Why You Shouldn’t Use 5-Point Scales On Employee Engagement Surveys
5-point scales are what you most commonly find in employee surveys (think of a Likert-type scale ranging from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree). In many situations, 5-point scales are just fine, and psychological and sociological researchers use them to great effect. However, in the world of employee surveys, the 5-point scale has a fatal flaw.
5-point scales were designed for situations where the data has a reasonable chance of being normally distributed — where there are decent odds that as many people will score 1’s as they do 5’s. If you asked 1,000 random people to rate the statement, “Orange is a prettier color than green,” you’re going to get a wide variety of responses. Some people hate orange, while others love it. The same goes for green. And then there are the folks who feel so-so about both colors.
But inside an organization, the 5-point scale loses its effectiveness because employee survey results tend to be skewed and have less variability than the population at large. This is because we’re giving employees lots of money every year and it hugely influences their scores. In other words, you won’t get nearly as many 1’s as 5’s.
If you ask a group of employees at ACME Inc. to rate the statement, “ACME is a good place to work,” you’re not going to get very many low responses (i.e. 1’s and 2’s). That’s because those who truly thought ACME was an awful place to work have probably quit already.
When you survey people who have de facto said the company is decent (judging by the fact that they show up every day), your survey results will be skewed towards Strongly Agree, and there won’t be much variability in the responses. In the majority of the 5-point employee surveys we’ve seen, there really isn’t a 5-point scale; it’s more like a 3-point scale. Can you really say you’re using a 1-to-5 point scale if all the responses come out 3, 4 or 5? And this ceiling effect is one big reason why your surveys scores stay flat and don’t improve!
The easy resolve is a 7-point scale, which is what our Leadership IQ employee engagement survey uses. It gives much broader data, allows for more valid measurements, and you will actually see your scores improve!
Here's a video where I take a deeper dive into the problem with 5-point scales!
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