Engagement surveys: confidential vs. anonymous

Employee engagement surveys have been pitched as anonymous for as long as they have been around.I have seen organizations where employee information is not captured in any form (not even by coded numerical) and is truly anonymous. I’ve also seen organizations where employee data is captured and held secret by the survey administrator, thus making the survey ‘not so anonymous.’ In both circumstances, the communication to the employee has always been – ‘This is an anonymous survey.’ Why the lie?

Thus ensues the interesting debate over the anonymity of engagement surveys.  I’m not the first one to raise this issue and definitely won’t be the last. However, every time I do, people look at me as though I’ve arrived from another world. The reaction usually goes something like this: ‘Of course, engagement surveys must be anonymous. How else would an employee feel safe in disclosing the truth?’ I shouldn’t be surprised. We have been brain washed to believe that the truth emerges only under the safety of the cloak of anonymity and when the person cannot be held accountable for what they’ve said or written. I disagree.

I believe that survey respondent details must be confidential but never anonymous. Confidential means individual responses are never identified or disclosed. I applaud the organizations that actually collect respondent data but am dismayed at the fact that the employees are kept unaware. Organizations debate saying that the information is collected only to keep data clean and is never used for another purpose. What a waste!

Anonymous surveys do have their benefits. The response rates are higher. There is a greater probability that the disengaged employee tell you the truth without fear of retaliation and the survey results be more actionable. There is also a flipside that no one talks about. Anonymity lets you shirk accountability, makes deep dive tougher and results in action planning that may miss the mark altogether. Have you observed how we take survey data, spend hours analyzing it and decide to do focus group discussions (FGDs) to understand the survey results? If you’ve done enough of these, you might have begun to notice that what you gather from these FGDs differs from the survey result altogether leaving you more confused than when you began. It is not new. It is not surprising. If you have been dealing with survey results for long enough, you know how some employees enjoy drawing patterns on long questionnaires and many respond without giving the questions requisite thought. Some of you may have done it too.

Abandoning anonymity may help you increase the accountability, impact, and quality of your employee feedback. In fact, a study comparing anonymous versus non-anonymous feedback by university students of their courses and instructors found that there was no meaningful difference in the quality of feedback between the two groups. Furthermore, the non-anonymous survey respondents were more likely to provide more detail in their comments.

I understand that this is easier than said. We’ve been living under the burden of anonymous surveys for a very long time and this is a tectonic shift. How do we make this transition? To begin with, don’t be sneaky about collecting respondent data. It’s never a good idea to say one thing and then do another. Here is how I would go about it:

  1. Explain the difference between confidential and anonymous surveys to the respondents. Explain why you would want to lean towards a confidential survey. Most employees feel unsafe because they don’t know what’s happening behind the screen and who the data is visible to. Give them the answers they are looking for.
  2. Start small. Begin by giving the employees to opt out from sharing their details. If an employee is not comfortable in letting the survey team know who they are, they can choose to opt out from sharing identification information. Phrase the opt-out option smartly.
  3. Tell the employees that the survey analysis team will reach out to employees who’ve shared co-ordinates to further gain insights on the response data. The employees can choose to decline to elaborate on their inputs.
  4. Lastly, analyze the quality of data and show the impact their feedback creates. This is a no-brainer and something that one must do even if the survey is anonymous.

If the employees trust the organization and see improvement based on feedback, anonymity isn’t essential. The truth is you will never know if you never try. We can live under the myth that anonymous surveys are the only way forward or we can experiment and be truly surprised. I would always choose experimentation. It is never a one-way door.

P.S: This post was first published here. 

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