How to deal with sensitive topics in a survey?

Suppose you are the Employee Satisfaction Manager at a European multinational and you would like to conduct an employee satisfaction survey. More precisely, as you have heavily invested into an equal opportunities policy in the past year, you would like to find out if your investment is starting to pay off. In other words, if there are any differences in satisfaction between socio-demographic minority and majority groups. As a result, in order to be able to study this, you have to identify your minority groups. Consequently you have to ask your respondents/employees about some potentially sensitive topics such as sexual orientation, religious beliefs, … In other situations, subjects such as political preferences, income, various attitudes and behaviours, etc. are also considered to be sensitive issues.

Going back to our example of the Employee Satisfaction Manager, chances are that (some of) your employees do not want to provide you with this information and/or will feel offended. Generally, respondents can do two things if they do not want to answer the question:

  1. Skip the sensitive question.However, mostly, closed questions are mandatory in online surveys. As they can’t skip the question there is a distinct possibility that respondents will leave the survey altogether. Furthermore it is most likely that especially members of a minority group will decide to skip the sensitive survey questions and/or leave the survey, which will have serious implications on the validity of your data.
  2. Give a little twist to the truth.Social desirability is a tendency to answer questions in a manner respondents feel is socially expected. This usually leads to over-reporting ‘good behaviour’ or under-reporting ‘bad behaviour’. For instance, when confronted with the question “How many glasses of alcohol do you consume per week?” respondents will tend to downplay this number. Or, social research on feelings of insecurity has already shown many times that men tend to downplay their feelings of insecurity as they are – rather stereotypically – expected to have less fear than women.

In short, asking about sensitive issues can have a detrimental effect on your survey data. So, what can you do to avoid the pitfalls of surveying sensitive topics?

Tinker with the wording of the questions. Two techniques are rather common:

  1. Normalisation of the sensitive issue
    You have to phrase the question as such that you make it clear that you think it is completely normal – which it is! – that there are differences between people/employees on religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc. An example could be: “At Company X we are very proud of having a staff with such a diverse set of religious beliefs. What is your religious affiliation?”
  2. Asking indirect questions
    This is a technique that rephrases questions as such that respondents have to answer questions from the perspective of another person or group. From the perspective of a person that is highly similar to the respondent. The idea is that respondents will reveal their true feelings on sensitive topics if they respond from the perspective from a (similar) other person.

Guarantee anonymity

You must convince/guarantee your respondents – in this case your employees – that the survey is completely anonymous. In other words that you will not use any identifying information when analysing the data. As a result, respondents might be more inclined to answer truthfully.

Use ‘social desirability scales’

These scales are widely used by researchers and practitioners to screen individuals who bias self-reports in a self-favouring manner. As you identify the respondents/employees that are more likely to answer socially desirable, you can account for them in your analysis. However, these scales are based on 40 items (more or less depending on which scale you use), which makes them more difficult to incorporate in your survey as they significantly increase the workload for the respondents/employees.

Make sensitive topics facultative

In other words, let your respondents choose if they want to answer the sensitive questions by not making the question required or by adding an escape response option like “Rather not say”. However, even though it might help not to offend your respondents and keep them on board for the entire survey,  it is our least favourable option. Yes, it is an easy option but at the end of the survey you still will not have much data on the sensitive issues that are crucial for your research.

So, what do you do to deal with these sensitive topics?


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