Survey Confidentiality vs. Anonymity When Gathering Feedback | Emplify >

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(June 8, 2017) – At Emplify, we think gathering employee feedback is extremely important. But the thing about feedback is that it can be good or bad. And as an employer, you have to be willing and able to respond to both types.

Earlier this year, Uber caught a ton of heat for a sexual harassment case that left one employee in a tricky position. After telling HR about the incident, she was told she could either leave the team or stay and face a poor performance review that they couldn’t do anything about.   

Why should surfacing the truth result in negative consequences?

Believe it or not, it happens all the time—perhaps not to the extent of Uber’s situation or recent court case, but certainly in organizations where there’s no formal employee feedback program (or at least one that keeps answers confidential). Without a truly confidential means of giving feedback, employees are left to weigh the risks versus rewards of speaking up.

Risk vs. Reward: Overcoming Employee Fear of Speaking Up

Employees go through a decision-making process each time they’re invited to give feedback or complete a survey. They’re analyzing the risk versus reward of answering honestly (if they answer at all).  

  • If an employee surfaces an issue, it could reflect poorly on their supervisor.
  • If the supervisor gets offended, it could affect their working relationship.
  • If the supervisor holds a grudge, the employee could be fired.

All for giving honest feedback.

But there’s an upside, too:

  • If an employee surfaces an issue, it might finally be resolved.
  • If their supervisor takes the feedback to heart, they might trust the employee to give more feedback and make broader team decisions.
  • If the issue gets resolved, it might have farther-reaching benefits that impact team productivity and company success.

Sadly, for many employees, the risks far outweigh the rewards in speaking up. But gathering feedback that could impact your culture and company’s future is far too important to leave to chance.

Confidentiality vs. Anonymity: Both or Neither?

Survey administrators have traditionally taken two approaches to securing survey data:

Anonymity: No identifying values that can link the information to the participant are given. Not even the administrator can identify a specific participant, meaning it’s impossible to connect the data to specific teams or individuals.

Confidentiality: Only the survey administrator (usually the HR department or company leaders) can identify the subjects (by assigning an identifying code or number per participant) and corresponding responses.

By comparison:

Anonymous

Confidential

Data
  • Can’t link the info to participant
  • Not even survey admin could identify a specific participant
  • Can link info to participant
  • Terms of confidentiality are extremely important
Consequences
  • Difficult to address issues while protecting the identity of the people who raised them
  • Underscores the risks of speaking up—and reinforces people’s fears
  • Subtext: “It’s not safe to share your views openly in this organization.”
  • Creates a witch hunt. Some bosses demand to know “Who said this?!”
  • Ratings may be inaccurate, biased, or even self-serving.
  • Impossible to determine how each member responded and why.
  • Team members can’t identify specific behaviors to change on their own.
  • It’s nearly impossible to clarify a response’s meaning while maintaining confidentiality.

Chart information summarized from Harvard Business Review.

So, which is best? While both options seem to protect the identity of the participant, neither result in truly valid or complete data. Organizational psychologist Roger Schwarz accurately defines this problem, saying:

“The widespread assumption is that if team members know their answers are confidential, they will respond honestly. But if you ask for confidential feedback, it might create the very results you are trying to avoid. If team members are reluctant to have their names associated with their responses, then you’ve already identified what is probably the most significant problem in your team—lack of trust.”

The truth is, neither confidential nor anonymous surveys are effective for most organizations. The answer lies outside the organization.

Ensuring Validity With Third Party Confidentiality

Working with a third party provides a layer of protection for your company and employees. Schwarz calls this a “consultant [that] can help the team engage in this conversation in a way that simultaneously maximizes the psychological safety and accountability of team members. It is challenging to create this environment alone, particularly if you, as the team leader, are one of the sources of team mistrust.”

The third party solution immediately builds back trust, and ensures that the purpose of the employee survey will be met. Plus, HR teams do not have to worry about the hassle of data security.

Some companies are afraid of employee engagement surveys because they may surface unflattering issues they have to address. At the same time, employees are hesitant to give their honest feedback because they fear the repercussions. But with third party survey confidentiality that allows participants’ identification to remain private and company managers from getting too close to the data, companies can ensure that survey results are helpful to leaders, effective to employees in relaying their opinions, and meaningful to the company for the future of the business.

To learn more about crafting confidential, useful, and valid employee surveys, download “How to Create Effective Surveys” today!

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