No matter what kind of survey you’re creating, it’s always good to be mindful of how you’re asking your questions. Doing so will get you better results, build a better connection with your respondents, and safeguard your brand perception. This is especially true when it comes to asking questions that center on sensitive topics.
Being thoughtful about potentially sensitive questions isn’t some passing fad—it’s a survey best practice. Our 2023 State of Surveys report found that surveys have become increasingly gender inclusive over the past decade. This goes to show that survey creators are evolving along with their audience. Leaning into careful survey design can help you get the answers you need and show respondents that their feelings matter as much as their feedback.
Keep reading to learn more about what could make questions “sensitive” and how to ask them in your surveys.
What are sensitive survey questions?
From a doctor's health tracking survey to a bank's customer satisfaction survey, there are a lot of survey scenarios that might involve sensitive questions. And many times, these questions are necessary to meet the goals of the survey.
But what exactly makes a question “sensitive” and how should you think about these questions? Sensitive questions often have to do with demographic data like sexual orientation and gender identity, race, or even income. Demographic questions can be valuable when you’re looking to understand the makeup of your audience and, in the analytics stage of your survey, filter your responses to get a more nuanced perspective of key groups. But this information can feel personal to respondents, especially if it connects to the way they identify.
Beyond demographics, a question might be sensitive if it’s asking about personal habits, experiences, or backgrounds. As you might guess, this can vary widely depending on the person. Some people might consider questions about their medical history very personal, while others might consider financial questions more personal. Even questions about shopping preferences can feel like sensitive subjects if, for instance, the person is being asked about things like wellness or personal care products.
5 essential guidelines for asking sensitive survey questions
Asking sensitive survey questions can feel more difficult than asking questions in other contexts, such as in-person conversations, where body language and tone of voice come into play. Nonetheless, we have several recommendations that can make approaching these questions a bit easier.
Establish rapport before asking personal questions
When you meet someone for the first time, you wouldn’t greet them with a question about their annual salary or religion—and you should follow that same instinct with your surveys.
Let’s say that you are an administrator at a doctor’s office that uses surveys to create better healthcare experiences and you’re crafting a pre-visit survey for new patients. While your patient might expect personal questions in this type of survey, seeing them right away can be jarring. The patient might feel uneasy, for example, if this is one of the first questions they encounter:
Do you have any history of mental illness in your family? If yes who in your family?
- Yes (specify)
While this may be an important and necessary question, it should ideally be placed lower in the survey to set the right tone for respondents. Instead, the survey could start with a much simpler question about the patient’s general health:
In general, would you say that your health is...
- Very good
This question does a better job of establishing the context for the survey as a whole. In a way, it mimics a face-to-face medical appointment with a new patient, where the doctor might begin with asking a broad health question and follow up with more personal and specific questions.
Even if your survey questions don’t seem as personal as medical history, it’s best practice to ease respondents into the survey experience by placing more sensitive questions toward the end rather than at the start.
Check for bias and don’t make assumptions
When you’re crafting your questions and figuring out the best question types for your needs, make sure the answer choices you offer don’t inadvertently reflect bias or preconceived ideas. For example, if you’re asking about income, you don’t want to assume the minimum amount of money that your respondents could potentially make. To avoid this, make sure that your answer choices either begin with a range that starts with zero (e.g. $0-$15,000) or present the upper and lower answer limits in an under/over format such as:
What is your total annual income?
- Under $15,000
- Between $15,000 and $29,999
- Between $30,000 and $49,000
- Between $50,000 and $74,999
- Between $75,000 and $99,999
- Between $100,000 and $150,000
- Over $150,000
The same principle applies when asking about other sensitive topics, from the highest level of education a respondent has completed to the number of hours they exercise per week. You can also design your survey so that your answer choices don’t overlook or disempower your respondents. For a question about race, for instance, include a comment field so respondents can self-describe or allow respondents to “check all that apply.” These are simple choices that could make a big difference for your respondents—and your results.
Lean into inclusive language
Inclusive surveys use inclusive language. This applies to the terminology you use, as well as how you frame questions. With demographic questions, it’s a good idea to use an identity-affirming structure. But what does that mean, exactly? Well, let’s take a look at two different ways to ask about someone’s sexual orientation:
- Which of the following defines your sexual orientation?
- Which of the following sexual orientations do you most closely identify with?
The second question is much less rigid. Rather than using the verb “define,” it asks how people identify. Even better, it asks which answer option the respondent most closely identifies with, creating even more wiggle room. Ideally, there should also be an answer option that allows the respondent to self-describe. All of these survey design choices allow respondents to affirm their sense of identity rather than feel as if it is defining them in a rigid way.
Before you worry about always knowing the right language or framing to use, remember that you can always count on the expert-certified questions available in the SurveyMonkey Question Bank—which covers a variety of demographic questions and sensitive topics. Resources like the Conscious Style Guide and Human Rights Campaign are also great ways to keep your inclusivity knowledge sharp.
Include context about why you’re asking a sensitive question
It’s always a good idea to be transparent about why you’re asking a personal or sensitive question. Starting any questions about age, race, religion, or sexual orientation with a phrase such as “For demographic purposes…” is an easy way to start off on the right foot. It also helps to share context about who will be looking at the survey results and how they will be used. For example, a company’s onboarding survey for new hires might say something like: “For our Human Resources department, please identify the race with which you most closely identify.”
Your respondents will also likely appreciate knowing the “why” behind your question and the goals of your survey. Let’s say a university is sending a survey to employees and staff that includes a question about their smoking habits. Out of context, the question could appear intrusive and threatening, particularly coming from an employer.
How often do you smoke?
The question would likely go over better if it included a bit of explanation, like:
“As you may be aware, our university is transitioning to a 100% tobacco-free campus policy. Many employees have told us they are addicted to cigarettes. We are considering holding confidential sessions on smoking cessation. So we can properly plan, are you interested in attending one of these sessions to help you quit smoking?”
Be upfront about anonymity and how you're protecting data
If you’ve created an anonymous survey, be sure to include that information in your survey introduction with a message like: “Thank you for participating in our survey. We value your feedback, and all of your answers will remain anonymous.” This will help pave the way for more candid responses, which in turn will get you better data. You can even include a reminder later on your survey—for example, before you ask demographic questions—to drive home that respondents’ answers won’t be used to personally identify them.
You should also explain how you’ll protect sensitive and potentially identifiable data, whether that means securing it with HIPAA-compliant features, stripping out all personally identifiable info when presenting results, aggregating data—or all of the above. You’ll show that your organization has responsible plans in place and your respondents will feel better knowing how their data will be treated.