Anonymous or Not?

Posted on June 3, 2014 by TNS Consulting Team (via Scott Spayd)

How many times have you taken a survey for an organization you have or are working for? Was the survey conducted with an online database or was it standard pen and paper? What were your thoughts about your individual responses? Did you feel that your responses would be tied to you specifically?

Surveys are a major part of our lives. We take surveys for everything from our customer experience for stores we shop at to how we felt our service was for our car. Organizational surveys are also an important part of our lives as organizations seek to gather information to improve aspects of the organization.

I have been in several situations where I have learned that a survey I took for a university or a research project was not anonymous. Am I really concerned about my responses being associated with me? Not really, but it is the principle behind it. I was told my responses would be completely anonymous and to learn that they weren’t made me feel a bit betrayed.

A common feeling when taking surveys at organizations is a feeling of unease. How can we know for certain that our answers will remain anonymous and will not be used against us? Add today’s uncertain economy and employees are likely to think twice about clicking on that survey link and answering truthfully.

In a study on health care employees’ response rates, Listyowardojo, Nap, and Johnson (2011) discovered that higher-level employees were less likely to complete employee surveys. The researchers inferred that this might be because higher-level employees believe their time is better spent attending to other things rather than an organizational survey. Females also had a higher rate of response compared to men. Finally, employees who had worked at the organization less than 5 years had lower response rates.

What holds us back from honesty? It is not easy to tell whether or not our responses to surveys actually will be anonymous anymore. Unfortunately, we have learned to ignore that standard “This survey is anonymous” message and assume this is a ploy to get us to answer honestly. Technology has become so advanced that we question whether or not the organization will be able to trace our answers.

How do you feel about organizational surveys? Do you trust them?


Listyowardojo, T., Nap, R., & Johnson, A. (2011). Demographic differences between health care workers who did or did not respond to a safety and organizational culture survey. BMC Research Notes, 4, 1-6.

TNS Consulting Team (via Scott Spayd)

About TNS Consulting Team (via Scott Spayd)

Great companies know that it takes highly engaged employees to retain customers and make their brand promise come alive. To make the connection between your employees, customers and brand, you need a partner with deep expertise across several areas. Only KANTAR TNS has over two decades of employee survey experience, as well as access to the consultative and research resources of the world’s largest customer satisfaction benchmark database and brand analytics research. Whether you have 200 employees or 200,000, Kantar TNS has the expertise and the advanced measurement, reporting, and follow up tools you need to deliver on your employee and customer brand promise.

What Others Are Saying

  1. Lonni May 9, 2014 at 11:20 am

    Our company does a culture survey every two years. Although it is said to be anonymous, I hardly doubt that it is. Each survey is handed to us in a sealed envelope with our name on the outside of the envelop along with a number. The number correlates to a number discretely printed on the bottom of the survey. The number is unique to other surveyees numbers. We were told the number was to differentiate each of us by department, however if that were true, then my co-workers number from same department would have to be the same. It is not! Although I would love to put this number to the test by making a totally negative survey, I do not because it would skew the real results. …But maybe one day I will!

    • Katherine Razzi
      Katherine Razzi May 9, 2014 at 4:16 pm

      While I don’t know your specific situation regarding your company’s survey, I would hope that the surveys are anonymous as they have communicated to you. One thought is perhaps the company is using the numbers as a way to ensure that each survey is taken only one time. If you have any doubts regarding the anonymity of your responses, I suggest having a deeper conversation with your HR contact or survey champion. Perhaps they can provide you with further insight on how the codes are being used.

      Also many times individuals confuse the terms anonymity and confidentiality. So while they say anonymous maybe what they really mean is confidential. Again I would discuss this further with HR to get more clarity on your situation.

  2. Ash May 14, 2014 at 7:02 pm

    I just learned that in a recent divisional survey that my responses were traced to me and then were discussed in a recent one on one meeting with my boss. I was told that my response would be anonymous, now I was told that all of management has changed their perception of me. Is there anything I can do? I like my job and don’t want to leave. However, I do feel violated that now every manager in my division sees me in a negative light. I feel extremely uncomfortable in the office now.

    • Katherine Razzi
      Katherine Razzi May 20, 2014 at 10:30 am

      Dear Ash,

      I went to our pros on this subject and they came back with these replies:

      From Dick Buckles, Ph.D – My experience may be different but, in all my years of suveying, going back to the ’70s (cuz I’m just old!!!), I have never seen a case where a response was traced back to an employee. I think maybe the only condition where this might occur is in the comments where an employee might self identify.

      I recently had a case where employees were being bullied into making positive responses and I recommended that it was the HR VPs role to intervene. I would make the same recommendation here. It’s management’s responsibility to ensure that all responses remain confidential and anonymous. If there is a violation of that trust, then it’s management’s responsibility to act, and act swiftly and strongly.

      Mistrust can spread like wildfire throughout an organization if something like this really did occur. It would demand a thorough investigation to find out more about what really happened. What kind of survey? How was the organization prepared for it? Did management advise the workforce and the management that it was confidential and anonymous? What measures did they take to insure C&A? What assurances did management give to employees that their responses would be anonymous? It is a serious breach of trust and there are manyother questions that could be raised.

      Any employee suspecting a violation should immediately contact their HR rep or above to have the matter investigated.
      Pat Sikora, Ph.D – This is a huge violation of trust. Trust is essential to any healthy relationship and I would argue that engagement cannot exist without trust. People have to be able to speak the truth or the survey or any other feedback process is a farce. The survey can continue but will engender cynicism, passive compliance, and/or overt “acting as if” behavior (including high answers on the survey). If the process cannot be trusted, the results cannot be trusted.

      I’ve seen this in a customer engagement context where any customer who gave a rating of 1 or 2 on a 5 point scale was contacted by sales to “understand” their answers. This did NOT go over well with customers – undermined relationships for years. The issue here was mixing up means with ends. The survey, more specifically an outcome metric, became the ends vs. a means to understanding how customers viewed the organization. Managers’ annual performance bonuses hinged on hitting a specific numeric threshold – all sorts of ugliness occurred behind the scenes to be sure that metric was hit. This over-emphasis on metrics also leads to things like managers herding employees in a room to “participate” in the survey in order to hit specific participation rate thresholds – hardly participation and hardly engagement-oriented.

      So, along with Dick’s excellent suggestion (I’d say it’s a must) to actively and assertively involve the highest levels of HR, I’d also look at performance metrics and communication processes that exist around the survey results: are the results directly and strongly connected with performance bonuses? Is there a lot of formal and/or informal pressure to “hit a number?” Is the organization punitive around results or are results used to coach and support managers in building strong relationships with all employees? Is the survey viewed as an “event” with a number as the key outcome or is it viewed as part of a larger year long process of building relationships with employees?

      There also should be a ton of training with managers (including senior leaders) around use of the survey results and importance of confidentiality/anonymity. The survey vendor should be an active participant in this process and not pressured to provide data that can isolate individuals. The “rule of 5” (i.e., no results for groups less than 5) may need to be bumped up to “rule of 10” to reassure employees.

      Trust is incredibly hard to build but can evaporate in an instant. Being able to speak the truth without fear is a hallmark of a truly engaged workforce and reflects a management team that has its priorities straight. The real test of management in this organization comes now: will they focus on doing the right thing for engagement or brush this under the rug?

      Let me know what you think and if anything was done. Best of luck to you.



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