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Making the Most of the Demographic Questions in Your Survey

So what types of questions should you include in your survey when it comes to finding out about the staff themselves ? And how many of those types of questions should you include ?

We’ve all seen questionnaires which arrive in the post at home and seem to spend pages and pages asking endless questions all about you. These types of questionnaires are usually the ones you put straight in the bin, right ?

Well, in your staff survey, the same rules apply… but for slightly different reasons.

When you receive a questionnaire in the post from someone who is really trying to sell you insurance or a readership survey from a magazine that you subscribe to, or a “how was your holiday?” questionnaire from your travel agent… you probably spend about 10 seconds deciding whether you want to complete it or not.

You might scan the survey to see what subjects it covers. If it covers the types of thing which you think are relevant and important, then you might spend another 10 seconds trying to work out how long it’ll take you to fill it out.

Then, just as you’ve made up your mind to go and find a pen, your eyes are drawn to the section “about you”. You see that there is a whole page of information they ask for. Some of the questions you wouldn’t mind answering – gender, age range (maybe), martial status (perhaps).

Beyond that, the survey suddenly launches into a whole range of questions about total annual household income, whether you own or rent your house, likely spend on travel each year, how many cars you have as a family, age of your children etc etc.

Pen down, survey filed under B for bin.

Now the (bona fide) research company carrying out this survey WILL have very good reasons for wanting to collect as much information about you as possible. Of course it helps them understand more about their customer base in order to develop products and services which are even better positioned for their market.

But of course, what they’ve achieved is the very opposite of their desired outcome. Instead of developing a better relationship with their customers, they’ve alienated (some of) them by asking for information which makes the customer feel uneasy.

Now, think again about the personal questions you asked in your last staff survey – or the ones you’re thinking of using in your next staff survey. I call this the “demographic” section of the survey.

In my time carrying out employee research, here is a list of some of the demographic questions clients have wanted to use within their staff survey

  • Gender
  • Age range / band
  • Exact age
  • Length of Service
  • Department / Team
  • Function / Group
  • Location / Office
  • Ethnic group
  • Job role
  • Level of seniority
  • Sexual orientation (yeah, really)
  • Marital Status
  • Number of Children at Home

Let’s take stock for a moment and consider why organisations would want to collect this information about their staff.

There are two factors at play here. One is learning more about the demographic constitution of the staff – eg. what percentage of our staff fall into the various ethnic group categories. This can be very important data (especially in terms of meeting diversity criteria), but surely an employee survey is NOT the place to collect this information. For one thing it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the survey questions and most importantly not everyone will complete the survey and therefore your diversity picture will only be a partial one. And anyway, some of those demographic markers are likely to already be kept on the internal HR database – you’d surely expect ‘age’ to be on an employee’s HR record.

The second factor at play here is wanting to use the demographic information as a way of comparing the opinions of sub-groups of staff within the organisation.

This is really the ONLY reason why you should include a demographic question within your survey.

So, let’s ask loads of questions and do loads of comparisons, shall we ?

NO !

Think back to your reaction to the ‘survey arriving in the post’ example at the start of this. Asking too many makes people feel uneasy – in this case about their anonymity or confidentiality – and makes them less likely to complete the survey in the first place.

You need to make a judgement call on how many demographic questions you include based solely on the following prompt;

What’s the least number of demographic questions I can include and still get meaningful comparisons between sub-groups of staff.

When I advise my clients on this (the ones for whom I have created a bespoke survey questionnaire), I always try and limit this to 2–3.

Team or Department is always in the list. Group or Function can usually be appended to this without having to ask the question.

After this it really depends on whether you have any other hypotheses you’d like to test with your staff. For example, if you want to explore why most of your leavers are exiting after 3 years of service, then adding an appropriate length of service question to the survey could prove very useful. You may find from your survey analysis that those with between 2-3 years service are markedly more negative about a particular issue and this is what is causing them to consider leaving the business.


If you want some more advice about where to position the demographic questions within the overall structure of the survey, please send an email to

putting “Beginning or End” in the subject line.