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Article | EX Insights

Survey best practice: Defining your terms


By Adam Zuckerman | February 24, 2020

In this article, we explain why you should define terminology to remove ambiguity during the survey process. We also provide a few common definitions that you can use in your next survey.

One of the most difficult things in interpreting employee survey results is understanding the referent employees had in mind when completing the survey. A classic example is leadership. When responding to the question "I believe ABC Company leadership has a clear vision for the future," are employees thinking about the CEO, the Executive Team, Division Leadership, or their immediate manager? This challenge can feel especially acute when you are confronting unfavorable results and trying to decide on where to focus action.

While it's impossible to know for sure what employees were thinking, our best practice advice is to provide as much clarity as possible on each question’s intent. This means clearly defining all key terms throughout the survey and making those definitions readily available to respondents.

Commonly defined terms include various levels of leadership, immediate manager and customer. Organizational units (e.g., divisions, segments, and departments) are also often included. Actual definitions are specific to each company, though some common approaches have emerged.

  • Senior leadership is often defined with an established label such as "The Executive Committee" or descriptively "The CEO and their direct reports." In larger companies, there is also often a middle layer of leadership defined, and more rarely, more than one.
  • Manager is often defined as "the individual you report to on a day to day basis, regardless of their title" to avoid confusion among the variety of titles that can exist inside large companies.
  • Customer is commonly defined as "the person you primarily serve in your role, either internal or external to the company," which helps avoid confusion among corporate function employees who don’t have direct interaction with external customers.

Even with definitions like these, different employees may have had different mindsets. The image of senior leadership to a frontline employee may be very different from a middle manager. Given this ambiguity, there are two additional reminders worth mentioning:

  1. While it's natural to want to understand the specific employee sentiment, on a practical level it may not matter much. In the example above, the critical issue is that employees don’t understand the company direction, which can be addressed in multiple ways at multiple levels.
  2. When greater precision is necessary before any actions are taken, there is no substitute for going back to employees and asking them to clarify their views. You can also provide suggestions for improvement. This is a great use of virtual focus groups, which allow you to gather views from a large, geographically dispersed set of employees quickly and easily.

In the meantime, defining key terms on the survey is a simple and effective way to remove as much ambiguity as possible when interpreting your results.

Log in to Willis Towers Watson's Employee Engagement Software today to start defining your key terms or contact us for a demo.


Product Leader
Willis Towers Watson Employee Engagement Software

Adam is responsible for the overall development and direction of Willis Towers Watson Employee Engagement Software. His goal is to create the world’s greatest software for delivering insight and enabling actions that enhance employee experience, company culture, and business performance. Outside of work, Adam enjoys off-roading in his Jeep and spending time with his family. Follow Adam on Twitter.

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