On surveys and anonymity

The veil of anonymity often tends to bring out the nastiest aspects of human nature - as evident with fake profiles on social media

On surveys and anonymity
On surveys and anonymity

Workplace surveys are a healthy practice for every organisation; they provide both quantitative and qualitative information that can help shape company policy, steer the general direction of a business and even help in the growth of individuals and leaders. Such surveys can range from an Employer Net Promoter Score (eNPS), which asks a single question of “How likely are you to recommend others to work with this organisation?”, to more detailed surveys such as an Employee Voice questionnaire.

In the process of designing our very own survey platform, the question about protecting the respondent’s anonymity always crops up. In addressing this need, I find myself conflicted between two opposing arguments;

  1. If people are not allowed anonymity, they will not tell you what they really think. They will say what you or others want to hear. Without anonymity you will not get a true pulse of your organisation.
  2. With appropriate identification, follow-ups are made possible. Participants will be comfortable taking accountability for what they say and this will allow others to understand where the problems may lie and actually do something about them. Identifiable respondents had the courage to speak up, stand by what they said and are ready to help solve potential problems.

While the question always makes me reflect, personally I land strongly on the side against anonymity. I therefore choose to attach my identity to surveys that allow me to do so. Yet one cannot completely disregard the merits of the former perspective.

It is very true that some people may refrain from being truthful when anonymity is not on the table, but I do believe that such a reality highlights a culture within which people do not feel safe in voicing their opinions. Take for example the following statement from our yearly company survey; remember that people are able to rate this on a scale from 1 to 5 where 5 is “Completely Agree” and 1 is “Completely Disagree”.

“I intend to still be working with this company in the next 12 months.”

In a healthy organisation, one can be comfortable expressing a negative view towards the above question without fear of repercussions. Maybe there is something your colleagues can do to improve the situation and thereby convince you to extend your tenure. In a less healthy environment, a negative response may lead to changing attitudes, deteriorating working conditions and possibly termination.

The truth is that most would rather be part of the healthier organisation from the above two examples. And while all leaders like to think that their company is the best place for anyone to work at, the reality may be different.

In light of this unknown, I think there is a happy medium towards the question of anonymity; I believe one should not make a survey anonymous by default but instead allow for any respondent to stay anonymous if they so choose to. You can now work on progressively improving the company culture towards one where people are more and more comfortable to voice their opinions. With the right metrics in place you can keep track of this progress as reducing the need for anonymity while preserving healthy response rates.

On a more philosophical reflection, I feel that the veil of anonymity often tends to bring out the nastiest aspects of human nature - as evident with fake profiles on social media. While I genuinely believe that most people typically have good intentions, I like to ensure that I am doing my part in helping good qualities surface without sacrificing hard cold truths - this is why I believe the happy medium is a good way forward.

In my role leading product initiatives at Konnekt, Talexio and Expedition42, this philosophy drives me and my team in ensuring that we build flexible HR survey products - ones that allow for people to stay anonymous if they choose to while also promoting the principles of transparency and psychological safety.