Employer Surveys: Take with Caution!

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Confidential Does Not Mean Anonymous!

By: John D. Moore, PhD

Have you ever been asked to complete an electronic survey about how you feel about your workplace? Usually, these surveys are sent via email from the company CEO with a link to a 3rd party vendor or will contain a link to your organization’s Intranet site.

There is usually a personalized request that accompanies the link, with message that reads something like this:

“You are an important part of our team. It’s vital you complete this survey so that we have a better understanding of what it is like to work here. The survey is completely confidential so please feel free to be open about your experiences here.

Does this sound familiar? If so, I encourage you to read this posting carefully because what I am about to share could very well save your job. 

As a career counselor, I’ve seen a number of people get themselves into trouble with their employer because they thought what they were marking down for responses on a survey was a “safe” way to discharge how they were feeling.

What they did not know is simply this – confidential does not mean anonymous.

 

Employer Surveys: Confidential vs. Anonymous

I’ll give you the straight up deal folks – confidential means that someone knows your identity but will keep what you have shared private. In the case of workplace surveys, this means that a third party administrator or HR representative can figure out who you are.

How?

Well, it’s pretty simple. E-surveys are commonly linked to a unique alpha-numeric identifier that directly corresponds to your employee ID or your name.

Employers tie these identifiers to surveys because they need to authenticate and then validate the responses. While this is understandable, it also means that the survey can be traced.

While your employer can promise until the cows come home that identifiers are “randomized”, thereby preventing them from knowing your identity, you should know that this does not mean the identifier was chosen in a “double-blind” manner. If they really want to find out who you are – they can.

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Bonus Tip: “Confidential” surveys are characteristically long and ask lots of questions that are tied to organizational metrics.

If you pay close attention to the questions being asked, you will notice many of them are in some way connected to the MBO’s (Management by Objective) of the executive team.

MBO’s are almost always used for compensation purposes in the form of bonuses. This is particularly true of publicly held companies where a board of directors is in place.

Moving on to anonymous surveys …

Anonymous usually means that your identity is unknown. This particular approach to gathering information however is rarely used because there is no real way to authenticate recorded survey responses.

Small, privately held organizations (usually 25 or less) will sometimes use these kinds of surveys because they are easy to create, cheap or in some cases, free. If a small business wants to obtain a quick “snapshot” of employee morale, anonymous surveys can help to offer quick insight.   

Don’t Confuse Confidential with Anonymous

I am bringing this topic up because I have seen several people over the years think they were completing a job survey that was anonymous, using it as an opportunity to “go off” on a supervisor or the company leadership.

What they did not know however is that the unkind words they shared were able to be directly traced back to their unique identifier. As a result, they became the target for disciplinary action by the very people they “dissed”.  And I can tell you that I have seen more than a few people lose their jobs because they angered or offended a “higher up” because of something ugly shared in a survey.

It’s like this – employers will never tell you straight out that you are on their “S-List”. To do so would dispel the myth that the survey process is “confidential”. Instead, they will find other reasons to give you a hard time, like monitoring your attendance with a microscope or writing you up for not behaving like a team player”.  

Tips and Advice

My practical, real world advice to you is fairly simple. If you fill out a workplace survey, be very mindful of what you mark down. Pay attention to the URL that opens up when you take the survey.

Be on particular heightened alert if you see your employee ID, your name or an alpha-numeric variation containing both. This is absolute confirmation that your identity can be traced. I would also add that if you see the word “confidential” appearing anywhere in the email you were sent or on the survey landing page, use caution. Think twice about poorly rating a supervisor or division head.

Important: If there is a text-box after each question (or survey section) for you to type something in as a way of elaborating on a given topical area, do not use this as a tool to bash the management team.

While senior executives usually skim the metrics when it comes to employee surveys, they really read the written responses.

Are Anonymous Surveys Safe?

Here is the thing – nothing is truly anonymous on the Internet. I encourage you to approach these kinds of surveys with the same due diligence and caution as you would with a “confidential” survey.

Keep in mind anything you record electronically potentially can be traced back to you, despite your employer’s insistence that they have “no way of knowing” who you are.

Final Thoughts

Workplace surveys are important to organizational development. They help companies better understand areas of strength while illuminating what needs fixing. Ideally, you should offer honest, constructive feedback in a way that helps your organization grow. It is important however to be mindful of what you mark down.

Remember, when it comes to workplace surveys, confidential and anonymous are not the same. Don’t get yourself into trouble by using that e-survey to vent.

The old adage your grandmother use to tell you is true – if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.

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5 Comments

  1. This is perplexing because if the anonymous response is seen by those who might be offended by an honest opinion meant to improve or correct a percieved organizational shortcomming it is not in effect a survey but a Trap! You have heard the phrase hardly ever a good deed goes unpunished. Well this is a truism and becareful how you express yourself especially with truths you hold true and can support that others feel threaten or expose them as deficient.In the words of the old bulfighter” it takes true cajones to speak truth to power even more when you are surrounded with gutless wonders! Nevertheless the only way a person can really remain a person is be willing to take risks in expressing truth in serious matters. The world has far too many nutless wonders!

  2. Hi, James!

    Thanks for stopping by. I think you made some valid points here for sure. My hope was to shine a light on an issue that many folks may not know about. I totally agree – it is important to be honest for sure when completing these kinds of surveys. I would just add that how that material is shared is equally important.

    So glad you visited and commented!!

  3. It’s very good advice particularly for the younger people who have never experienced the effects. Comments that could be perceived as critical, but that you consider honest, in a survey are as worthless as those made in an exit interview, except the former can lead to the latter.

    Either keep all survey responses neutral or rate everything high no matter how you feel, if you want to keep your job. Failing to complete the survey “because you have nothing to say” is also a big mistake. An employer-sponsored survey is not the conduit for communicating issues. It is a PR tool that the employer wants to use to flatter themselves.

    Aggregated responses are often provided to the employer and if you’re in a small department there is no anonymity or confidentiality. I once was a department of one and when i clicked the survey, it asked me to confirm that the department displayed was the one I was in. Nice…

    • Thanks, JA for sharing your thoughts. Interesting story you have shared here by the way on what happened with you when you took a survey. Gives us all something to think about!

  4. This is a good article. Sadly, it reminds me of something done in a fascist country. If you speak out against a totalitarian government, they find a way to make you disappear. To a lesser degree, these surveys are really the same.. If you say something to anger management they will find a way to have you removed.

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