Over the next six months approximately 20,000 federal workers -- ranging from typists to bosses -- will be asked to fill out detailed, confidential questionnaries on the subject of sexual harassment.

The job of developing the questionnaire and conducting the survey has been assigned to an office within the Merit Systems Protection Board, a relatively new agency with about 305 employes. The board's Office of Merit Systems Review and Studies, headed by Patrica A. Mathis, will conduct the study.

Rep. James M. Hanley (D-N.Y.) asked for the study, to give the Post Office-Civil Service Committee, which he heads, an idea of the magnitude of the problem. Since Hanley began investigating sexual harassment in government, hundreds of women have complained to his office of threats, physical abuse, and denials of promotions from bosses demanding sex.

MSPB Director Ruth Prokop said the questionnaires will try to define:

How serious is the problem of sexual harassment, and what is the definition of sexual harassment?

Do men define "harassment" differently than women?

Is there a pattern, by job, educational level, race, geographic region or federal agency that shows the problem is confined, or widespread?

What kind of leverage (withholding raises, promotions, or physical threats) do bosses use to intimidate subordinates?

Do alleged victims of sexual harassment have any confidence in existing administrative machinery to deal with job-related threats?

What effect does sexual harassment have on the physical, emotional and financial well-being of victims?

How much does sex harassment cost the government, in time and money lost or in "payoffs" for improper performance?

The MSPB hopes to have the study completed within four to six months. But is the problem is as serious and widespread as the Hanley hearings seem to indicate, it could take most of the tiny (in government terms) agency's time and resources just to ask the right questions, not to mention coming up with the answers.