“Check all that apply” is a weak survey scale


Here’s a type of question you see all the time on employee communication surveys: “Check all that apply.” And here’s what I say about this approach: Don’t do it.

It seems like a good idea. You want to know how employees learn about a certain topic. So you ask this question: “How do you get information about the company strategy?”

And then you provide a list of options (like intranet home page, email bulletin, town halls, etc.), asking survey respondents to “Check all that apply.”

What could possibly be wrong with that?

The problem is two-fold. First, we’ll start with human nature. If you give me a list of different types of chocolate candy—Milky Ways, Hershey’s Kisses, York Peppermint Patties, etc.—and ask me which ones I like, I’ll check most of them. After all, I like chocolate.

So the first problem is that the structure of the question doesn’t require me to differentiate between candy I like a little and candy I like a lot. There’s no judgment required—just the easy, thoughtless process of checking boxes in a list.

Which leads to the second problem: Mediocre data.

For example, for the survey question you created about information about the strategy, let’s say that 87% of employees checked intranet home page, 76% email bulletin, 67% town halls.

You conclude that the home page is employees’ main way of receiving information about the strategy. Yes, but you don’t know whether the intranet is effective at providing this information. Employees may be receiving lots of strategy info on the home page, but may think it’s all junk.

The better way? Develop a question set that starts like this: “For each of the following channels, please indicate its effectiveness at providing you with information about the company strategy.”

Then list each channel with a four-point scale: effective, somewhat effective, somewhat ineffective, ineffective.

Yes, this takes more time (and survey real estate), but you’ll end up with much
better data about the effectiveness of each channel, and you’ll be able to compare the effectiveness of one channel vs. another.

So, please, just say no to “Check all that apply.”

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