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Anonymous vs. confidential surveys: which is best?

5 min read
Open, honest feedback is the foundation of a successful employee engagement program. To ensure your people give open and honest feedback, should you use anonymous or confidential surveys?


The words ‘anonymous’ and ‘confidential’ are all too often used synonymously when describing employee engagement surveys.

The fact is, they mean very different things, and when it comes to your employees’ privacy, it’s important to make the distinction between the two.

What is an anonymous survey? 

Responses are completely separate from any kind of personally identifiable information such as department, employee ID number, email, or other unique identifiers. Respondents cannot be identified.

Proven Results: Discover how to increase survey response rates. 

What is a confidential survey? 

Responses are connected to personal information, whether recorded in an employee record in the HRIS, or provided by the employee within the survey.

The organization pledges to keep the information private, although certain administrators can access the data and identify respondents.

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Why transparency about this is important 

For an employee engagement survey (or any survey for that matter) to be successful and useful, it’s important that a majority of employees complete it, and those who do provide honest answers.

When taking surveys, some employees worry that their responses will be visible to their managers and potentially used against them in the future. If you cannot guarantee that this won’t happen, then you cannot count on people’s open, honest feedback.

To collect honest feedback, employees need to know that they can be free to share in a confidential way: one that prevents leaders or stakeholders from connecting their responses directly to their identifiable data.

Your at-a-glance comparison of anonymous vs. confidential surveys

Confidential Anonymous
Definition Data is linked back to personal information Data is not linked to any personal identifiers
What kinds of research is it used for? Both qualitative and quantitative Mainly quantitative
Advantages
  • Your survey data will offer insights into key differences among your employee population
  • Demographic information will be automatically linked to specific groups, helping with segmentation
  • Managers will get data specifically for their teams to understand feedback and issues
  • Survey actions can be more targeted to the populations who need them
  • You’ll be able to conduct advanced analysis linking sentiment to key operational outcomes like productivity and attrition
  • Respondents may be more comfortable saying what they really think
  • Feedback, particularly about sensitive topics, will be more honest
  • Less ‘social desirability bias’ (where respondents choose their answers to make them look good in the eyes of others, rather than give accurate answers)
Disadvantages
  • Respondents may be nervous of ‘telling it how it really is’
  • Managers may attempt to find out who gave low scores or made negative comments
  • Minimum reportable group sizes need to be established, making it more difficult for smaller organizations
  • You can’t contextualize negative comments or situations
  • Some people will troll for trolling’s sake rather than offer helpful feedback
  • You won’t be able to link respondent sentiment to other key data points like operational performance
Who has access to personal data? Researchers and administrators Nobody
Who can trace respondents’ identities? Researchers Nobody

Which type of survey should I use?

Neither of these survey types is ‘best’ for every use case – your organization has its own specific needs. For analysis of, say, a rapid one-off poll to help you identify and improve an aspect of a product or service, an anonymous survey is sometimes all you need.

If, however, you plan to take detailed actions based on respondents’ feedback – as all responsible employers should be doing – a confidential survey, where you can identify where the issues lie, would be your better bet.

At Qualtrics, we tend to recommend using confidential over anonymous surveys because: responses are mapped back to your integrated systems, allowing you to analyze the data by different demographics like job role, tenure, and team.

We found that employees don’t necessarily see anonymous surveys as being any better than confidential ones when it comes to protecting their personal information. That’s because typically an anonymous survey will need to include demographic questions to allow the HR team to segment and analyze the data.

And equally, there’s little evidence to suggest a confidential survey gets lower response rates – most people understand that feedback is only actionable when it identifies where the problems lie, and most are happy to be part of the solution.

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

Download our ultimate guide to employee engagement