Green-Jakobsen has clients all over the world. Engaging in talks with our clients is the best way to gain insight in tendencies and challenges in the industry. In connection with client projects we are sometimes involved in surveys and assessments, and through talks and implementation of projects a general challenge in the industry has become evident: how do we get seafarers and employees to answer honestly to surveys?

“We struggle to get honest answers on our surveys and also when the seafarers do self-assessments. We can see that it is not in accordance with the truth. – We know the vessel, and we know our crew. So, we struggle to get honest answers, but we don’t know how to get them to answer honestly. We keep on telling them, but nothing happens!”                                 Head of crewing

The social desirability bias phenomenon

Among organisational development researchers this phenomenon is well-known and referred to as social desirability bias. It happens when the respondents’ answers are affected by their desire to be socially accepted and to show that they follow the social norms and rules of the organisation. In short, seafarers want themselves and the vessel to look as good as possible. Therefore, when answering surveys, they often avoid reporting behaviours that are perceived as inappropriate, and instead report them to be appropriate.

For many of our clients, the problem about getting honest answers in surveys, performance evaluations, self-assessments, and even in safety reports, is well-known. And unfortunately it is unresolved.

Seafarers want themselves and the vessel to look as good as possible

To really understand the challenge posed by social desirability bias and how to overcome it, Green-Jakobsen has compared existing research within this area with our own and our clients’ experience. We would like to share the outcome of this through two articles.

This article describes the phenomenon ‘social desirability bias’, how it appears in the maritime industry and ways it can be overcome through survey design. A following article will focus on how the development of an open and trusting culture can motivate honest answers and serve as the foundation for a proactive safety culture.

Social desirability bias in the maritime business

Throughout our various types of projects Green-Jakobsen has frequently encountered social desirability bias as it is a prominent issue in the maritime industry. Especially, when we talk about safety with seafarers, social desirability bias becomes a challenge.

One of the reasons why social desirability bias is very common in the maritime industry is the vetting and audit culture. Seafarers are trained in giving the correct answers during audits and vetting sessions. Even though the seafarers are aware that it is not an audit, they provide the “right” answer by default, and not the honest answers. Green-Jakobsen has coined this phenomenon audit answers. When we do interviews with seafarers, we often experience audit answers at first hand:

Especially when we talk about safety, social desirability becomes a challenge

”I’m facing a dilemma. Because I know what the correct answer is – and I can give you that: “we always do risk assessments”. But that is not the honest answer, because we do it after we do the task.” Seafarer

Why do we not get honest answers?

Beside audit answers, Green-Jakobsen has experienced various reasons and explanations from seafarers as to why they give answers that are social desirability biased rather than honest answers:

Commercial pressure:
If the safety performance is not good enough the shipping companies risk not getting hired by their clients again. No clients, no jobs. This leads to seafarers giving audit answers out of fear of losing their job. In some companies the commercial pressure even has the consequence that Captains and management staff instruct seafarers to give “right” answers rather than honest answers.
“I’m the best”:
It is very common that respondents believe they are better than they actually are. This is called the self-deception tendency. This tendency is for example reflected in overrating: own performance is rated higher or evaluated as better than that of your colleagues.
“I want you to think I’m the best”:
Then there is the desire to impress management, where respondents deliberately give answers that make them look or appear in a certain way. When seafarers make super positive self-assessments, it most often is impression management: they want to give a great impression of their performance, in order to make sure they are rehired or to avoid criticism, etc.
“My entire family depends on me”:
Some seafarers’ wages are the sole income for the entire family and in some cases it also supports entire villages. The pressure on these seafarers to get re-hired is immense. If they lose their job or do not get rehired, the livelihood of their entire family (and in some cases the village) is at stake. Therefore, these seafarers do everything they can to keep their job. This also involves being compliant and doing what is expected of them, even if this involves dishonesty about the true conditions on board.
Distrust in anonymity:
To many seafarers the anonymity of their answers is vital. Maybe they want to give honest answers, but they fear that their superiors will see their answers and that they will not like what they see. The superiors have the power to make life on board very hard for the seafarers, and ultimately they can make them lose their job. So, if the seafarers don’t trust that their answers are treated anonymously and confidentially they tend to give social desirable answers.

How can we overcome social desirability bias?

Now we know a bit more about the industry-related factors that make seafarers give social desirable answers. But why are social desirable answers such a big problem? Here we need to consider how the answers are used.

Typically, all the survey answers are compiled into a vast data pool. Survey analysts extract data from the pool to generate various analyses and data results. These data results are presented as ‘reflections of reality’, e.g. this is how safety is on board. Very often decisions and business strategies are based on the results. So, if the answers that serve as the foundation for the data are social desirability biased, the results will likewise show a social desirable, and not honest, reflection of reality. Consequently, any idea, decision or strategy drawn from the results will be based on a fallacious and weak foundation.

Often, decisions and strategies are based on survey results

In order to become aware of how we can overcome social desirability bias, it is important to take the methods we use for gaining insights into account.

The challenges

It is very common to use surveys and self-assessments (performance evaluations) to gain insight about what is going on on board. However, surveys and self-assessments are based on self-reporting: The seafarers inform about their own way of doing and what they think.  The challenge about self-reporting is that it contains a number of factors that trigger social desirability responses:

Self-reporting one’s true actions and behaviours:
If the respondent perceives his/her true behaviour as being socially desirable, the likelihood of honest reporting is higher. Likewise, the risk of dishonest answers is greater if the respondent’s true behaviours are not perceived as socially desirable.
The sensitivity of the topics in the survey:
The more sensitive a topic is, the greater is the likelihood of dishonest answers.
The measurement situation:
If the respondents are stressed or in a stressful situation when answering the survey, the likelihood of social desirability answers is increased.

The influencing factors

In our perspective, the organisations as well as the survey designers (in this case Green-Jakobsen) can influence these factors and hereby reduce the social desirability bias.


Survey designers(Green-Jakobsen)

  • Establishing Social desirability behaviours:
    An organisation has the capability to expect certain behaviours and explain why they are better than others. Likewise, an organisation can make some behaviours more desirable and valued than others, e.g. always doing risk assessment before the task, wearing correct PPE, answering honestly on surveys, etc.
  • Setting up the measurement situation:
    The organisation can also influence the measurement situation by ensuring that the respondents can complete the survey in privacy and are given sufficient time to complete the survey.
  • Transparent organisation:
    Ensure transparency throughout the organisation, for example by informing employees about organisational changes, upcoming plans, and updates in the organisation.
  • Creating an open and trusting culture:
    This is not done overnight, but it is a constant and focused effort for an organisation to create an open and trusting culture. Experience shows that it has a positive effect not only on the respondents’ answers but also on the company (safety) culture in general.
    The following article will deal with this more specifically
  • Managing sensitive topics:
    When asking about sensitive topics, the choice of words can make it appear more neutral and thus less sensitive.
  • Ensuring anonymity:
    The demographic questions can be designed to retain the anonymity of the respondents, e.g. avoid asking the name, or details that can reveal the identity of the respondents, e.g. rank and nationality.
  • Overcoming self-deception bias:
    Design questions to be in the third-person, e.g. “your colleagues”, rather than in the second-person, e.g. “you” or the first-person, “I”.
  • Action-based questions:
    Design questions to focus on respondents’ actions – their actual way of doing – rather than on their perception of their own performance.

Creating an open and trusting culture

Several factors in the maritime industry affect the tendency of social desirability bias. Some of these factors are found in the organisation, others at an individual level, and some in the survey design. Some of these factors are easier to accommodate than others. In this article we have provided some focus points for how these can be overcome and how we can ensure more honest answers in our surveys, performance evaluations, self-assessments, etc.

However, it is our belief that the most long-lasting and efficient way to get honest answers is for the organisation to develop an open and trusting culture. This is an effort that can take years to develop. However, such an effort will not only benefit survey answers and self-assessments. An open and trusting culture is also an important factor in creating a proactive safety culture in the organisation.

Hence, the next article will go much more into details on how an open and trusting culture can help overcome social desirability bias as well as serve as the foundation for a proactive safety culture.

An open and trusting culture is a vital factor for getting honest answers
Need help?

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Ida Krogh
Ida Krogh
Consultant, Safety Delta Product Manager

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