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What “Demographic” or “Breakout” questions should I ask in my survey?

In this post we’re going to talk about the pros and cons of adding “demographic” or “breakout” questions to your survey and how you choose what to ask.

What is a “demographic” or “breakout” or “segmentation” question?

These three terms are synonymous for this discussion and so we are talking about any question that results in a compartmentalization of groups within the organization.

So these might be:

  • Department (ex. Finance, HR, etc.)
  • Geographic location / Branch
  • Role within the organization (ex. manager / non-manager)
  • Job status (ex. part-time / full-time)
  • Age range (though asking date of birth range or “generation” is better)
  • Years with the company (a range)
  • Gender
  • etc .

Why ask?

Breakouts can be incredibly helpful when combined with the survey data. They can help you to break the data into unique groups that make the entire process more actionable.

Perhaps one location or department is having a much harder time than another? You can then focus on what’s happening there.

Or if “new” employees are clearly having a tough time vs those who have been around for a while, maybe the onboarding needs work? If it’s the opposite maybe there is something that can be done to make the “old timers” feel more appreciated. (Resist the temptation to throw them company birthday parties though …)

You might also want to know where the organization stands on diversity, and whether diverse groups have different work experiences. 

Why NOT to ask?

Don’t ask if you’re just curious, or the results are not actionable, or you just want to show that you care.

Every demographic you ask has a cost – and that cost is the perceived loss of confidentiality on the part of the respondent.

So adding demographics “for fun” is just not sensible.

One example where this often comes up is whether or not to ask “gender”.  There are only two good reasons to ask this question: a. you have a program in place that actually addresses any differences, and/or b., you want to show that there IS a difference between the groups so that you can create a program to address differences.

Otherwise why are you asking? … and the employees will be asking themselves the same thing.

Things to think about when deciding which demographics you need

Here’s the checklist:

  1. Is the information you’ll get actionable?
  2. Will asking the question result in an actual loss of anonymity?
  3. Will asking the question result in a perceived loss of anonymity? (you know that I’m going to say this is actually more important than the “actual”)
  4. Will asking too many demographic questions result in employees refusing to answer the survey, or obfuscating their responses? (which is worse of course)

So let the employees know this one critical piece of info

Make it clear in your pre-survey communication and possibly in the survey itself that:

  1. You will not be cross-referencing one demographic with another (assuming that’s true)
  2. You will not be reporting out on groups smaller than “X”. (For us “X” is usually 7, but it can depend – more on that elsewhere.)

So if I’m the only left-handed, 50-year-old in the Engineering Department, and you ask me these questions, then unless I’m REALLY confident that you mean what you say I’m either going to; not answer these questions, answer them incorrectly on purpose, or just not fill in the survey at all.

Wrap up

“Demographics” or “Breakouts” can be extremely useful in a survey – to the point that not asking say, Department, might make the results useless or unactionable.

Determining what to ask then is a balance of conflicting needs – more demographic questions can result in better data, but concerns over anonymity might result in fewer data overall in the way of fewer responses.


Next up: Pro Tip Series 19 – “Demographic” or “Breakout” questions – How do I ask them and where should I put them in the survey?

Thanks for reading, and if you’re interested in running a survey for your organization call us at 1-604-219-7876, email us at [email protected], or just book a discovery call with our team.

We love to engage in curious conversation! Grab a time on my calendar if you’d like to elaborate more on this topic or anything else
Maureen Simons

Maureen Simons is a senior human resources and communication consultant with over 25 years of experience helping clients achieve their business and organizational objectives through their people. (Linkedin)

Picture of Adam Hunter

Adam Hunter has a Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering, an MBA, and 35+ years of technical and programming experience, resulting in a broad mix of analytical, statistical, project-related and business skills. (Linkedin)