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Employee surveys on sensitive topics

Gregory Mitchell ( is the Joseph Weintraub-Bank of America Distinguished Professor of Law at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.

Employee surveys play an important role in organizational compliance efforts. A good employee survey sheds light on the organization’s ethical climate and identifies areas where employees may not understand their ethical or legal obligations. But how reliable is the information generated by employee surveys, especially when the survey asks about sensitive topics such as whether misconduct has been observed or whether senior management acts in ways contrary to the code of conduct?

The chief compliance officer faces the same dilemma faced by the public health researcher studying illegal drug use or the psychologist studying risky behaviors among teens: how to promote honesty by survey respondents when the answers they give could be embarrassing or perhaps even incriminating. Fortunately, given many years of experience asking questions on sensitive topics, survey researchers have developed methods for dealing with this dilemma. Before administering your next employee survey, consider the following recommendations aimed at increasing the integrity of the survey data.

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