Response Rates in Organizational Surveys: How Much is Enough?

Books about survey research and survey design.

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How much of a response rate is considered good in organizational surveys? The answer to this question seems to differ for different disciplines and journals. A few key points that I found in my reading of the literature are:

  • In 2005, studies that collected organizational level data (for example, data on sales, profit, strategic orientation, innovation) had an average response rate of 35%, with standard deviation of 18.2 (Baruch & Brooks, 2008).
  • Response rates have decreased over the years.
  • Response rates for studies that utilize individual level data are statistically significantly higher.
  • Response rates are statistically significantly lower for studies that are conducted outside the United States due to cultural differences.
  • Some research finds higher response rates for web-based surveys. Other research finds that web surveys have lower response rates due to confidentiality and security concerns.
  • Response rates from countries with high average power distance (Hofstede, 1980) are lower than countries with low average power distance (Harzing, 2000). Power distance reflects the average perception of differences in power within a society. Low power distance implies that less powerful members of institutions expect more consultative relationships with more powerful members, while high power distance implies a greater acceptance of autocratic relationships with those in higher, formal positions.  Thus studies conducted in India are expected to have lower response rates due to the high power distance score for India (77) as compared to the USA (40).


Baruch, Y. and Brooks, H. “Survey response rate levels and trends in organizational research“, Human Relations August 2008 61: 1139-1160, doi:10.1177/0018726708094863

Harzing, A.W. “Cross-national industrial mail surveys: Why do response rates differ between countries?” Industrial Marketing Management, 2000, 29, 243–54.

Hofstede, G. “Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values”, Vol. 5. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE, 1980.

Smith, C. B.  “Casting the net: Surveying an Internet population”, . J. Comput. Mediat. Commun., 1997, 3: 77–84.

The Response Rate Conundrum in Survey Research

Response rates are suggested to be a critical indicator of survey and response quality. Thus research papers are expected to report response rates. However, this step is not as easy as it seems.

Response rate is defined as the percentage of the eligible sample that responds to the survey. As this definition indicates, how large is the eligible sample is an important criteria in this calculation.

Some texts and research papers suggest that non-contactable respondents be considered a part of the eligible sample. Thus,

Response Rate = Responses / Eligible Sample

where Eligible Sample = Responses + Refusals + Non-contacts

However, this is not true in several contexts. For example, making contact may be the only means by which one can establish the existence of a potential respondent. Or making contact may be the only way to determine eligibility. In such situations many papers define the eligible sample as responses plus refusals. This can plausibly lead to overstating the response rate.

Thus the response rate conundrum can be expressed as a range of response rates that lie with the following range:

Response Rate (Lower Bound) = Responses / (Responses + Refusals + Non-contacts)

Response Rate (Upper Bound) = Responses / (Responses + Refusals)

The true value of the response rate would lie near:

Response Rate (Likely) = Responses / (Responses + Refusals + EE(Non-contacts))

Here EE is Estimated Eligibility of non-contacts, i.e. the estimated proportion of non-contacts that would have been eligible. One way of calculating EE is by dividing the sum of responses and refusals (which is the determined eligible sample) by the number of contacted potential respondents.

An illustrative example is given below:


Non-verified Sample Pool: 100

Contacted Respondents: 50

Verified Sample: 25

Responses: 15

Refusals: 10


Response Rate (Lower Bound) = 15 / (15 + 10 + 50) = 5%

Response Rate (Upper Bound) = 10 / 25 = 40%

Response Rate (Likely) = 10 / (15 + 10 +(25/50)*50) = 20%