Using Open-Ended Survey Questions

Some organizations avoid using free-response questions on employee surveys simply because they want to keep the survey short or they don’t think they can analyze all of the comments—let me be the first to tell you that having open-ended survey questions on your survey can be a real benefit to your survey results.

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Open-ended survey questions really bring to life the attitudes and opinions of respondents and provides a wealth of new information. Here are four main reasons why qualitative responses are beneficial to the survey process:

  1. Open-ended questions add color and nuance to quantitative data.  For example, when responding to the agreement-scale question “I have the tools and resources necessary to do my job,” employees might disagree.  Only when you see the comments associated with the survey are you able to understand that your technology team needs extra monitors, or your designers need updated software, or the front-line restaurant crew needs new uniforms (actual responses we’ve seen).
  2. Open-ended questions provide explanation to previous responses.  We often find that employees use the comments section of the survey to explore in greater depth their previous responses, volunteering valuable background information on both positive and negative feedback.
  3. Open-ended questions inform leaders of immediate team needs and quick wins.  When we consult with companies on how to best leverage employee feedback, we always tell them to look for quick wins: survey data that highlights a specific, easily satisfied need.  Acting on quick wins is perhaps the best way to promote trust in the survey process.  One year, a client noticed a common request for an espresso machine in the lounge.  Easy fix!  The espresso machine was purchased and installed, and employees knew their feedback was heard and acted upon.  By acting on quick wins, organizations create trust between their employees and the survey process, and ensure that employees will speak up in the future—creating a culture of feedback.
  4. Open-ended questions give individuals a voice.  Individuals might have something on their minds that wasn’t captured in the 45 or 50 agreement-scale questions that they would still like to share.  Open-ended questions allow individuals to share this feedback, creating even greater value in the survey process.

Even with four very compelling reasons to use open-ended questions, organizations take a variety of approaches.  Our best-practice advice is to use a very limited number of open-ended questions—we usually recommend two.  In my next blog I’ll share two common approaches and the benefits (or costs) associated with each—stay tuned.

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