Guide: Run an employee survey

Write quality questions

Survey writing seems easy from the outside. But remember: your respondents can’t ask clarifying questions, so you need clear, concise, unambiguous questions from the start. Coursera and the University of Michigan have teamed up to provide a short online course on the basics of survey design, and below are some tips:

Use clear, simple language.

Simple sentences and commonly used words make the job of the respondent much easier, especially for survey takers who are non-native speakers of the language in which the survey is written. Define any terms that will not be understood; consider adding parentheticals to clarify them (e.g., define “overall well-being” as “your emotional, physical, and financial health”).

Don't get too cute.

Clever questions might be fun, but they often don't give you reliable data. Save the humor for your survey invitation or introductory text.

Keep the survey as short as possible.

It's sure to feel a lot longer to your respondents than it does to you.

Consider the expectations you might create with your questions.

If you ask about potential wage increases or the possibility of staffing cuts, your survey respondents could reasonably hope for raises or fear for layoffs. This could influence responses as well as create unrealistic expectations. For each question, ask yourself: What will respondents assume about your intent, based on this question?

Don't ask questions that your respondents can't answer.

"Do you use RQFP or FLEEM?" would be a poor question for anyone who didn't know what either of those things are. Even if respondents can check the option "Don't know," confusing your respondents or making them feel uninformed is not a good idea.

Don't rely too heavily on open-ended questions.

Open-ended questions can require a lot of time to analyze. They can also be time-consuming to answer. If you find yourself needing lots of open-ended questions, you might be better served by interviews or focus groups instead of a survey. People sometimes think that surveys are a good way to crowd-source ideas, but remember that the quality of ideas is often related to the amount of time people spend on them. Short, open-ended questions rarely result in breakthrough ideas.

The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) is one resource for sample questions. Each year, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) measures employee attitudes across all Executive Branch agencies and publishes its results along with survey items.

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