Employee Survey Methodologies: The Case for Likert’s Five-Point Scale

engagement and satisfaction survey

Named after its inventor, psychologist Rensis Likert, the Likert five-point scale is the most widely used method in employee survey research. It measures attitudes and opinions by posing a series of questions or items that ask respondents to select a rating on a scale that ranges from one extreme to another, such as “completely agree” to “completely disagree.”

Consider the number of points

Ideally, your employee survey rating scale should contain a sufficient number of points to extract the necessary information.

In a four or six-point scale, respondents don’t have a neutral category. People are forced to one side of the scale or the other, which brings the validity of survey results into question.

“The Likert scale is a fascinating subject.”

strongly disagree disagree agree strongly agree

The five-point rating scale eliminates forced choices by allowing those who are neutral or undecided to indicate this using the midpoint on the scale, rather than obliging them to choose when they may not know or have an opinion on a certain question or item.

“I prefer the Likert 5-point scale”

strongly disagree disagree neutral agree strongly agree

With a seven-point scale there’s a little more nuance, albeit with more time and effort to complete.

“I prefer the 7-point scale”

strongly disagree moderately disagree disagree neutral agree moderately agree strongly agree

“At TalentMap,” says CEO Sean Fitzpatrick, “we use a five-point rating scale to allow for a neutral response in the middle of the scale and to provide for enough detail without overwhelming the respondent with choices. By doing this for each question or item, organizations gain valuable insights to determine areas in need of improvement, as well as areas where they’re thriving.”

Negative to positive or reverse

The argument as to whether response scales should run “negative to positive” or “positive to negative” has support both ways, but the tendency is to go negative to positive. Why? Because when the positive scale is first, a slight positive bias arises in scores. If the negative scale is first, people are more likely to look through the answers and contemplate their choices, thereby eliminating bias in either direction.

Ask questions correctly

One of the most important validity factors in employee survey research is asking questions properly. There’s an art to this science. Good questions will solicit responses on all points of the scale from one – completely disagree to five – completely agree. Most people will answer in the 2-3-4 range with a few ones and fives.

“You can do more interesting things statistically with well-designed questions in the five-point rating format. The response pattern should approximate normal bell curve distribution with two-thirds of responses around the middle,” says Fitzpatrick. “We can predict for instance – depending on the data that comes out of an organization – that by improving learning and development scores by X percent, engagement score will go up by Y percent. These insights allow us to recommend where to invest money to improve engagement.

In technical terms, Fitzpatrick is referring to regression analysis. Harvard Business Review contributing editor, Amy Gallo spells it out as a way of mathematically estimating the relationship among variables and sorting out which have an impact. It answers the questions: Which factors matter most? Which can we ignore? How do those factors interact with each other? And, perhaps most importantly, how certain are we about all of these factors?

In addition to collecting accurate information in a reliable format, asking the right questions in a five-point scale also allows for valid cross-study/survey comparisons. In short, it allows you to compare the employee survey score of one organization/division to that of another.

Determining the right number of points for a rating scale and designing good questions for reliable, valid data analysis and interpretation may vary depending on the subject being evaluated and its complexity. That said, ever since the five-point Likert system debuted in 1932, it continues to tip the scales in popularity, favored by researchers, statisticians and survey consulting firms like TalentMap, partially because it’s easier for respondents to complete. Partially, these days, because it’s easier to fit on a variety of screen formats (laptops, tablets, and cell phones). Mostly because of its scientific and academic efficacy.

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