Survey Anonymity, Confidentiality, Paranoia and Trust

Have you ever heard this?

“I’m not going to complete the employee survey, because I don’t believe it’s anonymous, so you’ll know who I am and then you’ll use it against me, especially if I have negative opinions about my manager or the way we do things around here…”

Well, if you have heard that, you’re not alone.  Survey paranoia is alive and kicking and has always been there.

Some people will openly add their name to their survey because they want you to know who they are and what they think.

Some people will only complete the survey if they think it’s anonymous – because they don’t want you to know who they are … BUT they do want you to know what they think.

If they have concerns about anonymity, they either won’t take part or they will complete it, but they won’t be honest with their responses.  Neither of these are helpful for you and the second one is dangerous as it means that you may well be basing your action plan on data which isn’t a true reflection of people’s views.

This is not a new thing.

Back in the olden days, printed, paper surveys were the norm and you completed them using a pen. I’ll pause here to let the younger readers take this in….   Anyway, you ticked boxes and wrote in comments and then put your completed survey in an unmarked sealed envelope. Then, you put your envelope in a ballot box in the office or sent it away using a Freepost address.   But…

People were concerned about anonymity;

• I bet the questionnaires or the envelopes are marked with some secret code, so you know which code belongs to which person
• You’re monitoring who is putting envelopes into the ballot box and then secretly removing them to inspect who said what
• You’ll be able to tell who I am by spotting my handwriting
• You’ll know I’m left-handed because of the way I’ve written on the page, so that narrows it down a lot

In current times, when most of the employee surveys are carried out online, I hear these concerns

• But you’ve sent me an email, so my answers are linked to my email address, so you know who I am
• The survey is being done on the company Intranet site, so you’ll have access to my personal data and know who I am
• You have some way of tracking my IP address and therefore you’ll link my survey answers to my laptop and know who I am

You’ll notice I’ve used the word “anonymity” so far in this piece.

Anonymity refers to someone’s name being attached to their survey.

Confidentiality is different. That’s a sense that your data will be used in a confidential way.  So, when you answer the survey questions about which department you’re in, how long you’ve worked here, your gender etc. you are providing demographic information about yourself.  People DO get concerned that you’ll put all of that information together to identify them. 

• But I’m one of only two Men who have worked in the Finance team for between 1-3 years… therefore you’ll know who I am.

All of these concerns are valid and should be treated as such.

You have to have a clear way of dealing with them and explaining to your staff exactly why your survey is anonymous and confidential and how their data will be used.

You certainly can’t assume you have their trust in the process.  You have to earn it.

If you’re on your second, third, fourth or more survey, then the level of trust in the process will naturally be higher. People will know that in the past no-one has ever been tapped on the shoulder and asked to have a chat about their individual survey responses.  But you’ll have new recruits each year and they’ll be starting from zero trust. So, this trust earning process needs to be present for every single survey you do.

It’s best practice.  Without it you’re running the risk of poor response.

Either poor response in terms of numbers – and data that is insufficient and unrepresentative
Or poor response in terms of quality – and data which is guarded, watered-down or downright dishonest.

You can’t risk either of those.  Both of them make the employee survey project worthless.

With all of my clients, I offer them a series of templated messages to get over these anonymity and confidentiality concerns.  Messages that remove the survey mystique and make it clear that it’s safe to take part without fear of anything untoward happening to their data.  In addition to the messages, I can also run short lunch-and-learn workshops to dive into the detail of anonymity and confidentiality and deal with any of the questions your staff might have.

Even the left-handed- ones!

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