Sensitive question hub

Surveys can help make respondents feel more at ease while answering sensitive questions such as those around gender, ethnicity, age, and other personal topics.

Sensitive survey questions can provide better insight into why someone feels a certain way or why they makes a decision. Or, they can just give you a more complete picture of the audience you’re gathering feedback from. Is your product selling better to a particular demographic? Does a certain age group have different pain points you weren’t aware of?

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Asking sensitive questions is often necessary to get the full picture of your audience or demographic. Knowing how to ask sensitive questions will increase your completion rates and improve the accuracy of your responses.

What is considered a sensitive question?

Questions that might not be sensitive to one respondent may be to another. Figuring out what constitutes a sensitive question can be challenging and will likely include topics  like age, gender, religion, politics, and health. Here are some examples of sensitive questions:

Questions about religion and faith

If you need to ask questions about religion, then it's best to explain to respondents why. Establishing transparency with respondents will help build trust, increasing the likelihood they will respond and complete your survey. When a respondent trusts the survey's intentions, they are likely to answer the questions more honestly. For instance, if you're looking to create an inclusive environment in the workplace, knowing your employee's religion will help you regard cultural customs that may be overlooked.

Examples of how to set up a question about religion:

  • Start with this: “Company X” is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Your participation in this questionnaire will help “Company X” create and maintain an inclusive work culture. 
  • Next, ask your question about religion or faith: Are you affiliated with a religious institution, or do you follow a particular faith?

For this question, the answer can be either a bullet point or drop-down list of either yes or no.

  • If you want to know how strongly committed they are to their religious beliefs, you can ask: How many times do you attend the ceremonies at your place of worship?

For this question, you can provide a bullet point or drop-down list of religious denomination options. Since there are so many, it's best to keep it simple. Be sure to include an “other” option just in case you didn't include it in the list provided. Get more helpful tips on how to ask about religion.

Questions around gender identity

If you’re hoping to get more insights into the demographics of an audience, then you’ll want to ask some survey questions around gender identity. Gender information can contribute to building a buyer persona. You can learn how different identities are responding to your product or service. For instance, males and females may respond differently to certain grooming products. Still, gender identity and sexual orientation are personal and sensitive topics. They should be approached as such. 

Gender sensitive survey questions can be presented with multiple-choice options that include the opportunity not to answer. Gender is not binary so, it's essential to make sure the verbiage reflects this to avoid exclusion. Your question doesn't have to be a question at all. 

Examples of how to set up a question about gender and sexual orientation

  • Start with a prompt like this: Gender identity. Select one. 
  • Next, provide the answer choices:
    • Male or cisgender male
    • Female or cisgender female
    • Transgender female
    • Transgender male
    • Non-binary
    • Please specify

It's important to educate yourself as much as possible about gender identity before writing gender sensitive survey questions as to not come off as invasive. Use the same tactics if you’re asking respondents about their sexual orientation, which is different than asking about gender.

  • Again, stating your question as a prompt might be the better option: Sexual orientation. Please select.
  • Providing an option to add a category is another way to display answers:
    • Bisexual
    • Gay
    • Heterosexual
    • Lesbian
    • Pansexual
    • Queer
    • Please specify (It's probably best to avoid the term 'other.')

There are more options but the total amount of options you choose to include is up to you. Asking gender identity questions the wrong way might offend some respondents who will skip the question or discontinue the survey. Learn more about how to ask survey questions about gender identity

Healthcare questions

Medical facilities are prohibited from disclosing information about its patients without their written consent. So, it's understandable if respondents are hesitant to answer any health-related questions in a survey. That's why healthcare questions could benefit from question loading. Question loading means including context within the question that doesn't make the survey taker feel exposed or judged. 

To make respondents feel secure with answering your questions, Momentive, the creator of SurveyMonkey, offers HIPPA compliant features. The AI-powered solutions will safeguard all of your responses collected through online questionnaires. 

Examples of how to ask questions about protected health information (PHI)

  • Since health-related questions are personal, it's best to start with a generic question that doesn't feel so invasive: How often do you get examined for routine health checkups?
  • The options for this answer should be offered in the numeric range. It's unlikely people will remember the exact date of their last doctor's visit. Help them out.
    • 0 months
    • 1-3 months
    • 3-6 months
    • 6-12 months
    • More than year

Notice the first option offers the respondent a way of saying they've never had a checkup and that it's been over a year since their last one. The takeaway here is to provide respondents with an option to tell you information they might be embarrassed to admit. Another way to ask a health-related question is to word your questions in a way that gives the respondent power. 

  • For instance, a mental health question could be asked like this: Rate your current situation.

Since the question is so serious, your answers can be light-hearted. You could even use emojis with particular expressions as optional answers. It's common to see these types of polls in social media posts. While this type of question won't provide concrete answers, it does allow for user engagement.

  • Here is where you can follow up with some of the more serious questions: 
    • Is there a history of any chronic illness in your family?
    • Are you being treated for any chronic illnesses?

These questions require a radio button of yes or no and can be followed up by an opened-ended question that allows the respondent to type in what kind of chronic condition they might have. You can also provide a checklist, but it's best to keep the options short to keep the respondent engaged. 

Explore a few of our popular healthcare surveys: Health check-in survey, Diet, fitness & exercise survey, and Mental health survey

How to ask sensitive questions in surveys

What's not so sensitive for you might be for other people. For instance, the discussion of voting behaviors might be uncomfortable for some respondents but easy for others. 

Similar sensitive topics can include: income, health, age, level of education, and even questions around diet. It’s important to word your questions so respondents are comfortable enough to answer them. 

Ensuring confidentiality, explaining the reason behind asking the question, using neutral language, a self-administered format, leaving the most sensitive questions at the end of the survey, and most importantly, giving them the option to not answer all aid in how to ask sensitive survey questions.

Assure confidentiality 

When the respondent's identity isn’t needed, let them know that you’re conducting an anonymous survey. Assuring confidentiality will make respondents comfortable answering sensitive survey questions. Be mindful of the type of questions asked. For instance, if your pool of respondents only has one female or one person of color, asking questions that would require them to reveal that part of their identity does not make a survey anonymous. 

Learn more about the benefits of creating an anonymous survey and how to make one. 

Explain the reasoning behind asking the question

If respondents know why you're asking such sensitive questions, then they might be more willing to answer them. For instance, if you're asking about their household income and possible chronic health issues to determine if healthcare is truly affordable, respondents will find that helpful before the survey or the question. Asking such a sensitive question without a reason will prompt the respondent to skip the question or discontinue the survey.

Use a self-administered format

Administering an online survey for sensitive questions will likely provide the results you're looking for compared to an in-person survey. Online surveys allow respondents to answer sensitive survey questions on their terms. This also provides them with the security to honestly disclose sensitive information. It's also important to choose the wording of your questions carefully. Online surveys don't have the advantage of reading body language and gauging if the question needs rephrasing.

Get a brief overview of how SurveyMonkey works and the features that can help you launch successful surveys. 

Add sensitive questions at the end of your survey

Placing demographic questions at the beginning of a survey can also turn respondents away. Having respondents reveal their demographic information upfront can make them feel like they're disclosing a part of their identity. It can also provide the opposite effect of confidentiality. See examples of writing demographic questions for your next survey.

Use neutral language 

Using neutral language means being inclusive. When it comes to gender identity, use a pronoun that doesn't exclude anyone. Use “they” even if the pronoun modifies a singular subject. Be mindful of gendered terms. Words like chairman should be labeled as chairperson. Use “parent” instead of mother or father. Instead of the term mailman, substitute with postal worker or mail carrier.

Give respondents an “out” for answering them

Always give respondents the option to not answer a question. Providing this option encourages the respondent to continue to the next question. Simply add it to your list of answers as it applies to the question. If an "out" isn't an option, the respondent might discontinue the survey.

Get sensitive survey question examples

Understanding what sensitive questions are will keep respondents engaged to complete the entire survey. Check out all our pre-written survey templates, and get some examples of how our experts recommend using sensitive survey questions. Or, jump right in and create a survey now

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