Anonymous vs. Confidential Employee Surveys

4 min read
To get the most from your employee engagement surveys, it’s vital to protect your employees’ right to privacy. Learn the differences between anonymous and confidential surveys and decide which one might be best for you.

A key assumption of any successful employee engagement survey – or any survey for that matter – is that all employees will complete it and provide honest answers to all questions.

In order to collect honest feedback, employees must know that they can share feedback in a confidential way that prevents leaders or stakeholders from tying that feedback directly to their name.

Many employees worry when completing surveys that their answers will be seen by managers and potentially used against them. And if you can’t guarantee that that won’t happen, you can’t count on their open, honest participation.

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Open, honest feedback is a foundation of a successful employee engagement program. To get it, you’ll need to make sure employees are comfortable giving their true feedback.

To ensure employees deliver open and honest feedback, you should use anonymous or confidential surveys.

Both survey types are designed to protect employees’ data, but there are some key differences to consider.

How Does It Work?

Anonymous Surveys: No employee data file is used, meaning survey responses are not tied back to an employee record. Respondents must provide their own demographic information (e.g., age, gender, tenure, job level, team) in the survey.

Confidential Surveys: An employee data file is provided, meaning survey responses are tied back to an employee record in the back-end and their demographic information is automatically tagged.

Who Sees The Data?

Data reporting is treated the same way for anonymous and confidential surveys. Anonymity thresholds are put in place to prevent any manager or leader drilling down into a personally identifiable response.

Can You Download A Raw Response File and See Who Answered?

Depending on your provider, your central HR team may be able to access raw response data. The file typically shows survey responses aligned to the demographics HR has provided or people have answered on the survey. Using Qualtrics, you will have the option to anonymise this so no identifying information is shown alongside the answers.

Is It Accurate?

Anonymous Surveys: In order to analyse the data by demographics (e.g., job role, department, etc.) you rely on survey recipients to select these as part of their response. People can ‘mis-tag’ themselves, so you should expect a level of inaccuracy in role and demographic data as a result.

Confidential Surveys: Responses are automatically mapped back to the right employee record, making analysis by team/function/job role much more accurate.

The Benefits

Anonymous Surveys: Because no employee file is used, this can mean there is less workload involved in deploying this type of survey.

Confidential Surveys: These guarantee better data quality and allow for a more robust statistical analysis and accurate response rates.

Which Type of Survey Should I Use?

Our recommendation is always to favor confidential over anonymous surveys because not only are your employees’ responses kept private, it maps their responses back to the organizational hierarchy, allowing you to analyze the data by different demographics like job role, tenure, and team.

Interestingly, research has shown employees don’t necessarily see anonymous surveys as being any better than confidential ones when it comes to protecting their data.

And equally, there’s little evidence to suggest a confidential survey gets lower response rates.

That’s because typically an anonymous survey will need to include demographic questions to allow the HR team to cut and analyse the data. So by actively selecting those answers, it can set the idea in employees’ minds that their manager can see their response or drill down to see what different team members said.

This can ultimately lead to a higher nonresponse rate or ‘socially desirable’ answers where employees don’t give their open and honest feedback.

In our experience, employees tend to feel they have more protection in confidential surveys. Add the fact that you guarantee better data quality and can do more with the data at the end of it, and you can see why confidential surveys tend to be one of the more popular ways to run an employee experience program.

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