Demographic survey questions may seem surface-level and arbitrary, but executed efficiently, they can unlock key insights into your workforce’s motivations. Demographics cover certain qualities, traits, and precursors which can be used to create trends among certain groups.

These demographics can provide data that can offer important insights as to who’s applying to your company. Who’s staying at your company, and more.

Demographic Survey Questions: What to Ask and What Not to Ask

Why Collect Data from Demographic Surveys?

There are numerous reasons why you should be collecting demographic data. At the minimum, it provides a baseline for who is engaging with your company at large.

Understand Experiences 

If your goal is to create a more diverse workplace, then you need to take the answers to your demographic survey questions into account. For example, if you notice that 50% of your current workforce is Hispanic or Latino, you may consider focusing more heavily on celebrating that culture or (for recruiting efforts) using this information to target similar candidates.

Conversely, if you notice that many of your employees and applicants are white, you may need to ask the organization to put more resources into diversity and inclusion. You don’t need to make an immediate decision based on this data but reading and analyzing it can help shape your organization and helps you learn what you should focus on.

Helps Localize Issues 

If you notice on a demographic survey that a certain race, gender, or age of an employee consistently reports similar instances, it can help you target areas of improvement quickly and efficiently.

For example, if every woman in the company is answering questions about workplace safety with low confidence. You can assume there is an issue within the organization that needs to be addressed immediately.

Conversely, if you notice positive responses from a certain demographic, you can use that as a framework for what you are doing right and implement those strategies in other areas of the organization that may need more TLC.

Understand Your Current Employees to Understand Your Recruiting Strategies

Information collected from demographic data on surveys can help employers understand what kinds of people they have attracted and why. As such, this can also serve as helpful data to build a framework for future recruitment efforts. Conversely, if the organization shows a low level of diversity, this data can be used to target more diverse candidates.

Categories to Utilize on Demographic Survey Questions

In the United States, there are some commonplace questions you can ask on a demographic survey to capture the macro scale of what demographics your company is engaging daily. The more you can tailor the demographic survey questions to your specific company, the better.

Some examples of common demographic survey questions to ask are:

  • Age.
  • Race.
  • Experience/tenure.
  • Job role.
  • Location.
  • Gender.

Based on employee comments within their self-reported demographic markers, you can start to understand trends between certain demographics or groups of employees. You can choose to let employees self-select their demographic markers. Or some companies may opt to pull the employee’s HR records to ‘fill in the blanks” of their demographics. If you go down this course, just be careful to ensure your internal records are correct.

You can go beyond the basic questions, too. For example, a company trying to decide whether to offer pet insurance as a benefit may ask if the subject is a pet owner. A company trying to reevaluate its parental leave structure may ask if the subject is a caretaker or parent.

Not only does it help companies get to know their workforce when asking more specified questions, but it can also trigger different responses for different answers. For example, if someone says they are a pet owner, you can re-route them to more questions about their feelings on pet insurance as a benefit.

Be sure to only include questions that pose a separation that you are willing to address. For example, don’t ask employees if they are parents if you don’t plan on revamping your organization’s parental leave or parental-specific benefits any time soon. Organizations that gather excessive information from employees, with no result, can be looked at as sketchy or untrustworthy over time.

Self-Reporting Vs. Using Internal Data

When a company hires an employee, they inherently get to know that employee’s basic demographics, because of needing to run a background check. Set up their taxes, and get their mailing address for company-specific communications. This data is typically stored.

However, asking employees to self-report can be helpful, such as in cases of wanting more specific answers, such as counting the number of parents or pet owners in a company.

Benefits of Using Internal Data 

Using internal data to essentially auto-fill an employee’s demographics on their survey before they take it has its upsides. First and foremost, it makes the survey less lengthy for the employee, who may already have a super busy schedule.

Also, pulling recorded data reduces the possibility of human error. For example, an employee may accidentally click a different box than they should on a demographic question. Which in some cases, can wildly skew results.

Benefits of Asking Employees to Self-Report

If you don’t have any HR data stored on the employee in question, self-reporting is the only option. However, even for employees who do have their demographics stored within the HR database. There are upsides to still asking folks to self-report.

For example, you can get more personalized insights. Let’s say you are trying to measure an employee’s technical skill level. A typical demographic marker would ask what level of degree they have completed. A self-reporting system can ask more nuanced questions, like asking if they’ve ever taken outside courses or certificates.

You can also tailor self-reporting demographic survey questions based on specific limitations and restrictions in your city or state.

Remember, there are strict laws around what you can and can’t ask an employee, and they can vary by locale. So, it’s important to consider this when drafting an employee survey, regardless of the methodology you will use.

Requiring employees to self-report also opens up the ability for more creativity and input on the employee end. So you get more insightful results, as opposed to cookie-cutter responses to the typical demographic marker questions.

Collecting Demographic Data in a Private and Respectful Manner

Demographic data is often highly sensitive. Certain initiatives, such as affirmative action, have caused more people to think more critically about if who they identify as will affect their potential opportunities (whether it be in a negative or positive sense).

Plus, in locations and cultures where certain demographics are taboo (such as being a part of the LGBTQ+ community) employees may hesitate to freely hand over this information to the executives who employ them.

Everyone has biases, even CEOs, so employees are likely to be more careful if they live in an area that is notorious for discriminatory acts against people with similar demographics to themselves.

Employees may want (and have a right) to know how their demographic data will be stored, reviewed, and analyzed after the survey. If the company can’t provide this information to the employee. Then the survey should be made optional, since employee comfortability is crucial in getting accurate results.

An employee who is uncomfortable with sharing their demographic information, but is forced to still take the survey, may make up certain attributes about themselves to effectively disguise themselves.

As such, organizations need to remind employees of the privacy protections on their answers and the discretion your company is committed to keeping. In alerting the employees of the survey they will receive. Be sure to also make clear to them the protections they have. The purpose of the survey, how the data collected will be used. And be sure to leave space for employees to ask questions and find out more.

If an employee is resisting answering demographic survey questions for whatever reason, always have an opt-out. It is better to be missing a few employees’ responses than force employees to do something they’re not comfortable with or get inaccurate results on account of employees being dishonest to protect themselves from a perceived security threat.

Bottom Line

Collecting demographic data is tricky and sensitive, but when executed correctly, holds enormous value for companies everywhere. Demographic surveys help employers understand their workforce at large on a more personal level. Resulting in more targeted changes and approaches.

Workforces are ever changing, and as certain age groups leave and new ones come in. It is important for employers to carefully analyze any new trends they see among specific groups. Plus, collecting demographic survey data can help companies see where they are falling short. And with what groups, resulting in more targeted and specialized resolutions.

By learning how to collect key employee data respectfully and intelligently, and asking the right demographic survey questions, you can make your organization a better place to work for all types of employees, as well as gain key insight into the people who drive your business forward every day.

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