Don’t Know about ‘Don’t Know’? Examining the use of ‘Don’t Know’ in Employee Engagement Surveys
No two surveys and no two clients are the same, but one question we often receive is whether to include “Don’t Know” as a survey response option. The most common concern clients have is that any scale without the “Don’t Know” option will force respondents to provide meaningless data. After all the effort undertaken to deliver an employee engagement survey, the last thing they want is data they can’t trust.
On first glance, it feels reasonable to include “Don’t Know” as an option. And most people remember seeing it on a survey they’ve completed at some point. Nonetheless, there are many pitfalls to including “Don’t Know” as a response option, in particular in an employee engagement survey. You may be surprised to learn that your respondents know more than you think.
What to Know about ‘Don’t Know’
The most obvious upside to including this as an option is that it encompasses a wider breadth of data in each question response. Some people legitimately don’t know, and this is now reflected in the data. The inverse is also true. Only those who feel confident in their responses are going to be counted in the results. In some cases, this can be preferable and more accurate than forcing a best guess from the respondent. Additionally, forcing respondents to choose an answer can make a survey more frustrating and lead to respondent fatigue, thereby lowering the survey response rate.
Nonetheless, in opinion surveys, like employee engagement surveys, providing the option, “Don’t Know’ can generally create more problems than it solves:
Respondents have an easy way out: When this option is present, respondents are less likely to seriously engage in the question. Rather than take the time to consider a difficult response, they are more likely to select “Don’t Know”.
Opinions are easier to measure: Unlike a survey that asks respondents something factual, (e.g. How often do you get a haircut?) opinions and attitudes can usually be provided with relative accuracy. The lack of a strong opinion is better indicated by “Neutral” than “Don’t Know”.
More opinion data provides more insight: Given the option, a new employee may respond “Don’t Know” when asked about a manager’s coaching if they have limited experience with it. This provides no information on the employee experience and leaves gaps on a manager’s overall feedback. Without this option, an employee who is satisfied with their manager (despite not receiving coaching) would give a positive response while an unsatisfied employee would answer negatively. These responses provide more useful and actionable insights.
It compromises data: Large numbers of “Don’t Know” responses across the survey leave gaps that make it much more difficult to link data and/or see trends in responses. Additionally, if a minimum sample of 5 is needed to report a group’s result, then a small group with many “Don’t Know” responses may be impossible to report on accurately.
How to know whether to include ‘Don’t Know’
Including the option “Don’t Know” in a survey question should be considered on a case-by-case basis, with it generally omitted in employee engagement surveys. There are always exceptions to this rule. Depending on the nature of the questions and profile of the respondents, it may sometimes make sense to include this option. For example, if you ask employees to rate the online helpdesk, those who have never used it should have an option to be excluded. You may still gain useful data in these situations by offering a follow-up question exploring why they chose “Don’t Know”.
Gathering survey data can be expensive and time consuming. Any choice that reduces the number of useful responses or the sample size should be examined carefully. Any question where “Don’t Know” replaces a meaningful response represents a lost opportunity for analysis later. Avoiding a “Don’t Know” option minimizes these losses and may lead to a more meaningful, informative survey.
When you don't know, skip the "Don't Know"responses.
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