Posted by: rayseghers | November 24, 2009

To Reverse or Not To Reverse?

That is the question.  Actually, the question is: Do we reverse the question?  Either you already have a strong opinion about this or you have no clue what I am talking about.  (You may even think that I have no clue what I’m talking about, but let’s save that for another blog post.)

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I am talking about Scale Reversals for questions on an employee survey. (Now, aren’t you glad you read this far?  You can’t get this stuff on cable.)

First of all, what is a reversal?  Most questions on an employee survey are worded positively.  That is, agreeing with the statement is viewed as a positive response and disagreeing with the statement is viewed as a negative response.  A Scale Reversal is worded negatively, so that agreeing is a negative response and disagreeing is a positive response. 

Here’s an example of what I am talking about:

  • My supervisor gives me the information that I need to perform my job well. (Positively worded.)
  • My supervisor plays favorites with certain members of the team. (Negatively worded.)

Yes, of course, there are value judgments about what is positive and what is negative, but, hey, survey consultants always know what’s best.

So, now that we know what a Scale Reversal is, why do people use them?  There are two basic reasons:

  1. Some questions are just easier to write in a negative way.  In the example above, one could write: My supervisor treats all members of the team fairly.  This is certainly an OK wording but many like the idea of using the word “favoritism” in some form.  It better captures what they are looking for.  Using the term “free from favoritism” seems awkward.
  2. Some people feel that having reversals mixed in with regular questions is necessary to keep respondents honest.  They want the respondent to have to read the question and really understand it.  The only problem is that we never know if the respondent read and understood the question, we only know what he/she responded.  Sure, we can do pre-tests with follow-up interviews to see how most people respond to the question but in the end we never really know what is in the mind of the actual respondent.

So, although I have certainly used Scale Reversals on numerous occasions, I try to avoid them.  I believe that we should make the questionnaire as simple as possible and that we don’t need to try and trick the respondent.  If a positive wording of a question is just too awkward, then I use the reversal, otherwise I keep it simple.


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