There is a lot of debate over the number of questions to use on an employee engagement survey. Back in the 1990’s, the idea of using a short 10-12-question employee survey became popular as a “quick and easy way” to measure employee engagement. Since then, others have promoted the use of short surveys or “pulse surveys” that target specific topics. But what is the right number of questions to use for your organization’s employee engagement survey? (Quick preview… it depends!)
The problem with short surveys
We receive regular requests for these short surveys, and in many cases, they are the best way to go. They are quick to complete, and provide high-level data to the executive team. They may also be good for targeting particular topics of concern, say, the impact of a recent merger, for example. But they seldom cover the vast scope that an organization needs to make critical organization decisions. The problem with short surveys is that it is hard to glean much insight beyond the superficial, unless the survey covers a very specific, very targeted topic. There is simply too little data to work from when action planning occurs. Further, with these shorter surveys, after the first year the process becomes stale, as managers struggle to act on the same basic results year after year with little detail behind the responses.
The problem with long surveys
Now, let’s look at the other extreme—long surveys. We have had numerous partners approach us with surveys that go beyond 75 questions. We’ve even had one prospective client approach us with an employee survey of over 300 questions! The bottom line? Surveys with 75 or more questions are just too darn long. This results in rater fatigue and disinterest; employees will burn out before they can answer all of the questions. If your employees somehow manage to complete all of the questions, the amount of data can result in “analysis paralysis” because there will be too much information for managers and the organization to process, not to mention the accumulation of employee time spent responding to the survey
So, what is right number of employee engagement survey questions?
This is where the “it depends” comes into play. As we mentioned, short surveys of 15 questions or less work well for targeted topics. If I want to understand perceptions of safety in my manufacturing plants, for example, a shorter survey would be ideal. Similarly, if my annual employee survey (the more extensive survey) finds a specific concern, and I want to explore that in more depth, a shorter survey is very appropriate. However, an annual survey should be a precise instrument, not a blunt tool. It should contain enough questions to provide enough detail that action can be taken.
So, how many employee survey questions is that? We can speak from both experience and research—we’ve seen both extremes. However, over the years, we have found that 35-50 questions on an employee engagement survey, customized to your organization, is about right. It provides a level of detail from which survey action plans can be developed, while being careful not to overwhelm the survey taker. We also find that adding 1-3 open-ended (written response) questions will add more information to the qualitative portion of the survey. A survey of this length only takes five to eight minutes to complete, and avoids rater fatigue. It also provides a comprehensive set of data that can be used to diagnose and identify a variety of action items.
And another thing keep in mind…
Regardless of the length of your survey, no single off-the-shelf employee engagement survey is right for every organization. The survey should address YOUR needs. It should gather information critical to YOUR company. Is your employee attrition high? Find out why. Did you just acquire another organization? Ask about how the integration is going. Products not going to market fast enough? You get the picture. Remember, a shorter survey generally cannot get at all the information important to assess employee engagement in YOUR organization.