How To Ask The Right Employee Survey Questions

how to ask the right employee survey questions

All survey vendors have some version of standard employee survey questions. Often though customization is desired or required especially when an organization wants to measure the impact of specific concepts or initiatives. However, asking the right questions is a complex science. Researchers and statisticians spend years, decades, lifetimes honing their scholarly know-how. After all, defective data is risky data that can lead to perilous decisions – the last thing you want to happen in your organization.

Start with strategy

Before customizing any employee survey, know what you want to know. Define the purpose of your survey. Set a goal. Identify the themes you want to investigate. Identify any sub-groups you want to be able to analyze (departments? functions? regions?).

Whenever customizing a survey, consider having all key stakeholders involved: executive leadership, middle management, the broader employee population, and union reps where applicable. Review long range plans, vision, mission, values, and projected goals. Secure CEO and executive team consensus. Uncover concerns or gaps, hot buttons, and issues. Hold pre-survey focus groups.

Consider The Science Around The Questions You’re Asking

There’s a lot of theory and knowledge behind formulating the right questions. Sample questions can be found in scientific and academic literature – standard approaches and phrasing determined to be valid. Seek professional assistance. Survey specialists are a good starting point. You can also use an existing employee survey as a beginning point where questions are phrased the right way and biases are in check. Then you can introduce language internal to your organization and ask questions specific to your business and people interests

employee survey strategy planning

Phrase Customized Questions Carefully To Minimize Neutral Responses

Ask yourself if the topics in your employee survey are familiar to your intended participants. Is it reasonable to think they should have an opinion? And what is it, exactly, that you want to measure? Consider this: An election is coming up between two candidates vying to represent the community where you live. You’re asked which is best qualified and you view both equally. Your answer? Probably neutral. If you’re asked which candidate you’re likely to vote for and have a personal preference your answer will be more specific.

Know Your Respondents

Pay attention to the different education and literacy levels within your organization. TalentMap has done work with several companies on this. A global mining company based in South Africa, for instance, needed to survey miners with low literacy levels. Questionnaires for two different education levels were designed essentially saying the same thing. The underlying concept was close enough for valid comparison.

  • Advanced Literacy Level: We systematically adopt new and improved ways to work
  • Low Literacy Level: We always try to improve the way we work

Keep the process easy

To increase employees’ likelihood of completing the survey in full and answering as accurately as possible:

  • be aware of survey length; the more brevity the better
  • make sure questions are short and easy to read; long wordy questions can become too complicated, phrase questions with brevity, simplicity and clarity
  • make sure questions are relevant to everyone taking the survey
  • use positive wording
  • ask only one question at a time (“My manager shares information openly and often” – is double-barreled, the manager may share information openly but not often, or vice-versa)
  • behavior that’s visible in the workplace is easier to rate; use behavioral statements (My manager gives me quality feedback) rather than personality traits (My manager is a good manager).
  • open-ended questions involve a greater amount of a respondent’s time and effort; ask for comments strategically, thoughtfully and sparingly. You don’t want to overwhelm and exhaust your employees. Too many and respondents may lose interest, resulting in low completion rates; none or too few and your organization may miss out on important insights.

Decide how to handle benchmarking

Establish benchmarks (baseline numbers) for monitoring, planning and decision-making purposes at the outset. Lots of organizations like asking standardized questions to be able to compare their results with someone else’s. The more you customize questions and the wording behind them the less you can compare with other industry benchmarks.

  • ask standard, consistently-phrased questions so you can compare and monitor data results from one survey to the next, apple-to-apple
  • use external benchmarks from other organizations to see trends and measure your results against a bigger, broader perspective
  • include filters and cross-tabulation components to be able to compare sub-groups, but make sure results are statistically significant and retain confidentiality; breakdowns for departments of five employees or less are not supported by TalentMap or most other employee survey companies
  • track how responses to specific questions change on an organization level and by sub-groups
analyze employee survey data

Keep it simple

Make it easier for respondents. Use the same rating scale throughout. TalentMap recommends the Likert five-point scale (completely disagree…disagree… neutral/don’t know… agree…completely agree) partially because it’s easier for respondents, partially because it fits easier on a screen and mainly because of its scientific and academic efficacy.  Keep in mind: if your survey is meant to be accessible through a series of different tools (i.e.: computers, tablets, mobile phones) the survey technology you use should be able to identify devices and adapt layouts accordingly.

Consider the flow of survey questions

Ask general questions first. They’re easier to answer and draw respondents into the survey. More specific questions can follow.

Randomized questions slow down respondents and forces them to read every question making the survey harder to process and longer to complete (i.e. a leadership question followed by a work/life question followed by a compensation question followed by personal development question, and so on). TalentMap recommends grouped questions. It’s easy for respondents to complete, but not too easy for straight line answers. And rather than having to present each question in full (as is required by the randomized approach) you can shorten up key questions, making it quicker and simpler for respondents

 i.e. My Manager

… gives me frequent feedback (at least weekly)

… gives me recognition when I do a good job

… provides the opportunity to participate in goal setting

… gives me quality feedback

Pretest before rollout

Sometimes you’re so close to your survey you can’t detect glitches. Ask a few people who haven’t been involved in the design process to fill it out. Take a good hard look at what this dry run produces. Check for wording, comprehension, flow, survey length. Find out if there are any problems that might lead to inaccurate responses and revise accordingly. Then ask your survey partner for one final review to make certain you’re asking the right employee survey questions in just the right way.

author patricia bell newson

About Patricia Bell Newson

A graduate of Canada’s leading Journalism Degree program, Patricia Bell Newson is an accomplished writer and communications specialist. As a key member of the TalentMap team, Pat leads the company’s thought leadership with full force producing weekly content on employee engagement and best practices in employee surveys. Pat’s experience in advising leaders on strategic approaches to sensitive issues, priorities, and policies together with her ability to research and easily grasp various concepts regarding the workplace has been a great asset in creating valuable insights for HR leaders.

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