that highlight:

  • The relationship between employee engagement and profitability
  • The relationship between employee engagement and turnover
  • The relationship between employee engagement and innovation
  • Case studies from well-known companies that prioritized employee engagement

Most importantly, keep your audience in mind. If you’re talking to senior leaders, focus on metrics that quantify the link to specific business outcomes.

Hold a meeting with managers

Once you’ve received buy-in from senior leaders, you can ask them to trickle the message down to their teams. This gives you a launching pad for follow-up conversations with managers from those business units.

Schedule meetings with managers

Schedule meetings with managers from different departments, so they can ask questions about the employee engagement surveys, raise concerns, and share feedback. This is also an opportunity to gather feedback about the previous year’s survey.

Identify department- or business-unit specific issues to tackle

Not all of your company’s problems will be company-wide problems. Some of them will be department or team-specific. You want your employee engagement survey to collect data on all of these team-level issues. By working with your team you can ask questions such as:

  • What are the biggest challenges facing your department / team?
  • What would you like to understand about your current employees?
  • What questions would you like answered related to your current work dynamic?

This accomplishes two things.

First, it helps you identify gaps in your planned engagement survey questions.

Second, it shifts the purpose of the survey from assigning blame to finding solutions.

Managers don’t have to enter into the engagement survey exercise with defensiveness or trepidation. Instead, they can view it as an opportunity to learn more about their teams.

Organize structured, efficient meetings

Your meetings with managers should not be brainstorming sessions. You want to hold a meeting that has a clear focus and a shared understanding of what the meeting’s outcome will be.

For a meeting about an upcoming employee engagement survey, you want to come prepared with:

  • Areas of focus in your employee engagement survey
  • Your planned survey categories and questions
  • Specific issues for which you want to identify the root causes

In these meetings, the focus is not on assigning blame or brushing issues under the carpet. The focus is to identify gaps in your existing information and include managers in the process.

Apply the same logic you used to speak to your senior leaders to your conversations with managers. Understand the current culture and align the benefits of the employee engagement survey to the metrics on which they’re usually focused.

Before the meeting, send out an agenda that details what you’re going to discuss, what you’d like people to think about beforehand, and what the intended outcome of the meeting is.

If possible, have the senior leader responsible for that team of managers attend the meeting as well. This helps you ensure people attend and encourages managers to take the conversation seriously.

Engage with a customer success manager from your engagement survey vendor

Make time to chat with a customer success manager from the vendor helping you distribute your engagement survey.

You want to make sure that it’s easy for employees to access the survey and save their responses, so they can complete the survey in spurts.

You also want to confirm how to troubleshoot issues in case you need to create a new link for employees.

You’ll also want to understand what the different distribution options are. Can employees easily complete the survey from their phones, for example?

Once you’ve distributed the survey and employees have completed it, you want to know how to quickly download and review the data, whether it will be backed up, and whether there are value-added features the vendor can provide such as data visualizations.

Overall, you want to ensure that no technical questions get in the way of you successfully creating, distributing, and analyzing your engagement survey results.

Communicate the arrival of the survey to all employees

Your survey has been created, and you’re ready to share it with the company. You hit send, come in the next day, and...two people have completed it. You check again the following week and less than 10 percent of your workforce has provided their responses. What gives?

The average office worker reportedly receives around 121 emails per day and dispatches 40 per day. An invitation to complete an employee engagement is just one more message to put on the backburner.

So how do you bring your employee engagement survey to the forefront of your employees’ awareness?

Actively market your survey to your employees

Companies often focus on their customers when developing a marketing or communications strategy.

In reality, there are several audiences they should have distinct messaging for, mainly their:

  • Customers
  • Potential employees
  • Investors / shareholders
  • Current employees

Why should employees care about an engagement survey?

Why should they take time away from their paid work to complete this task?

Why should they believe that this is a sincere effort to make positive change?

Your internal communications and marketing should answer all of these questions. In addition, you should bring your employees’ attention to the employee engagement survey before it’s even distributed.

A few ideas for building awareness and interest are to:

  • Share emails from senior leaders and the CEO that explain what these employee engagement surveys allow them to do for employees
  • Highlight how previous employee engagement surveys have allowed the company to make improvements
  • Share positive stories from employees about their time working at your company

Excellent internal communications are a important part of building employee engagement

Internal communications and marketing are not just important when you want your employees to complete a survey. They are important for employee engagement in general. A strong employee communication strategy:

  • Reduces employee anxiety, worry, and gossiping when it comes to company changes
  • Reduces employee turnover and increases retention because employees understand the company’s larger strategy and trust that the communications they receive are honest thanks to a good track record

Internal marketing also helps you communicate your brand values to your employees.

People pay attention to what gets recognized and acknowledged, and a weekly email that shouts out employees that embody these values in their work encourages other employees to emulate them.

A strong internal communications strategy also helps your employees become better brand ambassadors.

The best employees also come through referrals, since high-performing employees are likely to know other high-performing employees. They can clearly communicate your brand values to them.

An internal communications strategy reduces misinformation about your employee engagement survey

Establish the narrative for your employee engagement survey before your employees do it for you.

Consistent and clear messaging helps combat misinformation before it impacts your project’s success rate.

Your communications strategy should highlight the following features:

  • The survey is anonymous and survey responses or overall results are not attributed to a specific employee
  • The unique links are to get a large enough sample of employees, not to track employees’ responses
  • The insights from the employee engagement survey are used to inform the company’s people and culture strategy
  • How the results from the previous year’s survey (e.g. high dissatisfaction with the employee benefits package) was the direct reason for changes (e.g. a more comprehensive health benefits package) this year

Executing on your internal communications strategy

Once you’ve finalized the messaging for your employee engagement survey communications, you need to distribute it to your workforce.

You can do this in a number of ways, including:

  • Developing an email funnel with messages from your leadership team about the importance of the employee engagement survey
  • Posting on the company-wide intranet
  • Developing multimedia content types such as videos and infographics
  • Sending push notifications through your company app
  • Sharing a sample or video preview of the survey so employees know what to expect

In addition to choosing your distribution channels, set a content distribution schedule.

You want your content to go out just frequently enough that it stays top of mind for your employees but not so often that they ignore it.

Finally, your internal communications don’t have to focus exclusively on the survey.

You can also share content related to employees’ current work experiences. This could look like videos that share how an employee did an excellent job solving a customer’s problem.

It could even be a ‘Did You Know?’ infographic that outlines all the resources and benefits available to employees.

Create short, easy surveys rather than a long questionnaire

Reader fatigue is real, especially when people have multiple responsibilities on their plate

Traditionally, employee surveys have been massive, half-hour long questionnaires distributed once a year.

They are so overwhelming that employees tend to put them aside or quickly complete them without much thought.

This impacts the integrity of the survey data.

You want to obtain real data so you can make meaningful change. You don’t want your employees to view this as a checkbox exercise.

Shorter surveys also help prevent satisficing.

Satisficing is when employees don’t think carefully about their survey answers. They’ll rely on heuristics, aka thinking shortcuts, to quickly make decisions while answering.

For instance, your employees may see that they have a long survey but know that participation is mandatory. This coupled with the knowledge that the survey is anonymous might tempt them to provide all neutral answers or all agreeable answers.

Break up your surveys into smaller pulse surveys

Consider ditching behemoth surveys in favour of shorter “pulse” surveys.

These surveys go out once a month or once a quarter and ask specific questions tied to your organization’s most challenging people problems.

Pulse surveys can pop up directly on an employee’s computer, allowing them to answer 5 or 10 questions in the space of a few minutes.

They can also be pushed to mobile devices, so employees can answer the questions on their own time.

Perhaps the best characteristic of pulse surveys is their ability to monitor trends over time. Longer engagement surveys are a snapshot of a moment in the year. Leaders don’t know whether they’ve progressed until the following year’s survey.

Pulse surveys offer more visibility.

Suppose your company distributes a pulse survey in January and that survey finds that employees are unhappy with the amount of face time they have with their managers.

Your team can quickly create resources and training for how managers can hold better one-to-one meetings with employees that focus on topics they care about, such as professional development.

When you distribute that survey again in March, you can see whether this rate of dissatisfaction has gone up or down in response to your new programs.

Make sure to follow best practices

  • Ask questions that matter. Respect your employees’ time by limiting your survey to questions that matter.
  • Ask one question at a time. Write clear copy and avoid compound questions. Long, complex questions confuse readers and compromise the integrity of your survey data. Make sure your questions are easily understandable.
  • Ask direct questions. Be specific when asking questions. If you’re tackling a difficult subject, don’t beat around the bush and confuse survey participants with vague, convoluted language.
  • Ask unbiased questions – no leading! Review your questions to ensure that they aren’t biased or leading. This compromises the perceived integrity of your survey. You don’t want employees to tell others who haven’t yet participated that the survey is biased towards a certain outcome.
  • Stick to response scales. Response scales that require fixed answers make it easier for you to collect, compare, and analyze your data. Free-text responses are also helpful, but you should use them sparingly to avoid overwhelming yourself with qualitative data.
  • Start with the easiest questions.If you do want to conduct a longer survey, present them in order of difficulty. Start with the easy, straightforward questions to create a sense of momentum. As the survey proceeds, introduce tougher questions. Since your employees have already invested time into the survey, they’ll be less likely to quit.
  • Include a progress bar.Show participants how far they are into the survey. When they get to the harder questions, they have a visual reminder that they’ve already completed over 50% of the survey.

Test your survey before the launch

Don’t wait until launch day to discover glitches.

Go through a test drive to see that all questions can be answered. You’ll want to ensure your vendor is available for this test drive as well.

Act on data

Once you’ve conducted your survey and analyzed the results, act on the insights you find.

Employees – and humans in general – are less likely to change their behaviour if they don’t see an immediate benefit.

Plus, people are more sensitive to potential losses than they are to potential gains. If employees think they’ll lose time – and potentially political capital – by being honest in a survey, they won’t take it seriously since they don’t see the potential gain.

On the other hand, witnessing a meaningful attempt to act on survey results can lead to an increase in participation.

Finally, constant surveys with minimal benefits can lead to survey fatigue.

If you receive your engagement survey data in a spreadsheet, review it can be overwhelming.

Nevertheless, you should block off time in your calendar to review it properly. It can take hours to do this right.

You don’t want to rush this. It takes time and money to create and distribute your surveys – not to mention promote it so employees participate.

Make the most of the data you’ve collected by setting aside time to engage with it and:

  • Identify what your main questions were for the survey and use this to confirm or deny your existing theories
  • Filter results by subgroups of interest to understand what the biggest problems are in each department and team
  • Interrogate your data by asking questions like, ‘What are the most common responses to these questions?’ or ‘Which responses are impacting our company culture and overall performance the most?’

Start turning your employee satisfaction survey insights into actions immediately instead of waiting until the end of the year.

You don’t have to fix everything at once, but you do want to make a visible effort that you’re starting, especially when the process of filling out the survey is still fresh in your employees’ minds.

Once you’ve identified solutions for the problems raised by your engagement survey, prioritize them.

Which ones are your “low-hanging fruit” problems? The ones you can act on in the short-term to see immediate results.

This’ll also allow you to build the momentum and success stories needed to tackle the harder problems that require more resources and senior-level buy in.

Tie new initiatives directly back to survey results

When you roll out new initiatives, tie them back to your employee engagement survey.

Make it clear that the reason why this new program exists is because your employees spoke and you listened. Don’t take it for granted that this is obvious.

This goes back to your earlier internal communications strategy. Highlight in your email communications or other channels that you heard employees say they were less than satisfied with their professional development opportunities and that this is why you’ve rolled out these new training programs.

This creates a positive feedback loop where employees begin to view the survey results as a good use of their time.

Make managers accountable for survey participation

Survey participation is often hindered at the manager level. Employees take cues about what’s permissible from their managers.

So if they’re told to disregard a survey and do something else, they’ll ignore incoming emails or reminders to complete their survey.

On the other hand, if managers insist on completion and remind employees, completing the survey becomes something employees prioritize.

What gets measured, get managed.

If managers are promoted and rewarded based on their ability to complete projects, they won’t prioritize employee engagement surveys.

On the other hand, if their incentives are tied to implementing employee engagement results, they will prioritize that.

Make the most of your employee engagement surveys

Employee engagement surveys can give employers valuable insight into what their employees think and feel.

But they can only deliver this value, if employees participate in them.

Companies carrying out employee engagement surveys should invest time into creating great surveys, creating a strategy for promoting them, and act on the results.