How to Design an Employee Survey 101
If you’re looking for employees’ feedback on your company culture (and you should be!), it’s important to ask the right questions. Social scientists, who often use surveys as a research tool, have done studies on designing a survey to give you the most accurate, clear, and reliable results. There’s way more to this topic than can be covered in a blog post, but here are a few pointers that may help you create employee surveys about your company culture.
1) Start with the end in mind
Before you start creating your employee survey, think about what you want to find out. It seems obvious, but explicitly defining your goal ahead of time will help you ask the right questions, so you can get the most helpful results. This could be something like:
- I want to find out what the most severe pain point is in our culture right now. Or:
- I want to find out what to focus on to improve our company’s communication.
Then break your goal into smaller components, which will form the basis for your survey questions. Asking employees “how is the culture here?” probably won’t get you useful information, so it’d be better to ask about particular aspects of culture, like collaboration between teams, learning new skills, or being held accountable for actions.
Once you know what you want to measure, it’s time to start writing your questions!
2) Use clear language
Employees can’t answer something they can’t understand, so write your questions with comprehension in mind. Use everyday language (no SAT words here!), but not slang or idioms. Look out for words with multiple shades of meaning, and either replace them with something more precise, or specify which meaning you intend. If there’s any doubt as to whether survey takers will understand a word or a concept, adding a definition to the question can be helpful.
3) Ask one thing at a time
Many survey designers inadvertently combine two questions or concepts into one, causing confusion both when taking the survey and when interpreting the results. Two words to look out for here are and and or:
- My workspace is safe and comfortable
- Do you think our town hall meeting was well-run, or was it a waste of time?
In both of these examples, two concepts are included, which can muddy the results. A workspace can be safe but not comfortable, or vice versa, or both safe and comfortable, or neither. The results of the above question won’t tell you which.
Look out for this same issue when creating your answer options, too:
- Do you think our town hall meeting was well-run?
- Yes, I enjoyed the topics.
- Yes, it was efficient.
- No, it was a waste of time.
- No, the topics covered were not interesting to me.
These answer choices introduce concepts not covered in the original question, and should be rephrased to refer only to how well the town hall meeting was run.
4) Use open-ended questions sparingly
Open-ended questions can give you a lot of information. They can provide great detail into aspects of your culture, but can also create noise – you may get responses that are off-topic or unclear. This is one of the hardest question types for employees to answer, takes them the longest, and doesn’t give you much structure to help you prioritize the feedback when it comes in.
If there’s a specific topic on which you’re looking for feedback, we recommend using a question type with defined answer options, and giving employees a chance to select “other” or leave a comment if their feedback doesn’t fall into one of the categories. General questions, like “What additional feedback do you have for us?” can work great as open-ended.
We recommend not requiring survey takers to answer open-ended questions, as many of the responses may end up being poor-quality or off-topic.
5) Make it easy for employees
When people answer survey questions, they have to go through a few cognitive steps to understand the question, figure out their answer, and decide which of the provided answer options is closest to their answer. This is sometimes quick and easy, but for questions that are ambiguous or complex, or ask about things the survey taker hasn’t really thought about before, it can take a little more effort. Making the process as easy and fun as possible for employees can help ensure that they complete the survey.
Here are some things to think about:
- Context – before they start the survey, employees should know a little bit about why it’s happening, what it will entail, and about how long it will take.
- Salience – ask questions about things employees care about.
- Organization – group your survey questions into sections that make logical sense.
- Choices – questions with too many answer options can be confusing for employees. Stick to 5 or fewer answer options, and if you have more than that, try splitting them among a couple different questions.
There are many factors to consider when designing an employee survey, and we’ve only touched on a handful of them here. No matter how you structure your survey, though, remember that the goal is to help employees give you accurate, relevant feedback with the lowest level of effort. Your employee survey design should make it as easy as possible for them to give insights into your goal topic, so you can better understand your company culture and work toward strengthening it.