are anonymous surveys really anonymous?

A reader writes:

My employer has sent out links to “anonymous surveys” in the past. I don’t respond to them for fear that they are lying about the responses being anonymous. The surveys always ask “are you looking or will you look for a new job in the next year?” and about how satisfied you are with your current position, etc. They usually have URLs that are clearly not a simple mycompany.com/employee-survey. There’s something hashed in there, and it might just be to make it non-guessable by random people on the internet, but it seems just as likely it’s a unique code so employees can’t take the same survey more than once. And *that* suggests, to me, that they actually could go back and see “who was it that said they were looking to leave?”

Am I being paranoid, or are employee surveys used to find “disloyal” employees?

At good companies, they’re not. At bad companies, anything is possible.

And frankly, even at good companies, it can still be pretty obvious who gave a particular piece of feedback if your team is small.

The real question isn’t “will they know that this feedback was mine?” The question to ask is, “How does this company handle feedback in general and, based on my knowledge of how things operate here, do I trust them to make good use of my input and not penalize me for sharing it, regardless of whether or not this is anonymous?”

{ 160 comments… read them below }

  1. Lanya

    OP asks “Am I being paranoid, or employee surveys used to find “disloyal” employees?

    I had a bad experience with this. I worked at a very small, very bad nonprofit where the answer to that question was absolutely YES, and not only were our anonymous responses read out loud, they were addressed one-by-one by the CEO in a 3-hour meeting. It was very obvious who wrote what, even though nobody had signed anything. The responses were absolutely used against us, and morale was at an all-time low after that. Several people left or were let go within 2 months of the survey results. The next year, not one person participated in the anonymous survey.

    You know your own situation best, and as usual, Alison’s advice is spot on.

      1. Lanya

        They don’t. There was a 60% turnover rate when I was there. The top management has stayed for 15 years and everyone else cycles through very quickly. The company is slooooowly slowly dying. I’m surprised it is taking so long.

        1. Adam

          Really makes you want to get into the CEO’s head for a minute, doesn’t it? When something is very obviously not working you do wonder why those in charge keep that train rolling right along.

          1. esra

            I worked at a similar nonprofit, and the turnaround actually reinforced things for the president. Because he’d been there twenty years! And look at all these new people, why they haven’t even been there twenty months, what do they know?

          2. Lanya

            In my case, I believe without a doubt that our CEO was a true psychopath. She took great pleasure in emotionally manipulating people and micromanaging through fear. She has managed to completely fool the Board, who for some reason continue to renew her contract every three years.

        2. ThursdaysGeek

          It’s sometimes very surprising how long it can take to kill a business, and discouraging when you see evil flourish like that.

          1. Today

            I would agree that bad companies will use whatever you say against you. I unfortunately found this out when I was forced to respond to company surveys (or be fired) and yet, when I did and told the truth I was still harassed and scrutinized.

            The real message was that the company was awful and I was trying to fit in. It took me a while to realize that I could just click the space bar on the online survey and then submit it as a blank.

            “Tell us what you really think,” is not for anyone except your intimate partner or very close family, and friends. In other words, people you trust. And even then – you need to still be very careful.

    1. AnonAnalyst

      Did you work for my old company?

      The last time they sent out the survey while I was there, no one was filling it out (big surprise). Our IT head honcho sent out a long detailed explanation about how they really weren’t tracking the responses. Somehow, many people remained unconvinced.

      I, however, filled it out with gusto as I had already announced my departure from organization several weeks before it went out (I was leaving to go back to school so I had given a long notice period).

      1. DBAGirl

        I’d do the same if there were no possible consequences. But when an “anonymous” survey has a hash in the URL and wants me to create a password – not really anonymous.

        I check off the boxes the recipient would like checked and never write anything. No upside in doing anything else and there can be downside in commenting.

        It’s not worth it.

    2. Anony-moose

      Yes. This. The worst. Small nonprofit. Broke the survey out between field staff and office-based staff. Only problem? Only 4 office based staff. Only 2 Development staff. So when you ask questions by department it’s pretty obvious who is who. And then being pulled into a meeting with the Exec. Director doesn’t exactly instill a sense of confidence.

      We all lealrned our lesson …and my whole team has since moved on.

    3. Workfromhome

      The last one my company did asked:
      How many years have you worked for X company What office
      Who is your manager

      Obviously you can easily tell from triangulating who said what. Some employees refused and were ridiculed but now I see what happens I realize they were right to be paranoid.

      I think I will likely just not fill it in next time around. After all if its truly anonymous they will have no idea if I took the survey or not.
      Plus the last round show massive dissatisfaction and nothing changed so why waste my time.

      1. Cruella DaBoss

        Ours asked similar questions, including “What is your title.” I did not take the survey only to be greeted at my office one day by the director wanting to know why I had not taken the survey.

        What?!

  2. Traveler

    I never answer these. It’s not worth it to risk it, and I find its very rare that the company can/does act on the feedback in a positive way anyway. Most of the time those surveys just seem like a way the company can (with little work on their part) pat themselves on the back and say “oh look we care what our employees think” and point to it as an example.

    1. don't have a clever username yet

      I agree with this 100000%. Where I work it is well known that the employee survey is not anonymous. The first few years I lied and said everything was wonderful, wouldn’t change a thing! Now I don’t even bother filling it out. You’re right that the feedback is rarely acted upon in a positive way.

    2. HAL

      At my company, when these surveys reveal unhappy employees, it’s the employees who are charged with fixing the problems- even though the problems almost always point to inept management.

      1. anon for this

        Yep yep yep. This is exactly how it goes down at my company – to the point that they track people down who said certain things and put them in one-on-one meetings wherein they basically explain that what the employees want isn’t feasible.

        Even if that’s true, it seems rather disingenuous to me to run it this way.

        1. anon for this

          Oh, and then they complain that the anonymity level is increasing, and send out very unhappy emails about how they want very much for you not to be anonymous and how much sadfeels they have that people don’t feel like they can speak openly here.

          The irony is frankly endless.

    3. Lily in NYC

      haha, on our survey a few weeks ago, one of the questions was “Do you think we will actually act upon the results of this survey” with a 1-5 answer scale. I bet they every answer they got was a “1” (strongly disagree).

      1. Anon for this

        That’s awesome. I wish my company’s survey had that, because I’d “1” the hell out of it.

        So often when the results of the employee engagement survey are presented at my company, they’re presented with, “You’re wrong. We don’t know where this is coming from.” as the preceder.

        My favorite was “We don’t know where this complaint about compensation is coming from. You’re all paid at or above market rate.” (I texted a coworker, who was sitting a few rows away from me, and whose last day was a few days after the meeting because he had resigned to take a GIANT pay raise, “Are you laughing your ass off right now?!”)

        1. OP

          I really wish your almost-out-the-door coworker had stood up at that point and SAID “if that’s so, why am I getting $20,000 more when I start my new job in 3 days?”

    4. themmases

      Agreed. I used to answer them at my old job. Although it took me a long time to finalize, by the time I was really unhappy I also had at least the beginnings of an exit plan so I was as honest as I thought I could be without identifying myself personally.

      I said some pretty serious stuff. I work in research and I said frankly that I’d been pressured to do things I knew were unethical (both plagiarism/leaving the real authors off of papers type unethical, and patient/pressure to enroll people who don’t belong in the study type unethical). My coworkers at the time had similar observations.

      I *never*– not at the department level and not at the organizational level, out of any of the overlapping programs that would have been responsible for the problems I observed– saw any program or policy even discussed that had any plausible relationship to solving what happened. And I was there 18 more months. This was a large, respected non-profit institution in my city.

      Even a tiny risk is not worth it if the problem will never be addressed anyway.

    5. This is Me Not Being Me

      A few years ago, I was working at a place that did one of these, and the new-ish director of HR was very personable and well-liked. We trusted him. We answered honestly. And he tried to use that feedback to better things!

      None of us suffered for answering honestly, as far as I am aware. But the HR director “left to pursue other opportunities” before anything was actually implemented. I am cynically sure that would be “the opportunity not to be fired for trying to improve things” but I suppose it’s possible he just suddenly decided to jump ship for unrelated reasons.

    6. Today

      Agree. Sometimes there is a federal mandate for funding, eg student surveys in college level courses and programs.

    1. Lauren

      I almost made this mistake as a graduate intern, Riri, and I was glad I didn’t! I was given a ‘confidential’ survey to fill out regarding my manager’s style. It was administered by a person on the team who promised not to share it with anyone. At first I took her word for it and assumed it was anonymous, but then I thought about it and realized that since I was the only new person there, it was obvious that I was the only one taking it. I softened the language a lot and left in only 1 mild criticism of my manager (who had a lot of issues). Two days after taking the survey, my manager called me into her office to talk about the feedback on my survey – based on our discussion, I realized it had been shared DIRECTLY with her. I was mortified but also grateful I had changed it. Moral of the story: do not assume anonymity no matter what gets passed along!

      1. Anony-moose

        Did you ever talk to your teammate who had administered the survey and assured confidentiality? I’d be PISSED even if I hadn’t said anything critical.

        1. Lauren

          I should have! She was on her way out the door to a different team right as I was coming on, though, and I wasn’t sure it was a battle worth fighting. Plus she had a tough personality to relate to. On my first week of work I had no one to eat lunch with and I saw her, so naturally I walked over to strike up a conversation. As soon as I sat down she explained to me that this job was 8 to 4 for her only so she could pay the bills – she didn’t want ‘friends’ at work and didn’t need anyone bothering her during lunch. Then she got up and walked away.

          So yeah, not someone you’d trust with survey secrets. Lesson learned!

          1. Blue Anne

            >As soon as I sat down she explained to me that this job was 8 to 4 for her only so she could pay the bills – she didn’t want ‘friends’ at work and didn’t need anyone bothering her during lunch. Then she got up and walked away.

            Wooooow. I’m not a huge one for work chit-chat and that’s ridiculously antisocial even by my standards. Eeeeesh. Prickly!

  3. Lola

    I don’t see an upside to sharing honest feedback via a survey to something so broad. The only time a company-wide survey can be helpful and lead to real change is in something super-specific, such as, “Would you be interested in Taco Tuesday if the company cafeteria offered one?” Otherwise, the decision-makers are better off chatting with people one-on-one or in small groups.

    1. OhNo

      Exactly. Company-wide surveys aren’t super useful, IMO. What works for one group/office may not work for another. It makes more sense to do things on a smaller scale and have a company policy of flexibility for different departmental needs.

    2. AnonAnalyst

      And you run the risk of lowering morale if people take the time to fill out the survey but then all of the feedback is ignored. I’ve seen this play out a couple of times in different organizations, and it’s not pretty if there’s already a morale issue.

      1. Samantha

        YES. I would rather not be asked at all management is not going to be willing to actually make any changes.

      2. anon for this

        Yep! Exactly. I really don’t want to hear about how important it is for them to get feedback if they’re completely unwilling to do anything about it.

    3. Decimus

      I could see a company-wide survey really only being useful when asking about benefits. Something like “would you prefer a high-deductable plan with more choice of doctors, or a low-deductable plan with a more limited choice of doctors?” or even “would you rather receive more vacation time or a raise/bonus?” In that case answering honestly probably won’t come back to haunt you and it might actually guide management decisions.

  4. Always Learning

    I’d suggest also asking yourself “Has the company’s behaviour towards employees in the past given me cause to doubt their explanation for the purpose of this survey?” Just because it’s possible to do something doesn’t mean they’re likely to. They could just be genuinely interested in this feedback and committed to keeping it anonymous.

  5. Austinite in the tech industry

    As someone who in a company was actually in charge of designing and aggregating the answers of one of these surveys, and someone who was in the same boat as Lanya (with the CEO addressing each comment one by one in a negative way), I agree with AAM and the other comments. I think the best rules to follow are:

    1. Always act on the assumption that someone will know who wrote what (either by guessing or unethically using metadata from the electronic form).

    2. Decide whether the company culture justifies providing candid answers based on this assumption.

    1. themmases

      Thanks! I was wondering as I read this question if anyone involved in administering these would weigh in. I think overall companies end up getting the feedback they’ve shown they deserve.

      I also wonder about surveys that are run by a third party. My old job would send out their surveys assuring us that another company was hosting the survey and and anything that seemed identifying would be stripped out before being reported back to our actual employer. Which sounded nice, but as a rank and file employee I have no way of knowing what their contract with this other company is like and what kind of detail they can request.

      1. Jenna

        So, at Ex-company, they had a training+meeting+handout thing about an outside number to call to report ethical lapses. It was an outside company, and you CALLED and could call from anywhere, so, more actually anonymous than written surveys.
        A week later, a process was changed by management in a way that would inevitably decrease accuracy in the database records (I almost described it, but, decided it might be too identifying). Since my household had a second, higher income than mine at the time, and I tend to be somewhat offended by deliberately increasing errors, I called.
        The result was that it was indeed anonymous, but, someone could probably tell who it was by the process described. I wasn’t fired or anything, but, the company had Meetings where they justified their process change to the staff.
        Several years later, though, they have outsourced everything that they didn’t pull back to Corporate, and closed the branch.
        So, my general advice is that if you feel like the thing that is bothering you is serious, and it won’t be changed by complaining, even anonymously, then start the process of moving on. Consider it a warning sign and jump ship before the rest of the folk also have to find jobs.

    2. Artlover

      +1

      I’ve been on the admin side of this stuff, too and agree with just going on presumption.

      A privately held large company I worked for had no qualms (loaded with a ton of paranoia on the part of our CEO) looking up anything and going through great, complicated lengths with IT to do so. I worked in a department under HR – anything found amusing people would look up not only who wrote it but took a step further to find your photograph (either in our employee e-file OR actually searching online) so that they’d know who you were around the office complex.

  6. Adam

    You do need to be very careful with these, particularly if you submit an issue that you’ve raised before so people already know it’s a bugaboo for you. People’s communication styles via writing tend to be easily identifiable if you’ve worked with them long enough, so even if you make it deliberately as vague as possible it still may be pretty obvious it’s you based on the style or content.

    If you want/have to respond to these things but have this concern, maybe you get a trusted friend outside the organization to write your response for you and submit that.

    1. Nethwen

      The mischievous part of me would want to go find my irritating boss’s/annoying coworker’s/another computer and answer from that so that if “they” are looking at metadata, the answers won’t be traced to my computer.

      1. Adam

        I’m not a tech expert, but if it wasn’t necessary to be actually on the employer’s network could you forward the survey link to your personal email and take the survey from a neutral computer? My organization usually uses Survey Monkey for these sorts of things so I think you could.

      2. The Cosmic Avenger

        Usually they wouldn’t know what computer the survey was answered on, more often each email link to the survey would have a unique URL.

        1. Blue Anne

          Depending how clever they’re being about it, and your email settings, they can get some pretty detailed data. I used to do some sales for a CRM company, and if you pulled together the various tools I used, you could have, say… Information on how many times you opened the email containing the link to our lovely anonymous surveymonkey survey, how many times you clicked the link, what time, what type of computer and general location. I remember getting some results as exact as “Accessed on an Apple mobile device near Cambridge, UK” from Yesware, for example.

          Pretty useful for sales but you’d have to be a bit of a neurotic, toxic boss to deploy that stuff on your own employees.

          (If you don’t want this information to be available to people, folks, be sure to set your email settings not to download images by default. Even if there aren’t any pictures you can see, most of this data runs off a 1×1 pixel “image” included in the email by the software.)

  7. AndersonDarling

    This is such a timely question. I am currently refusing to take an “anonymous” workplace survey because last year the executives went on a witch hunt to find who wrote what. People were blamed for comments that they didn’t write.
    I received an email reminding me to take the survey, and only employees who didn’t take the survey received the email. How do they know I didn’t take the survey if it is anonymous?

    1. Relosa

      Its pretty simple really…especially something like qualtrix or surveymonkey you can automate it…set a parameter to nudge after so many days, etc.

  8. baseballfan

    I can’t imagine being paranoid about a survey like this, but neither would I put something in it that suggested I was about to leave, or anything that would create an absolute disaster if my supervisor came to know who wrote it.

    That being said, I actually like taking these kinds of surveys and I always answer as honestly and completely as I can – maybe because I am always only too happy to share my opinions!

    My previous company did a fairly broad employee satisfaction type survey annually, and I always completed it – and they did share the results (in an overall way – there were tens of thousands of employees). I found it usually interesting and occasionally enlightening.

  9. Jennifer

    You know the drill: don’t fill them out if you can avoid it and write “everything is happy and fine!” if you can’t avoid it.

    Anyone ever get the “fill this out and you have a chance to win a gift card?” ones? I don’t put my info on them, ahem.

    I was cracking up at the anonymous survey I got this week. They seriously want to know if I am going up to people and telling them not to smoke. I do not get paid to go up to rule-breakers with fire to make them stop, so no.

    1. Relosa

      I had a job where I had to enforce no smoking…in an outdoor environment. Some of them were secret shoppers; I had to do it. It sucked. Fortunately I was a supervisor, carried a radio, and was known for being the best at rule enforcement (in terms of guest service, not quantity!) so it was never an issue for me. But I know that it was a headache for my subordinates who had much stricter schedules, far less mobility than I, and just less guest service training and experience in that particular facility.

      1. Jennifer

        Ugh.

        I think it’s bizarre that they think every single person who works here should be trying to enforce the smoking ban. I don’t like smoking, but it is not my job to be the smoking cop/nag. Also, I got raised to nag the crap out of smokers as a child and ah, I don’t think I got anyone to quit. I know one guy who used to work here who said he’d smoke no matter what they did, so if they are dealing with people like that, they’re probably not going to get what they want.

  10. Cristina

    In a smaller company I would suspect it’s harder to put a survey in your own domain (company.com/survey) than to just use Survey Monkey or something similar where it’s plug and play and no employee has to build that page. So that likely accounts for the convoluted URL. If using a third party, they can automatically track who participated in the survey but this doesn’t mean the person tabulating results can or would try to figure that out. And sometimes it can be helpful to get a sense of general sentiment from the company at large so that you can see if the specific feedback you’re getting is just one person’s opinion or more pervasive.

    That being said, my general principle is to not say anything anonymously that I wouldn’t say in person if asked. Privacy and anonymity are never 100% guaranteed whether through human behavior, technology flaws, or just genuine mistakes.

    1. Zahra

      I used Survey Gizmo for my master’s thesis. As soon as you ask for an individual URL, you can absolutely track the respondent. (It could be different for other services, though). Since I was only interested in aggregate responses, I didn’t look at it other than to note the information was there.

  11. Sabrina

    If it’s a third party company administering the survey, then probably yes, it’s anonymous. That company trades on their reputation and if it gets around that Acme Employee Surveys tell their clients which employees say what, then they will have a hard time selling their services.

    I used to do department surveys using SurveyMonkey. There’s two ways to do it. 1. Send an email out with a link to the survey. Generally one link sent to the whole group. That’s anonymous, no way to track it. 2. Send an email from the SurveyMonkey website. Those emails will look like “Hey Jane, please fill out this survey” with an individualized link. That’s trackable. I was never asked to provide who said what, but I could log in and see pretty easily. Not that I’m saying anything against SurveyMonkey, that’s just how their system works.

    1. Mena

      Sabrina, I disagree that third parties are trustworthy keepers of the data. At the conclusion of a study, any third party I’ve hired sends me the entire data set, complete with the IP address of individual respondents. I would just need to take those IP addresses over to IT and have IT match them up with company-issued laptops …..

      1. Bananana

        We don’t provide the full dataset to our clients!

        And if we did, either a) it would be ONLY fully anonymised data, or b) professional guidelines would require that we make this clear to all respondents before they agreed to take part.

        The basic approach is: gain explicit, fully informed consent from all participants. This means each respondent should be told how the data will be used and who will have access to it, before they begin. Any organisation adhering to the Code of Conduct of a professional body such as MRS or ESOMAR should abide by this.

        1. the gold digger

          But even with these safeguards, if there are only five people reporting to someone and the results are broken out by manager – well, you’re screwed if you answer honestly.

          1. Bananana

            We wouldn’t report on that group – they would have to be amalgamated with another.

    2. Bananana

      Exactly! My company runs and analyses employee satisfaction surveys as a third party provider, and it is a matter of professional ethics to ensure the anonymity of respondents.

      We provide aggregate data reporting, and only on groups larger than [x agreed number, usually 10-20].

      We are also aware that ‘personal voice’ can come through, so if we are asked to provide quotes we will thoroughly review them and remove contentious comments that seem particularly identifiable by voice, as well as any comments that might be identifiable by their content.

      We may use unique links as this helps with sending reminders and reduces the likelihood of duplicates, as well as providing demographic data for the analysis (departments, etc. if not asked as part of the survey), but this information *never* goes to the client company.

      If there is a draw for a prize, this is conducted by us – not the company – and we contact the winner directly.

      Results can be incredibly useful if people are honest about their dissatisfactions. We report on and highlight areas where higher than expected numbers voice negative views, and we indicate where statistically significant differences suggest issues in particular departments or amongst particular demographics. This means the company can act to change things – if they choose to. One of our greatest frustrations is if we give clear findings showing a need for change to a client who then ignores them! We are also able to see whether problem areas have improved (or declined) compared to previous years.

      1. Bananana

        I’d also add that sometimes the team that commissioned the survey will push back on us to give more detail. They very often do want to know exactly who said what at a granular level! We (politely and professionally) refuse to provide this, according to the original terms of the project.

        1. anon for this

          Sounds like a pretty good approach! Unfortunately as an employee it’s pretty hard to tell whether a company that has been contracted to do this is ethical, like yours, or unethical, like Mena’s experience.

          And then there’s places like my company, which insists on rolling their own surveys and so all the data ends up in-house anyway…

          1. Bananana

            Of course, and it is very understandable that people might be dubious. As I mentioned in another comment below, we do provide our contact info so people can ask us about our process, but ultimately you have the right to decline participation if you are not comfortable.

      2. themmases

        This is fascinating! I’d love to hear more about the methods for aggregating and reporting all this data if you feel like sharing.

        It sounds like only relatively large, demographically homogeneous work groups would ever have very individual responses reported to their manager or a proximal manager. Are concerns of, say, racially diverse groups at risk of getting aggregated up the chain to preserve anonymity, or is it ever possible to report on something like that at the company level instead? For example, maybe women are a minority on a lot of teams so many managers won’t get data about gender-specific complaints for their team, but the HR head might for the whole company.

        Is a lot of information about reporting structure or duties given in order to aggregate responses meaningfully? This makes me think of a job I used to have where our tiny team was uniformly unhappy, but we were in a large department full of mostly people with very different job duties than ours. Not only were our bosses different, our bosses’ bosses were different! I doubt our responses were meaningful if aggregated with them.

        1. Bananana

          It’s true that this approach can sometimes limit meaningful reporting on small minorities. One survey asked about religious affiliation, but gave the option to not specify. A large proportion preferred not to specify, and ultimately on most topics we were only able to provide analysis of the two largest religious affiliations because the others were below our reporting limit for most questions.

          It’s important to make this type of response optional. We typically either offer a ‘not specified’-type option or make the question non-compulsory. Otherwise we’d have a lot of uncompleted responses!

          In this sort of situation we might look at the overall data and see if there are any findings we can report in a more general sense, such as ‘some minority groups are less likely to expect a long term career in the company’ or ‘some groups felt that management decisions were not transparent.’

          Less controversial questions such as overall satisfaction might be compulsory (i.e. you have to select an answer in order to move on to the next question), as this helps ensure we gather enough data for really robust statistical analysis across groups for key findings.

          We absolutely do report findings at whatever level they become possible – so in your example, we might not provide a breakdown of female v. male in a smaller team, but we would do so at the departmental level.

          The more demographics we have, the more we can report. If we only ask about length of service and department, that’s all we can report on.
          If respondents are happy to tell us about gender, ethnicity, religion, age group, sexuality, department, team, job role (e.g. directors/management/executives/support staff), hours (full time/part time), and office location, that increases the possible breakdowns we can provide – so even if we cannot report on how female part-time managers in department A feel they are treated, we might be able to give data on the opinions of female part-time managers in department B, as well as part-time staff in departments A, B, C, F; female staff in departments A, B, D, E; and management in all departments.

      3. Judy

        I’ve certainly seen the results from a former company’s survey, and it looked like the comments were not scrubbed very well. Or the scrubbers didn’t know the people the way we did. I’d say out of 300+ employees at that location, I could pick out who wrote 15-20 of them.

        1. Bananana

          This is a problem we are aware of. We prefer not to provide full comments, preferring selected representative quotes. If the contract includes delivery of full comments we will do the best we can to anonymise, but I do acknowledge we cannot always spot the recognisable speech patterns of people we have never met!

  12. Juli G.

    Our survey is absolutely anonymous. It’s conducted by an outside vendor. Frankly, we don’t have the time to hunt down who wrote each little comment. If one person indicates unhappiness and desire to leave… well, okay. We expect attrition. If a lot of people say they’re leaving than I care even less about who said what because it’s clearly a widespread issue. We do look at subsections but there are parameters to keep them from drilling down too far. The surveys help us set goals for the next year.

    If your company is trustworthy in general, you can trust the anonymity. We’ve established the trust and our survey has a very high return rate as well as extremely candid comments.

    1. Camster

      Our company uses an outside vendor for surveys as well. Since our company is huge (worldwide) there would be no time to check who answered which survey. We’ve actually had positive outcomes when certain issues were consistently brought up by a number of employees. So, I think a lot depends on the company you work for.

  13. M. S.

    If your company has a proxy server (and I’m pretty sure most do), they could correlate when a survey is answered by looking at the times (Ah. Mary answered the survey at 12:30, Mike at 12:50, etc.).

  14. M

    I feel like there are a lot of negative comments about the risks associated with these anonymous surveys, but my company recently did one (in response to the loss of several top performers to competing companies) and it actually has provided quite a bit of benefit. No one was “called out” on anything we said specifically, and upper management has taken action to improve on specific issues that were mentioned by many people, including increasing pay for people who weren’t making what they should for their specific positions based on industry standards. Maybe this is risky at some companies, but in some cases the company may actually be trying to increase employee satisfaction.

    1. Juli G.

      I know, I’m surprised at how many people are so worried about it! It’s just completely not my experience and I’m starting to wonder if I’m the exception! Seriously, people get down right rude and unprofessional in comments on our surveys and no one hunts them down (although to be honest, if you respond that way you’re not taken very seriously).

      1. Natalie

        I wonder if companies with lots of unhappy people (which often flows from bad management) are more likely to decide they need to do a survey.

        1. fposte

          I could totally see a survey being used as window dressing–they’re not difficult for companies to initiate and consequent followup and change are totally optional.

  15. De Minimis

    We use SurveyMonkey for ours. It’s anonymous if you don’t include written comments. If you do those it can be easy to determine or at least have a good idea of the source. I think management more or less knew I was the source of a comment once since I was one of the few people affected by what I was talking about.

  16. AnonForThis

    Adam, I’m not a tech expert either, but if you forward the survey, and you’re the only one to not take it on a company computer, the process of elimination is pretty quick.

    My company always asks for demographic information, how long you’ve worked there, what office you work in – I’ve given up responding. On year we ended up with a company-wide meeting discussing results claiming that, as an organization, we hated young people, old people, non-techies, and Jesus. Basically, the only people to respond in a 3000+ agency were the ones with specific grievances, and it skewed all the results drastically. After that year, they stopped releasing the results to the workforce.

  17. Rex

    Well, if in doubt, share the kind of feedback you would be comfortable saying in an all-staff meeting. There’s got to still be something useful there, right? If you reasonably believe you would be penalized for job hunting, Alison has said before that it’s okay to say no even if the answer is yes.

  18. Mena

    I work for a large software-as-a-service provider, heading up all customer and market primary research. I also have an advisory role in the research conducted within the company (surveys of our employees). As a research practitioner, I’d like to tell you that you are being paranoid; you are not being paranoid.

    I know that our HR team isolates data down to the team level – this might be 4 people or 24 – but if it is 4, a manager can likely figure out who is saying what.

    And I’ve been asked to go into the data file and isolate an individual response and identify the respondent. While I refused this VP’s request (probably not the best idea but I still stand by it), I’ve no doubt that someone else was asked to figure out how to do it and probably did.

    Personally I am a very selective participant in the employee surveys I receive and am (sadly) very careful with my level of candor. And while there is feedback I’d like to offer, I will hold my tongue for now – perhaps when I leave someday it will be shared in my exit interview. And in the interest of keeping a positive reference, I may not share my thoughts in that exit interview.

    And having focused my entire professional career on data collection and analysis, this makes me very sad.

  19. Graciosa

    I do think that my employer does some good surveys that really are anonymous (we all know what they are, the results are released publicly, and they do address general work force issues). They do ask for a fair amount of potentially identifying information, but you cannot get a report on anything less than a significant number (I think 20?) of employees so you really can’t identify respondents.

    However it really is important to assess the situation. Many years (and many employers) ago, I once saw a Sr. Director at a very reputable company instruct his admin to make sure that he could identify who gave which response in his “anonymous” survey of his team by adding a code to the bottom of the page.

    I believe his employees were warned before they returned the surveys (very unofficially – can’t imagine how that happened?) but I thought then and now that this was a rotten thing to do.

  20. Lily in NYC

    How timely! We were asked to do a survey a few weeks ago and kept getting desperate-sounding emails from HR begging us to fill it out and promising it really was anonymous. I would say 10% out of 400 actually filled it out. We all have memories of our “anonymous” 360 review process actually not being anonymous. A few EVPs were pissed at comments they received from peers or direct reports and demanded that our IT dept. release the names of who said what. And our president’s office let them do it! People were livid and now no one believes anything HR says when they pretend something is going to be anonymous.

    1. Artemesia

      I participated in a research project decades ago that involved 14 organizational sites. Everyone was promised anonymity. We then had a meeting of the leaders of those 14 organizations and the data was shared using pseudonyms for the sites. It became obvious to participants which organizations were showing negative results (duh). The leader of one of the organizations insisted that my boss fly to his site (out of state) in order to read him the riot act and withdraw from the longitudinal study. It was a major scandal for the directors of the research and damaged their reputations. I will say that as a lowly research assistant grad student I had pushed back on this when we were preparing the presentation data pointing out that this was not the anonymity we had promised but the very sure of herself chief researcher insisted that by not using the names of the organizations we were good. We were so not good.

      Data can always be used against you and no one can promise anonymity.

  21. SerfinUSA

    It’s a trust issue.
    We get told company surveys are anonymous, but then I’ve overheard the people in charge of running these surveys mention turning IP ‘tracking’ off or on for particular surveys.

    I still do them, but always assume my responses are in no way anonymous.

  22. Not an IT Guy

    I was actually honest with one of these and had stated something akin to “I’m tired of being involved in illegal workplace practices”. Needless to say no one has hunted me down yet.

  23. Cath in Canada

    Even if the survey is truly intended to be anonymous, you can still get burned. It happened to a friend/ex-colleague of mine, who wasn’t very happy in my department. She answered one question in a neutral way, but with wording that made it clear who wrote the response (she mentioned a task that only she ever did); she then answered another question later in the survey in a way that was critical of management, but that was general enough that it could have come from any of us. None of us knew that the new survey software we had to use* reported the time/date stamp for every answer in the survey results, though, and only one person had replied to the survey on that day – so it was really, really obvious that the critical comment must have come from her.

    *We used to use SurveyMonkey but it’s been banned – we’re not supposed to have any data touch US-based servers, so we had to find a Canadian equivalent that’s similar but not identical.

  24. Bekx

    We have a company wide survey every year. It’s through a 3rd party and our results are given to managers. There are demographics, but there must be 6 other people in your department with the same demographic before it gets shown to your direct manager, otherwise it rolls up to the next higher up.

    So let’s say I’m the only person who has been at the company for 3 years in my department. My boss won’t see it, so it will roll up into his boss’ summary (if there are 6 other people who had been there for 3 years in his pool of employees). I feel like it’s anonymous. I’m sure if I wrote in like “The teapot design department is horrible and they always give me handles. My manager is a major teapot stealing jerk!” then they could probably figure it out based on me being the only Teapot Handle Designer.

    I also administrated a company wide survey on a software we use. It was anonymous unless you decided to state your name (there was user testing involved so I needed emails at least…but only if people supplied it). I was very clear that that was the only data I would be collecting that would personally identify someone unless you supplied more info. And it was anonymous. I couldn’t tell one Teapot Mechanic apart from another. This was a survey monkey survey sent to all employees.

    1. Bananana

      Yup, as a third party provider we make sure reporting is only given on groups above a certain size, as a measure to protect the anonymity of respondents.

  25. Emily in NYC

    This happened to me once at my old job. The options for where do you see yourself in five years were: with my current company, with my current company or a different company and with a different company. I put with my current company or a different company because it was the most reasonable answer – I wasn’t unhappy at my current employer, but I’m in my mid-twenties and anything could happen in five years!

    Later on my boss came to me and asked why I chose that response and if there was anything she could do to make sure I would stay. I knew her heart was in the right place, but it was a little uncomfortable as I wasn’t expecting my boss to see my responses and ask me about them! I shy away from these now.

  26. Ed

    I have administered these surveys in the past and as long as employees are sent unique links, the results can be linked to employees. Unique links are required to prevent people from taking it more than once and to track how many people have taken it so far. A truly anonymous survey with a generic link that can’t be tracked in any way would not be very useful. Whether the survey is actually anonymous depends on how much you trust your company. But from a technical perspective, your answers can typically be linked to you if your company wants to do so. My current HR Director swore up and down in front of the entire company that ours is anonymous (even going so far as to make fun of the “conspiracy nuts”) but I’m dating her secretary who told me it is not anonymous in any way.

    My philosophy is to never answer with anything I wouldn’t say to my manager’s face. If there is an internal conflict for an answer (like I think my CEO is a major jerk but I can’t honestly say he’s not doing a good job), I answer neutral/no opinion/etc.

    1. jag

      ” A truly anonymous survey with a generic link that can’t be tracked in any way would not be very useful”

      Why not? Do you think people would respond multiple times to influence the results?

      1. Ed

        Well, the average employee wouldn’t but you would open the door for a disgruntled employee to take it a bunch of times and skew the results. Most people probably just wouldn’t take it at all if it were truly anonymous. We get reminder emails until we take it and our manager tells us “only 2 of you have taken the survey so far” (they claim we are only tracked by department). I honestly wouldn’t bother with it all if I wasn’t harassed.

        1. Ed

          Also, much like fake reviews on Amazon\Glass Door\etc., I’m sure some managers would take it multiple times to improve their results.

          1. jag

            “I’m sure some managers would take it multiple times to improve their results”

            Wow. So where you work, technical controls are required to prevent cheating on something like this.

            1. Ed

              It has nothing to do with my company. People have historically cheated at every aspect of life and that is not changing anytime soon. It would be a poorly designed survey if it didn’t contain controls to minimize cheating.

              1. jag

                “It has nothing to do with my company.”

                It surely does. There must be a reason someone would cheat on a survey that has something to do with your company.

                “People have historically cheated at every aspect of life”
                At every aspect of life for which there is gain to be had.

                We don’t have any such controls in our organization on employee surveys. There is no reason to “cheat” that I can conceive of in our organization. I guess if someone was mentally ill and wanted to just mess things up, but there’s no incentive to do so where I work.

                1. Jaune Desprez

                  This exact issue happened at my last job. My residency program sent out a brief survey to our medical residents saying, “We hear you that the workload on Rotation X has become unreasonable. Would you prefer that we fix it by implementing Solution 1 or Solution 2?” One resident felt so strongly about the issue that s/he completed the survey 14 times (we hadn’t limited the survey to 1 per IP address because many of the residents completed surveys from a bank of shared workspace computers). It was very easy to spot the tampering because we ended up with more responses than we had residents!

                  We probably could have identified the malefactor, but we contented ourselves with throwing out the results and sending a new survey that required the residents to give their names.

                2. Ask a Manager Post author

                  Eh, I think Ed could work at a great company and still reasonably have this concern. It only takes one person to mess it up like that.

  27. Bananana

    We provide employee satisfaction surveys as a third party, and we typically give our contact information on the initial email as well as the opening page of the survey (even if it uses the client branding), so that anyone can get in touch if they have concerns about anonymity and want details of how we handle responses.

    It’s important to be transparent about how the data will be reported, so that people can make a fully informed decision about whether to take part.

  28. CollegeAdmin

    I’ve definitely received several anonymous surveys at work, but they ask such specific questions that (if someone really wanted to) you could determine who gave each response. For example, in one staff survey, I was asked to give my department, age range, gender, and length of employment – our departments are not that big. Forgive me if I then am not completely honest in your “anonymous” survey.

    1. KAZ2Y5

      My surveys at my last job were the same way. Our department was not that big – especially when you add in “what shift do you normally work?” I always fudged that part of the answers, because otherwise they could have picked mine out of the crowd.

  29. If I had a crystal ball

    Unless the information is something my employers really need (such as my bank details for my salary) then I never disclose anything personal, sensitive or confidential. They have no business to know.

  30. Ann O'Nemity

    If I didn’t feel comfortable saying it aloud, I wouldn’t say it on an anonymous company survey.

    Due to a series of unfortunate mistakes, identifiable survey results were shared with a large number of employees at a previous job. It turned into a complete fiasco with lasting repercussions. And this was an accident at a good company! If it happened there, it could happen anywhere.

  31. Artemesia

    A friend of mine who is a business consultant fired a client after they misused supposedly anonymous data like this. While it was anonymous, they used various techniques to try to identify those who gave negative feedback and penalize them.

    I think it is foolhardy to assume that data being gathered by your employer is anonymous or secure; give bland or VERY constructive feedback and deny things like racial prejudice, that your are looking for work, etc etc.

    I once gave an off the record interview to a reporter about a controversial situation. When he quoted me, he not only merged my moderate quote with an inflammatory statement by someone else but then described the ‘anonymous respondent’ in a way that clearly identified me and associated me with a statement I didn’t even made. That was fun. (e.g. it was like ‘The CEO should be fired for unethical behavior.’ and the only female executive at the company noted that ‘further study is being made of the procedures followed to assure compliance with the federal law on this.’ Everyone read it as if I had made the CEO statement which I had not.

    1. Jennifer

      As a former reporter, that just makes me mad. What a crappy dude doing a crappy job!

  32. SherryD

    Well, after reading the comments, I think it’s safe to say, no, OP, you’re not being paranoid!

    I almost feel sorry for the managers who are truly clueless about what’s making their staff disgruntled and I unsatisfied.

  33. olives

    I pretty much feel this way about all satisfaction surveys, and rue the day that some management folks decided that the best way to judge customer servicepeople performance is by chasing the customers around with emails about surveys for every retail interaction you have, ever. Surely there are better ways to measure this that don’t involve harassing the customers.

  34. NickelandDime

    A friend was outed by a survey because of their writing style. They also read people’s comments aloud at a staff meeting. Keep it neutral if you have to fill it out, and don’t be naive.

    1. more anon than usual

      Oh man, once when I worked at a horribly-run company I stumbled across the results of our employee survey (which, ethics be damned, I couldn’t resist reading). We had one person on staff who was TERRIBLE and who NO ONE enjoyed working with, who also had a lot of unusual quirks in her writing (let’s call her Katniss). The survey had very few written comments, but someone–someone who just happened to share this employee’s very particular writerly voice–went ON and ON about how Katniss was so helpful, so easy to deal with, the best person in the entire company, etc.

      I’d like to think that the survey’s intended audience was similarly flabbergasted by the transparency of this ruse, although it’s hard to say (again: horribly-run company). But I still can’t believe the gall of actually doing that.

    2. It's tired, and I'm late

      Is it really bad that I sometimes put deliberate spelling and grammar mistakes in my survey answers, to mislead people who know that I’m usually a total pedant? :-/

    3. Maxwell Edison

      Because I was an editor at my old job, I always used to put typos in my responses so revengeful managers were less likely to think a response was mine.

  35. TheLazyB

    Wow, I’m amazed at how negative the responses are here. And impressed at our company. We always have really high response rates (74% was the highest, it dropped a few % last time but still above 70%, the HR manager was gutted!) and when the last but one survey took place and it became abundantly clear that most staff didn’t trust senior management, they increased transparency and visibility of management. And it paid off; even though our circumstances were worse at the next survey for political reasons, there was a far higher level of trust for our management (…. and a LOT of distrust for those outside our orgnaisation).

    I was on the focus group for the last survey. It was with an external company renowned in the UK for doing that kind of thing. They took our feedback and noticeably improved the survey as a result.

    I was completely happy to answer the survey completely honestly both times. The data given was anonymous and any small teams not reported on/feedback amalgamated with other teams. I will say that I work for a public sector organisation in the UK; these places aren’t known for screwing their employees over :)

  36. Sans

    I think my company is generally okay, but I still won’t answer those surveys honestly. We have over 10,000 people, but by the time they ask for your division, your location and your dept, it will be obvious I’m one of two people. Umm, no. I’m going to say bland, safe things. And that’s it.

  37. RO

    I personally do not complete those surveys. At my old company we used a third party and regularly reviewed the actual reponses and scored them based on whether the individual was a yes man (team player) or not. The main issue I had with the surveys was that as manager your bonus was attached to how many members of your staff completed it and how great the responses were.

  38. Sidra

    Jeez, I feel like a bit of a chump for filling out a survey like this recently when my company was acquired! It’s an enormous company that bought us, and I really don’t mind giving candid feedback (I’d give it in person too). This doesn’t appear to have hurt me at all, but I don’t think they made any changes. It’s been about a year and the very honest and constructive criticism I gave (and I know has been voiced in person by people higher up than me) hasn’t amounted to anything… if they took surveys and feedback seriously, we’d see change.

    So, will I take the survey when one undoubtedly comes my way again? No. Not because I think it’ll be held against me, but because I don’t think they give a crap about the responses.

    1. OP

      Funny thing… we might work together. I don’t know the new overlords well enough to have any idea about trusting them, and, well, enormous company…I never will.

  39. K.

    I used to manage employee surveys at a large company.

    We had a very specific, VERY clear policy up front that division heads only got their own divisions, etc, and it was also made incredibly clear that any group smaller than 15 would only see an aggregate, no individual responses.

    So let’s say a VP managed two teams. Director A’s team has 37 employees. Director B’s team has 14. Director A could see things like, 5 people said 100%, 19 people said 80%, and so on. Director B and their boss would only see, “This team scored an average of 73 on this item.”

    That threshold was to guarantee the non-identifiability of responses, and we stuck to it really, REALLY seriously. And that was articulated and announced up front when the surveys were distributed. I’d be concerned about an organization that didn’t make the policy clear.

    1. K.

      Also it rolled down. So if Director A’s 37 employees were in 4 teams, if one of those had 15 people they’d get a detailed report but the other 3 would still only get “here’s how Director A’s teams reported overall.” Never any unit smaller than 15 responses.

  40. Stranger than fiction

    So what I’m taking away from this is most third party orgs are trying to do the right thing but the companies themselves are sometimes inappropriately taking the data and hunting people down

  41. AdAgencyChick

    I think companies underestimate just how long it takes to gain the trust of employees enough to get honest answers to these questions.

    Want me to answer honestly? Management needs to show that they’re not just asking the questions so that they can pat themselves on the back for listening to employees, when all they really want is smoke blown up their rears. The only way this will happen is if I see over time that a) employees who have the courage to speak up about real issues do not suffer retribution and b) that pointing out issues leads to actual change.

    The problem is, it takes YEARS to observe whether or not a) and b) are true. In the meantime, I will blow as much smoke as necessary in order to be allowed to do my job without interference.

    1. Me

      yep, learned the hard way on a (Not thru surveys, but just in general) and b. (never, ever, ever has anything changed unless the executives thought it was their idea)

  42. MmePomme

    I work at 2 large, global corporations that use employee surveys. One (big bank) uses a 3rd party, who is very clear that it is an anonymous survey. The other (big tech) handles it internally. Both companies provide scores at various levels (line of business, departments over xx people, etc), and both companies share survey result with employees and hold further discussions on poor-scoring items and what the company can do to improve those areas

    I see the surveys as an opportunity to voice concerns or weak areas and to state what is going well from the employee perspective. At both companies, I’ve seen great effort to make improvements based upon the surveys – things as simple as employee development and training improvements and as big as increasing the types of benefits available to employees and including a wider range of employees (including extending most benefits to part-time employees).

  43. Slippy

    It is very rare that the surveys are actually anonymous. Usually they are designed so that initially anonymity is preserved but with several ways to piece together things (either by the company or the 3rd party) so that if something really serious is reported they can track it down.

    Prudent paranoia aside, if the company was serious about input and concerns then management should be sitting down in individual or small group discussions about issues not blasting out a form letter. Sure they can say that the other way is too resource and time intensive, but it gives you an idea about how serious they are in addressing problems.

    1. Dani X

      I was told the story of one such survery. So people fill it out mostly honestly and give some honest areas that need to be addressed. One person says they aren’t going to change anything meaningful so says that his main issues are the sugery snacks in the vending machines and the fact that the carpets are a disgusting mess of spilled stuff. Results come back and they said they will address all the issues. The changes were: the carpets were cleaned and they added suger free gum to the vending machines.

      1. Jazzy Red

        That totally sounds like my former company. All of the management there was completely delusional.

  44. De Minimis

    I recall back in the Post Office the union would always instruct us to not participate in the surveys, because they said the results would always be used against us at contract time, and the fewer participants the less they could justify using the results for anything.

  45. Ms Enthusiasm

    Thankfully where I work the experiences with surveys has been good. I work at a large Fortune 500 company and they usually have a Voice of the Employee survey every 12-18 months. And it is always administered by an outside company. The company is very transparent with the results and admits where things need to get better. Then they work with management to actually come up with action plans to improve these areas.

  46. chump with a degree

    I work at a large, self supporting state agency (IE, no tax money) and we are surveyed every two years. As far as I know, we are a pretty honest bunch and our results reflect how unhappy we have been. Things are looking up though; they have hired a new president who does not, so far, look to be a crook, which is nice.

  47. Dan

    Rrriiiiiiight…

    Anonymous survey rule#1: Never answer anonymous surveys
    Anonymous survey rule#2: The survey is not anonymous
    Anonymous survey rule#3: Refer to rule#1

  48. Dan

    I can’t find it right now, but one of my favorite Dilberts has him sitting down with the pointy-haired boss and the boss says, “Your confidential survey says you don’t trust management. What’s up with that?” In the next frame Dilbert returns a scowl. Final frame boss says, ” Oh.”

  49. Consultant Mouse

    I am a consultant at a professional services firm that is hired to plan and administer employee surveys. I would say it’s fairly obvious if your company actually cares about improving based on employee feedback or not, and the ones who don’t really care are less likely to care about your anonymity. Companies that hire us do so specifically because they 1) want to ensure privacy and 2) really want their employees to be engaged and hence need to check and see how things are going. We have clients that push us to whittle down engagement results to the point where they can pinpoint or guess the employee, but we push back on providing summarized results unless anonymity can be ensured.

  50. A Non

    I had a fascinating interview with the CEO of a 500 person organization who’d recently presented the results of a survey like this to her company. We ended up going through the survey and discussing it as a way for me to get to know the company.

    The responses had a pretty standard distribution, mostly positive, some in the middle, a few low… and then a block right at the bottom. I mentioned that, and the CEO said “yes, and it’s the same employees every time.” I walked away with the impression that they were an ethical company trying to do the right thing, but in an organization that size they kind of knew who was giving what feedback. They may not have exactly paired workers with comments (and may have worked hard to avoid that), but just by the nature of the beast it wasn’t really anonymous.

    Personally, I won’t put anything in a survey or ‘anonymous’ feedback that I wouldn’t be willing to say in front of the entire company. The possible rewards are low and the risks are high.

  51. Me

    Here’s a recent example of surveys in action. Couple years ago the then-ceo had a bug in his bonnet about the cafeteria. So they got rid of the kitchen staff and made a ‘modern, convenient’ vending area w/ a couple coolers for sandwiches, a bunch of soda and junk food, and even a freezer w/, among other things, pints of Ben & Jerry’s. (I love BJ’s but who can eat a whole pint at once?!?) Of course, when I went up to check it out, the muffin I picked up had a ‘best by’ date 2 weeks in the future. The granola bars were $2.50 each. Etc.

    Needless to say, the place is a ghost town. Someone occasionally gets a drink or whatever but most ppl stay far away.

    So they’ve been sending out surveys asking about ways they can improve and begging for commentary. Since it’s trivial, I’ve been telling them my opinions.
    1. Not fresh
    2. Not good (I did try a sandwich one snowy day. Bleh)
    3. Way, way overpriced

    So, they finally took action! By removing the vending machines (where you could still get a granola bar for $1.25) and the microwaves elsewhere in the bldg. Luckily our dept. has its own mw but for the rest of the ~400 employees, many of whom are hourly, there are now 2 microwaves.

    Yepper.

    1. Unanimously Anonymous

      Hey, I can eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting. And don’t judge.

    2. I'm a Little Teapot

      Were the proceeds from the new vending area going straight into the CEO’s pocket?

    3. Rater Z

      Back about 1969, I was working for a trucking company in northwest Indiana. We were on the edge of the sand dunes so the owner of the company would come down once a year or so with heavy equipment and grade the yard. He would always be in work clothes and an outsider wouldn’t suspect he had started the company in 1919.

      One day, he was there and stopped to get a can of pork and beans from the vending machine. It was obvious the can had been in there for several weeks. (This was back in the days that the cans were heated while sitting in the machine.) The guy who filled the machine showed up to service it and DL told him to get the vending machines out of there. The vendor said only the owner of the company could order them out of there. When I came in that afternoon, all the machines were gone.

  52. long time reader first time poster

    Team Not Anonymous.

    Every time I’ve ever been involved with any sort of “anonymous” survey in the workplace, there has been a manager that has looked into the identity of a negative responder, either via technology or forensic investigation. Every time.

    I ALWAYS assume that my comments will be traced back to me, and I never say anything I wouldn’t say in public. I will often throw in some typos or grammar errors, and try to alter my voice a bit, just to be on the safe side.

  53. Nelly

    I used to work for a big series of colleges in Sydney/Aust and they did this, with exactly those questions. Every questionnaire was tailored to one person, even though they said it was anonymous. You could only answer it on your own computer.

    In addition, it asked us our specific faculty, our gender, age, and department. Since I was the only person in my department, it was pretty obvious which was my set of answers.

    Last time we just used them to blast everything we hated about the organisation anyway, since we have now hit a massive turn over of staff (everyone is trying to leave), and dissatisfaction rates were around 70% in the surveys. I’m not sure why the surveys are done, though, since nothing ever changes or improves. They really do seem like they are looking for the unhappy staff members to weed them out – but we leave faster than they can find us anyway.

  54. snuck

    I’ve done these predominantly in large corporates. And even with all the layers of external suppliers, removal of identifiers etc… it’s been obvious who said what. Not necessarily the scored in the ‘rate from 1-10’ sections (although with a small enough team when it gets broken down to individual manager level even that becomes obvious) but generally the lack of cleansing of comments – you fill in the text box and your manager can probably tell it’s you – every person has a unique way of talking, the words they use, the phrases, their pet gripes and loves – and then those comments are just cut and paste into the final report.

    And it’s obvious who it is. Every. Time.

  55. Cupcake

    The question I ask myself in any of these types of situations is “Will they thank me for pointing out the error of their ways.” Then I proceed accordingly.

  56. MW

    This is so frustrating. I run a communications department. We do an anonymous survey each year to gauge how we’re doing, what else people want to know about, how they like to get info, etc. And our response rate is always “meh,” in part because people don’t believe it’s really anonymous. It totally is anonymous (unless, like Allison said, someone wrote something so specific and happened to be one of our 1000+ employees who I know personally) and if people actually gave me valuable feedback, I’d take it and try to make the changes they are saying they need and want.

    For every person who complains about being asked demographic questions like how long have you worked there and at what location are you, there’s someone who complains that about questions that are too generic and un-actionable because it’s different for people of different tenures or at different locations.

    For me the bottom line is, if you don’t tell me what’s wrong, I can’t fix it, and if you don’t tell me what I’m doing well, I can’t do more of it. So take the survey!

  57. Rebecca

    I’ve been subjected to a few surveys in the past, both electronic and written. Yes, written, on paper, where someone could see your handwriting. In an office environment. Think about it.

    If I have a complaint, I don’t voice it, and try to be upbeat and positive throughout, because I know they aren’t truly anonymous. So yes, everyone does a stellar job, there are no workplace issues, and there are rainbows and unicorns everywhere.

  58. Maria

    we send out surveys using a couple of programs with settings that are truly anonymous, like SurveyMonkey, so when we say anonymous, we mean it. Yes, sometimes those programs track so you can’t re-take, but when I get the results I don’t know who said what. This is a common paranoia, though. Many employees don’t participate because of their fear of retaliation and their belief we are lying about not tracking the results by name. It’s a shame because the feedback can be valuable if the organization is truly open to it.

    1. Frank

      We should really be honest here, it’s wide and well known it’s definitely not anonymous, and the fear is not based on paranoia but facts.

      If you want to hear the feedback from your employees just have a HONEST face to face conversation with them, or just use the old school way, the anonymous box where one can write in a piece of paper their feedback.

  59. anonforthis

    My company wants us to do a survey administered by the CEB Corporate Leadership Council. Does anyone know if they are trustworthy? They claim the lowest level of aggregation is 7 employees but I want to be careful.

  60. LP

    I worked at a hospital that had these “anonymous and optional” surveys. The managers received emails periodically while this was going on telling them the percentage of their department that had filled in the survey and encouraged them to remind their employees to take it. They also had access to all of the answers after it was taken for their department. There were 4 employees in my department and the survey’s second question was how long have you worked in your department. My manager was also constantly reminding me to take it. How anonymous and optional was that?

  61. BananaPants

    My Fortune 100 employer does an employee survey every other year. It asks for one’s opinions on a variety of things, then the directors/VPs have an awkward, yet entertaining all-hands meeting to tell us why we were wrong in our answers and everything is happy and perfect in our organization. Real action and improvement is never taken as a result of the survey.

    While it’s done through a third party company and there are not individual links to the survey in emails, enough people have been approached by senior management about their responses that no one actually believes it’s truly anonymous. They ask demographic questions, and in my case there just aren’t that many female engineers with 10-15 years of experience and a master’s degree in my specific organization. The survey company says they don’t report details for small demographic groups (I think the cutoff is under 10 individuals), but they do report comments.. HR, the executive team, and the employees who are volunteered to serve on “improvement teams” get a data dump of every comment made, redacting only names (for those who were dumb enough to include them). At times it is VERY easy to tell who made what comments.

    Early in my career, I saw comments of mine reproduced in their entirety and even included in the “this is why you guys are wrong!” presentation in an all-hands meeting and since then have been reluctant to make any comments at all. It was back when I thought real action might be taken and was still foolish enough to think that the survey company really didn’t report that much detail. I just don’t make comments anymore, just give the scores.

  62. mel

    I would be honest, but productive, if this was a place that was somewhat dysfunctional to the point where work is negatively affected.

    Perhaps I am biased, since I’m at the point where getting fired might actually be the best available outcome. The idea of being silent or lying about everything being perfect only reminds me of a situation that happened; One of our pieces of equipment had broken, and one of my coworkers was complaining that nothing ever gets replaced. Literally as he was complaining, he wrote down on a checklist that that broken piece of equipment was functioning perfectly.

    You can’t fix what isn’t broken, you know?

  63. Not telling

    I never understand why companies do this–especially small ones. By the wording of the questions, it is obvious that they know what the problems are. They don’t need the survey.

    And truly, if the company is actually willing to face their problems and deal with them, then they have likely have no issue talking openly about them. The reason why they are asking for anonymous feedback is because they aren’t willing or ready to face their problems or embrace change.

    There’s no benefit to completing the surveys. If it is mandatory, fill out the neutral position and leave the essay questions blank.

  64. AW

    I’ve only done these with a couple of companies so I’m really dismayed to find out that it’s commonplace for responses to be traced and/or survey results to be ignored or used in a “you’re all wrong” type meeting. At the first company, survey results did lead to things getting fixed and my co-workers have all said the same thing happened at this one too. Reading the comments has been eye-opening.

  65. Frank

    Good day,

    I did myself a test by creating a surveymonkey questionnaire. I sent it to myself to 3 different email address I own and it confirmed my theory. After I received the results from each 3 emails it was sent, the database in the surveymonkey account collects the email address it was received and filled from, the exact day and hour you did it, and the time it took you to answer each question, etc…

    My advice is if you have the chance, do not answer any question and delete it completely as soon as you receive it in your inbox. But if you have no choice, then input the answers that will not compromise your future in the company.

    The questions they send are really compromising and sometimes really provocative, and to my point of view it should be forbidden to use this low tactics to question the integrity of the employees.

    Best of luck.

  66. Uneasy

    Does anyone else have similar experience with their survey requesting their employee ID number and part of social security number as pass code ? This is required by the 3rd party company, I feel so “anonymous “!
    There has to be a better way.

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