Posted by: rayseghers | September 21, 2009

Include demographic questions?

One of the questions that always comes up as you are designing a questionnaire is whether you should ask demographics on the survey.  Short answer: yes.  Demographics allow the data to be cut in a meaningful manner.  However, I believe that many organizations ask too many.  Why is this a problem? 

Well, many employees get worried that they can be identified.  And, in fact, they are right.  By the time you get information on, say, Department, Job Level, Gender, and Tenure you likely have 200 categories or more.  So, unless you have 1000+ employees you won’t have enough data in each cell to protect anonymity.  Yes, I realize, that most survey providers won’t cut the data that finely unless there are enough data points, but I am talking about employee fears.  If an employee feels that he or she can be identified, it may bias his or her responses, even if the employee is not consciously changing his or her answers.

Ironically, this becomes a bigger problem precisely in those circumstances where accurate survey data is needed most – where employee trust is low.  Even though you state that individuals won’t be identified, the fear is still there.

So the issue comes down to why you are asking the question.  Differentiate between “nice to know” and “need to know.”  What differential action plans will you develop based on the demographic data? 

Bottom line:  if you aren’t likely or able (money, political, or legal reasons) to generate different action plans based on the demographic, don’t ask it. This is particularly true for individual-type demographics – race/ethnicity, gender, age, etc.  Organizational-type demographics (e.g., department, location, exempt/non-exempt) are generally less risky.

If you do ask, then:

  • communicate to employees why you are asking the question
  • ensure that there are sufficient numbers in each cell
  • remind employees that you will not do two-way, three-way, etc., cuts of the data unless there are enough people
  • make the demographics optional
    • I know that some people feel that making them optional defeats the purpose of asking them in the first place, but in my experience it alleviates the fear and encourages most employees to participate and even to answer the demographics.  And that’s the most important factor.

So, that’s my opinion.  What do you think?



  1. Why is always important. Doesn’t matter in what context. I need to remember that! Thanks for the info.

    • Yes, indeed. Of course, in this context the even bigger question that organizations ought to ask is “Why are we surveying?”

      While most certainly have some idea, many have not formulated their goals as well as they should have.

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