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Writing Effective Employee Survey Questions

Survey Question Composition 101

For employee satisfaction surveys or employee engagement surveys, the best place to start is with a statistically validated and benchmarked employee survey template. These types of employee surveys require a certain level of statistical rigor and structure in order to ensure that the results are meaningful.

For other types of more casual employee surveys, a less formal approach is often OK. The suggestions below are designed for general employee surveys, but they can be applied to other types of surveys as well. If you follow these basic guidelines, your survey will be more likely to yield useful results.

Quantitative (Numeric) Data

  • Working from the outline that you created (see "What do you want to know?"), break down each issue or detail into a single coherent, concrete thought or concept. Look for items in your outline that might be dealing with two or more different ideas or concepts. Split these up into separate lines or bullet points. Look for items that are vague or abstract and consider how they might be made more concrete.

  • Decide what kind of rating labels you want to work with - for example, you might be measuring "level of satisfaction" (5-point scale with responses ranging from "very satisfied" to "very dissatisfied") or you might be measuring "level of agreement" (responses ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree"). Often, it does not matter so much which labels you choose. What matters is that you use them consistently in the survey and phrase all items work with your chosen labels. It is OK have different rating labels for different sections of your survey, but keep changes to a minimum and be sure you keep the transitions clear on the survey and also in your own mind.

  • Keeping your rating labels in mind, turn each line or bullet point in your outline into a survey question. Do this by re-phrasing each line in the form of a question or statement that works with the rating labels.

  • At this point, you have your initial set of survey questions, but your work is not done yet. Chances are, your survey is much too long at this point. If your survey is too long, employees might not take the time to fill it out. It is now time to start looking for ways to shorten the survey. At the same time, you do not want to drop questions that will get you the information you need. The balance between shortening the survey and making sure you get the data you need can be a tricky one. Ultimately, you must make a series of judgment calls with regard to these issues, but stick to this basic rule for each and every item - ask yourself exactly what information each survey question will give you that you would not have if you omitted the question. If you cannot come up with a concrete answer, you should probably drop the item. Generally, you should not keep items in your survey simply because you think they might come in handy at some point, but there could be exceptions. For example, if you are measuring employee satisfaction you might want to include some extra survey questions for statistical research or to test a hypothesis.

After you have finished shortening the survey, look for ways to make each item more precise. Chances are, some of your items are suffering from one or more of the following:

  • Complex wording or structure - compound sentences, advanced vocabulary, unusual terminology, idiomatic expressions - all these things will confuse some employees and make your data less precise. Use simple sentences and vocabulary appropriate to your audience. This is especially important if any of your respondents might not be native English speakers (or native speakers of the language your survey is written in).
  • Vague or overly general questions - Are any of your questions so broad that they will not provide specific, actionable information? "Overall satisfaction" questions often fall into this category. If you ask yourself what you will learn from the responses to each question, you will know whether they are too vague. However, if you are measuring employee satisfaction, then questions that ask about overall satisfaction can be useful for statistical analysis and to better understand the factors that are impacting employee engagement or satisfaction.
  • Items that could be misinterpreted - For each survey question, ask yourself whether there are any ways in which it might be misinterpreted. Many words have different meanings to different people.
  • Questions with a "right" answer - It is an easy and common mistake to write questions that have a socially "correct" or desirable answer. Also be sure you do not lead your respondents to answer in a particular way by making them think you "want" them to provide a certain response. Your items need to be presented neutrally.
  • Double-Barreled Items - These are questions that ask about more than one thing. If you see the word "and" or "or" in your item, it might be double-barreled. Data from items like this are useless because you have no way of knowing what part of the question each employee was thinking of when responding.

Qualitative Data (Written Comments)

Written comments give employees the opportunity to share their opinions and ideas. Qualitative data is your greatest opportunity to get actionable information from your survey. The selection and composition of short-answer survey questions is even more important than for quantitative (numeric) items. You cannot ask nearly as many questions that ask employees to respond with written comments because of the effort that is required to answer these kinds of questions. At most, you can probably only ask a handful of these questions, so it is important to get them right.

  • If possible, consider conducting a pilot survey or gather a focus group to identify potential areas in which qualitative data might be most beneficial. A pilot survey might simply be your complete survey sent out to a subset of employees - for example, send the initial survey to just 10% of all employees. Based on the responses you receive, you might notice some problem areas where more information from respondents would be quite useful.

  • When composing qualitative items, the same rules apply as above, but you need to also be sure the questions will provoke employees to provide insightful information. The worst kinds of qualitative items are those that ask a "yes/no" question or those that invite a specific (and often brief) answer. If you give respondents an easy out like this, they will most often take it rather than providing a more detailed or involved response than the question asks for.

  • The flip-side of the "yes/no" question is also a problem. If you are too broad in your short-answer survey questions, respondents will not provide the kind of specific information that would be most useful to you. Finding the right balance between these two extremes is the best approach. Don't be afraid to guide respondents with some basic triggers to get their thoughts going, but don't be too specific with these triggers either.

  • The best test to see whether a qualitative item is well written is to answer the survey question yourself - read the question as if you were a survey respondent and consider whether it allows you provide a one or two word response. Consider also whether the question is too vague or general. If it falls somewhere in between and invites you to give the kind of response that you are looking for, chances are the item will work for your survey.

  • Don't overdo it. You will get more thorough responses from a few well-written questions than you will from many such items, regardless of how well-written they are. It takes time for respondents to answer qualitative questions, and they will quickly grow tired of doing so and skip over such items or worse yet, not complete the survey at all.

See also:
Sample employee survey questions
Sample 360 feedback survey questions