Diversity & Inclusion
8 min read

What demographic questions should you ask in surveys?


Robert Melloy, PhD

Senior People Scientist, Culture Amp

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Demographics refer to the characteristics, traits, and qualities that make us who we are.

The demographics of your company’s employees can help you identify the types of people that comprise your workforce. Collecting this type of information can help you understand employee survey results better, as we know that different identities and traits can impact our workplace experiences.

In this article, we cover why collecting demographic information is important and how to do it in ways that will be helpful to your culture strategy. 

Why collect demographic information? 

Understand how identity shapes experience

If your goal is to enhance diversity, equity, and belonging, demographics are key to examining the experiences that employees with different backgrounds and personal identities have. While historically we might have relied upon word-of-mouth or open forums to know where to action, survey demographics aggregate employees together so you can understand whether issues are isolated or systemic. 

Drill down locally for action just in time

Demographics allow you to unpack your overall results and examine meaningful differences between groups of employees. We often survey with the hope of understanding where things are going well, as well as where to improve. Demographics help you hone in on those local differences – such as region, department, or team manager – helping to ensure consistency across the business.

Employees also benefit from providing demographics because it enables organizations to allocate resources appropriately. Actioning to improve workplace culture costs time, money, and personnel. Those resources can go to waste if they’re deployed to areas of the business that don’t need it. Demographics that identify groups scoring favorably can serve to uncover best practices, which could be implemented in other areas, as well as uncover opportunity areas that require immediate attention. 

Choosing demographics 

There are two ways to collect demographics and pair it with your survey data: 

  1. Pull demographics already collected via an internal system (e.g. a Human Resource Information System)
  2. Ask employees to self report them

Each approach has strengths, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Often, the choice of which demographics to pull from the system and/or ask employees to self-report is guided by several factors. 

Using an internal system

Companies vary widely in the number and type of demographics they choose to collect in surveys, but you may actually have this data already. Before getting started, consider the following questions: 

What demographic information do we already possess? You may have employee data captured in an HRIS. If so, you can pull that data without having to collect it again in your surveys. This approach can free up space in your survey and avoid having to ask employees to self-report their demographic information, which may reduce the time it takes to complete it overall.

What’s the purpose of the current survey? You’re probably wanting to pull demographics to help explain differences in employee experience throughout the company or across the employee lifecycle. Depending on the purpose of the survey, think about the types of demographic cuts that would provide you the best insight. For instance, you might choose to look at physical differences by office location or region, or employment differences like job function, level, or tenure. 

Asking employees to self-report

If you don’t have access to demographics through another source, you can simply ask employees to provide that information in the survey itself. This approach has the advantage of collecting exactly the data you need, which might not have otherwise been captured at another point in time. For example, you could ask employees if they’ve recently experienced a leadership change or attended training and look at differences in results – this information is not often collected in an HRIS. Asking questions yourself also allows you to expand your response options, such as including a spectrum of gender identities beyond the often-used binary legal definitions. 

Before including self-report demographics, consider the following questions:

Are there any laws outlining the types of demographics you can and can’t collect? This is a good place to start thinking about what demographics to ask employees to self-identify because laws governing this data collection may differ by country or state. You should always consult with your legal team before including custom self-report demographics. 

Have you considered the risks to collecting this data and are comfortable moving forward? Depending on your company’s history with asking for, and using this information, you may decide to have employees voluntarily self-select their demographic information in the survey itself. Be sure to keep in mind any legal considerations for asking information at different stages in the employment process, as well as whether the trust is established for employees to feel comfortable responding honestly. You’ll want to ensure that you are willing and able to protect your employees’ privacy. 

How long do you want the survey to be? Self-reported demographics are survey items like any other – they increase your survey’s length and take time to fill out. If your goal is to keep things short and sweet, prioritize including only the most meaningful demographics and see if you have similar data elsewhere.

Expanding beyond commonly utilized demographics

We typically recommend including demographics that you a) believe impact the working experience of your employees and b) which you’re able to take action upon to some degree. In the United States, here are some common demographics we see clients include in their surveys, which you might have already collected as a part of employee onboarding:

  • Age brackets (e.g., 18-24, 25-34, 35-44, 45-54, 55-64, 65+)
  • Gender identity 
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Tenure
  • Job role
  • Location

If you’ve surveyed before and wish to expand beyond the usual demographics as above, you could start with incorporating other legally protected group identities. For example, in the United States, it’s illegal to discriminate based on several demographic characteristics, including race, color, age, disability, religion, genetic information, sexual orientation, or national origin, with state-level protections covering additional criteria. You’d want to capture some or more of these demographics to ensure there are no wide differences in employee experience that could indicate more systemic adverse impact or discrimination. For example, big differences in the perceived fairness of performance evaluations between males and females could suggest the need to check for adverse impact in promotion decisions. 

Beyond those, consider:

Demographics you could use to inform questions you have. For example, if you’ve expanded work flexibility policies to be market-competitive, consider asking employees whether they’re caregivers and look to see who has benefitted from these changes. If you’ve rolled out a manager training, look to see differences between those who’ve completed it and those who haven’t.

The demographics you include can signal to employees what you’re interested to know about and upon which you’re willing to act. To build and maintain trust, only include characteristics you’re in a position to address. In all cases, include demographics that you can commit to acting on if the data shows action is necessary to improve a group’s experience. 

How to collect sensitive demographic information 

By its nature, demographic information is personal and employees may or may not feel comfortable sharing it. This is less of an issue for confidential surveys, where employee data can be attributed to participants but remains confidential. However, sometimes you might want to survey anonymously if, for example, the items are sensitive and you wish to maintain trust. In this case, the only way to collect demographics is to ask employees to self-report.

For employees who haven’t traditionally provided this information, they may want to have a greater understanding of how the data is collected, stored, used, and viewed before providing it. This is especially true for highly sensitive demographics and/or based on local culture and/or law (e.g., LGBTQ identification in countries where queerness is stigmatized or illegal). 

Therefore, it will be important to remind employees of the importance of this information, as well as the privacy protections in place to maintain discretion. In survey communications, be sure to address things like reporting group minimums, who will have access to the data, and why this information is important/how it will be used. This can be in communications ahead of the survey, or ahead of the items in the survey itself.

Example of communication for an anonymous survey:

Hi,

On [insert date], you will receive an invite from [person sending invite link] to take our [name of survey]. Unlike some of the surveys you may have taken in the past, this survey asks important, though sensitive, demographics like gender identity, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation which help us understand how we’re supporting people from these groups. Demographic information will be used in aggregate and not linked to you.

This survey is 100% secure, anonymous, and optional, though we strongly encourage you to participate. With a high participation rate, we can confidently take actions that focus on [survey goals]. It only takes about [time in minutes] to complete.

Should you have any questions, please reach out and I would be happy to answer them. Again, this survey will reach your inbox on [insert date] – thank you!

[Name]

Example of an anonymous survey section description:

The following section is intended to help us learn about the various identities and backgrounds that make up our workforce. The items may be sensitive to some, but your survey responses are anonymous and optional. Providing us with this information will help us act more effectively and inclusively. 

Drive meaningful action

Demographics are critical in understanding the employee experience of individuals with different backgrounds and personal identities. However, it’s imperative to do so respectfully and anonymously. When done thoughtfully using the steps above, demographic survey information empowers organizations to pinpoint areas for improvement and drive meaningful action.


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