Why Anonymous Employee Surveys Fail & What to Do Instead

Lori Li
9 min read
Oct 5, 2020

Is there value in anonymity? 

When it comes to employee surveys, anonymity seems to be the default. A way to ensure we get honest, accurate feedback from our teams.

More than 75% of survey respondents want anonymity too.

But do our employees really hold back on giving honest feedback if they know they can be identified?

In short, yes. But that doesn’t mean our solution should always be anonymous surveys. Because anonymous isn’t always the answer.

Anonymous surveys can even fail. And in major ways. As a standalone solution, anonymous surveys just don’t work anymore. Let’s examine why.


3 Reasons Why Anonymous Employee Surveys Fail

1. There are perceived privacy risks with anonymous surveys

With anonymous surveys, data isn’t linked to your employees’ records. That means you have to rely on self-reporting for demographics. And there’s a big problem with this.

Just asking about your employees’ department, job title, or age group can cause them to question the privacy of their responses.

Take, for example, an area with 15 employees. On the surface, asking what their work area is doesn’t raise any red flags. 

But if your next question asks them to select an age group and there are only one or two employees in that group, their privacy is in jeopardy. 

If your employees realize this — which they probably will — you risk them either abandoning your employee survey or selecting more neutral responses.

“Some workers don't believe that such surveys will protect their anonymity. So they refuse to fill them out.”
—Rajeev Peshawaria, author of Open Source Leadership: Reinventing Management When There's No More Business As Usual 

2. Anonymous responses lead to more employee criticism than critiques

One of the primary arguments for using anonymous employee surveys is that we receive more honest feedback, which is often true. But it’s not always useful.

Voicing criticism is much different than giving a critique. 

We want feedback, good and bad. We just want to ensure we can use it to make improvements.

When we criticize — instead of focusing on the actual issues or the root-cause — it’s more of an attack against a specific individual, process, or entire leadership team. 

And with the cloak of anonymity, we are more likely to say exactly what’s on our minds and less likely to take ownership of our words.

Here’s what that might look like for a COVID-19 needs assessment survey response:

Critique: “I need better information about the types of leave I can use when I take off time to help my daughter with remote schooling.”

Criticism: “My supervisor doesn’t know what’s going on and I feel lost. HR never gives us the right information and none of it makes sense. We need better leadership that understands our needs as parents.”

With the critique, we are able to better identify what the problem is. With criticism, we learn who the problem is — but not what the problem is. We may get a basic idea of what the problem is about (in this case working parents). But we don’t understand what our employees actually need.


3. It’s difficult to follow up about an anonymous survey response

One of the biggest challenges with data analysis for anonymous surveys is that it’s hard to follow up with a specific respondent. 

Unless you are using a third-party administrator like TINYpulse — which offers private messaging — it’s almost impossible to provide context and clarify responses.

Sometimes, you just need to dig deeper. Anonymous surveys mean that instead of following up with a specific group of individuals, you may need to send out a second survey to try to get the data you need. Even then, you may not get the data you need.

Doing away with Anonymous Employee Surveys

With all the problems anonymous employee surveys bring and other options available, does that mean we should get rid of them? Not exactly.

There’s still a time and place for anonymous surveys in the workplace. 

When to Use an Anonymous Employee Survey

Dillman’s Social Exchange Theory has shown that our survey response rate is often based on three factors:

  • Perceived costs: How much time your survey takes to complete
  • Rewards: Financial incentive or knowing responses will be used to make real changes 
  • Trust: Your respondents feel it’s safe to respond honestly

If there’s a company culture of distrust in your organization, strategically designed anonymous surveys can help your employees feel more secure about their privacy.

Anonymity builds trust — particularly for sensitive questions. When a response is perceived as socially disapproved, research has shown anonymity led to 34% more revelations compared to confidential responses. 

Researchers Ong and Weiss found that response quality can be especially “worrisome when the behavior in question is likely to be viewed as embarrassing or sensitive.” If you’re asking about sensitive topics — like a health and wellness questionnaire — anonymous surveys are usually your best bet.

To ensure your employees are comfortable taking your survey, consider moving your demographic questions to the end of the survey. This has been shown to improve responses by 8%.

Also, let your employees know their responses are anonymous and can’t be tied back to them. 

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Bringing Other Types of Employee Surveys into the Mix

Anonymous surveys are just one of the three survey types you should have up your sleeve. When it comes to getting employee feedback, each situation is unique and may call for a specific type of survey.

Don’t be afraid to collect employee identifiers if the circumstances call for it. Here are two other types of surveys to consider so you get the most accurate and reliable data every time.

Confidential Employee Surveys

Confidential employee surveys provide employees with some privacy. But certain employee identifiers are associated with the response, so they’re not totally anonymous.

While these identifiers are visible to a certain group of people, only a few people in the organization have access to this information.

The benefits of using a confidential employee survey

There are several benefits to using confidential employee surveys. Let’s briefly explore them next.

1. More insightful survey data

Compared to anonymous surveys, confidential surveys are more likely to increase the respondent’s motivation to answer thoughtfully and precisely.

This means your employees will take more time with their answers and will give you more accurate results. 

This also means that your employees will have a sense of ownership over their responses. Instead of criticism, you will see more critiques and be able to identify the actual problems you should address.

2. Confidential surveys provide more accurate demographics

Since you don’t have to rely on self-reporting, your demographic information will be much more accurate. 

With confidential surveys, your employees’ responses are linked to their employee file. Demographic information is automatically provided, which saves time with data analysis and ensures the information is correct.

When to use a confidential employee survey

It’s best to use confidential surveys when accuracy is vital and you need to drill into the data. This is particularly important with larger surveys — like your annual employee engagement survey.

Confidential surveys are also great options for needs assessment surveys. This means you have better information to work with and can really dig into the data. This also gives you the ability to follow up with respondents, if needed.

Tips for introducing confidential surveys to your employees

Trust is key to successfully introducing confidential surveys to your employees. They need to know their responses are actually confidential and they won’t have to worry about any retaliation for what they say.

With that in mind, here are five tips to get your employees more comfortable with a confidential survey.

1. Word questions appropriately

Anonymous surveys are a good option for sensitive questions. But you can also ask a couple on a confidential survey. 

The trick is making sure you word it in a way that adds context. This can help provide greater quality results on confidential surveys. 

For instance, imagine you are conducting a survey about employee retention. Your employees may be afraid to respond honestly if they feel their job is in jeopardy or they may be negatively affected when they answer the confidential survey.

Here is an example of how you could reword a question to get better responses on a confidential survey:

Before: In the past two months, have you interviewed for another job?

After: Have you ever thought about leaving our organization?

While the “before” might work well for an anonymous survey, when you switch survey type, it’s best to adjust the wording accordingly. 

This ensures your question doesn’t sound any alarm bells with your employees.

The updated question simply asks how your employee feels. For sensitive situations, it’s sometimes better not to ask about specific behaviors if you don’t need to.


2. Communicate how confidential surveys work with your employees

Of course you wouldn’t present identifiers in your results. But your employees may not understand that. 

When you create your survey communications plan, make sure you are clear on how confidential surveys work. Let employees know who will see their name and who won’t. Explain how identifiers work and why it’s important to capture them.

Your employees will likely be concerned their supervisor will be able to see how they responded. Upfront communication can help prevent this. Tell them who is accessing this information and why.

3. Use a third-party survey provider to ensure results remain confidential

Many times employees may be hesitant to take a confidential survey if someone in their organization administers it. Using a solution from a third-party provider can help put them at ease. 

With a third-party company like TINYpulse, employee identifiers are hidden when companies review the responses. The only ones with access to this data are Super Admins — like the CEO or head of HR — when they export results from the app.

When your employees know this, they may be more comfortable responding.

4. Explain how data is protected

Whether you use a third-party survey provider or administer your own survey, your employees need to know their responses are secure.

Make sure you explain the mechanisms you are using to ensure confidentiality.

How to Make the Most out of Visible Employee Surveys (Non-Anonymous Surveys)

Visible employee surveys aren’t anonymous or confidential. With these, the survey administrator can see the names associated with the response.

The benefits of using a visible employee survey

Research has shown that visible surveys get more detailed responses — in particular with open-ended questions. When your employees’ name is associated with their response, they have to own their words. This means their responses will be clearer and therefore will help save time with survey analysis.

Another benefit of visible employee surveys is it makes it really easy to follow up with your employees. 

When to use a visible employee survey

If you have feelings of distrust with employees, visible surveys may actually harm your workplace culture. Your employees may also feel uncomfortable providing honest feedback.

With visible employee surveys, having strong levels of trust throughout your organization is paramount. Even in a high-trust culture, avoid using visible employee surveys for sensitive topics — like mental health.

Visible surveys are best used when you need to be able to follow up with individual respondents in a non-survey environment. For example, think about focus groups or follow-up interviews. 

Tips for introducing a visible survey to your employees

When you're introducing visible surveys, transparency with your employees is fundamental.  Make sure it is clear the survey is not anonymous.

Try not to exclude employees who aren’t comfortable with this type of feedback. Remind your employees of other ways they can submit feedback or suggestions anonymously if your organization offers them.

What’s the right mix of employee survey types?

Contrary to popular belief, there is no “best” type of employee survey. 

The type of survey you choose should be based on your unique needs. It’s all about selecting the right type of employee survey for your situation. 

By using a blend of survey types, you can ensure your employees feel comfortable giving you honest feedback. In turn, you are able to get better insights — making it that much easier to improve your organization effectively.

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