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Article | Sustainably Engaged

Survey best practice: Demographic coding your survey

Self-report or pre-code?


By Adam Zuckerman | September 11, 2019

In the context of an employee survey, demographic coding is the data we use to drive reporting and typically includes information like Location, Job Function, Department, and Length of Service. When business leaders think about surveys, they typically focus on assessing employee opinions and concepts like employee engagement or experience.

But as practitioners, we know demographic coding is equally important. Without accurate and comprehensive coding, we can’t understand how results vary across groups, which severely limits the impact a survey can have, and frustrates leaders in the end. For this reason, it is vital to fully understand how demographic coding is populated, and its implications.

Two ways to gather demographic codes

The original approach is where employees share their demographic information at the beginning of the survey, also known as "self-reporting." An alternative approach is linking individual survey records to coding information that exists elsewhere, such as in a company HRIS. This is known in our industry as "pre-coding."

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Pre-coding has many advantages

The primary benefits of the pre-coding approach are ease-of-use, flexibility, and accuracy. When using pre-coding, employees have a simpler (and shorter) survey-taking experience, because they don't have to answer questions about their demographics. There is also no up-front requirement during survey design to create the demographic questions (and response options), or to identify and commit to the set of demographics most important to capture.

If you have a link to an employee’s HRIS record, any information contained in the HRIS (or elsewhere) that you might want to use in the future is, theoretically at least, available for use in further analysis. Finally, if one has an accurate and up-to-date HRIS system (still a big "if" in many companies today), pre-coding will be more accurate by eliminating employee miscoding, intentional or otherwise.

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Beware of confidentiality concerns

The biggest drawback of pre-coding stems from employees' (correct) understanding that results are not truly anonymous. In a self-report world, employers only know what employees tell them, and it's entirely transparent as to what that is. By contrast, in a pre-coded world, any information the employer has ever received about the employee is theoretically possible to examine, up to and including their identity. This may prevent some employees from responding to a pre-coded survey or lead them to respond in a falsely positive manner.

Working with Willis Towers Watson means that a third party can help bolster employees' confidence in the confidentiality of individual responses, even if the data is not anonymous. We always make sure participants know how their survey data will be used, by making a confidentiality statement mandatory in every survey.

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Self-reporting as a stepping stone

Deciding between these two approaches requires a careful weighing of pros and cons. In environments where surveys are not commonplace and/or where trust is low, either because of prior missteps with survey data or another reason, it may make sense to start with a self-report approach, until confidence in the program can be established.

Other circumstances where self-report may be a preferred option include where HRIS data quality is poor or highly fragmented (e.g., across countries or business units), or where demographic coding is minimal due to high level reporting needs or a small overall population. In these cases, the effort to establish an HRIS data linkage may not justify the added convenience and flexibility.

Sign in to your Willis Towers Watson Employee Engagement Software account today to start a new survey 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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