Should an employee engagement survey be anonymous?

two women in business attire talking

It’s often said that your employee employee engagement surveys should be anonymous because otherwise people will not be able to speak freely.

At WeThrive we know that the opposite is in fact true – employee engagement surveys actually gather better, more comprehensive data from more willing employees if they are not anonymised.

Doctor, Doctor…

Suppose you had some ailment or other and went to see your G.P. Imagine the doctor took a careful history and examined you thoroughly, asking a comprehensive set of questions about the problem and writing down a precise diagnosis on a piece of paper you couldn’t see. Then, suppose the doc then said ‘Right – thanks for coming in,’ and ushered you out of the building – and on the way home you realised that no-one in the surgery had asked your name.

How much use would that diagnosis be?

 Why do many people prefer the anonymous employee survey?

 Here are four of the main reasons that are advanced for holding workplace surveys anonymously:

1: Anonymity ‘gives us the information we need’

How would you know if that’s even true? You don’t know who has filled it in and who has not. All you know is that a certain proportion of the data you need is missing. 

For example, you cannot know whether that proportion represents the happy and the unhappy employees equally, so you have no idea whether the overall figures accurately represent the mood of your staff. It’s possible that all the grumpy staff filled in their low scores, dragging down the average. Or that they all boycotted the whole exercise, pushing the average up. Or something in between. 

Are the missing staff the new ones, who don’t feel they have valid fully-formed opinions yet, but who are in fact the ones you need to hear from to find out if the on-boarding has worked well? 

Are they the middle-ranking, middle-tenured staff who carry the greatest burden of management and are under the greatest stress, and whose departure would really throw spanners into the works? Are they the older employees who hold the greatest store of company knowledge but are thinking of retiring? If you cannot know who took part, you cannot know anything at all for certain.

There are numerous ways in which response biases can occur with an anonymised survey.

Additionally, anonymous employee feedback has to present an average, probably taken across a fairly large group. It’s only recently that the full implications of relying on average human data have become clear, but we can be pretty certain that even in a larger company of 4000 people, not one of them will be average on every domain of an employee experience questionnaire. 

The multiple ways in which human beings vary mean that an average picture is just a mirage; the only way to get usable information is to drill down to smaller groups. The Team version of WeThrive allows you to see down to groups of four, which still gives you a wealth of useful data and action plans at team level, but there is so much more detail in the individual outputs.

2: Employees ‘will be more honest’ if they can be anonymous

There are some situations where anonymity probably increases honesty, though again, how would you know?

One is mental health screening, where questionnaires may be less likely to detect mental problems if they ask for a full name. 

This is part of a wider phenomenon – many studies have shown that anonymity allows people to report ‘socially inappropriate’ attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours in themselves. 

But this does not mean that information gathered under completely anonymous conditions is more accurate – in fact, because anonymity decreases accountability, it also decreases motivation to answer thoughtfully and precisely.

Some people even respond randomly to anonymous employee engagement surveys, just to get it done quickly. Anonymity also has a darker influence on some people, as we know from social media: it frees some individuals to say things which are untrue, libellous and offensive.

3: Anonymous survey data still gives us a ‘useful basis for action planning’

Subject to the data quality reservations already expressed, it is possible that an annual anonymous employee engagement survey could give you some general indications of how your staff feel about work. 

But how can you address people’s particular issues if you don’t know who they are? And what point is there from the employee point of view in complaining about a particular manager, policy, procedure or whatever, if the company cannot then ask them for more information about the problem because they don’t know who to ask? 

4: Anonymity makes people feel ‘psychologically safe’

This is also wrong – anonymity actually reinforces the feeling in some people’s minds that it is not safe to speak openly. The anonymous employee engagement survey comes with an obvious subtext: ’It is dangerous to speak your mind in this organisation’.

Even when anonymous feedback is guaranteed, every employee engagement survey company knows that some managers still want to know who made certain comments – a facility which WeThrive cannot provide.

Because of this potential for witch-hunts being sparked by negative comments, researchers have heard of employees going to great lengths to hide their identity, going to coffee shops or using an internet cafe so they can’t be tracked down by their IP address.

Even if anonymity really did reduce employee concerns about getting into trouble for saying things the management would find unpalatable, that raises another fairly important question: why do employees fear reprisals and a blemished employee record for speaking the truth? 

That’s something you really need to get a handle on, as it will be playing havoc with productivity for multiple reasons. 

One way to do that is to spend time being open with people, telling them that you genuinely want to know what they think and feel about working here, and that in return you will listen to them and do whatever is practicable to improve the way they work. If you can’t do that, the company probably has more pressing problems than how to run an employee engagement survey.

How we’ve evolved

Just a few million years back down the evolutionary tree, we all sought the safety of the group, just as other mammals still do today. As with sheep, which constantly try to move to the centre of the herd when there is a predator about, our survival depended on keeping step with the others and not being too much on the edge of things.

Right up to recent times it has generally been unsafe to offer unconventional opinions – as Galileo found out, simply supporting the idea that the earth revolves around the sun could lead to a verdict of Heresy followed by lifelong house arrest.

However, it is no longer dangerous to be an individual. Society has accepted that the group known as homo sapiens is not made up of a large group of average people and a few outliers, but of billions of individuals, each with their own history, experience and strengths. 

No-one’s experience in the workplace is exactly like any other’s, and just as we now acknowledge that people have the right to be themselves, so we can now see the need to celebrate everyone’s particular experience of work and do what we can to help them make it better, for their own sake and the company’s.

Anonymous or confidential surveys?

Now we know why people might like the idea of total anonymity: despite its drawbacks in reality, we can park our stone-age fears for a moment and look at the arguments for individually attributable employee engagement surveys, also known as confidential surveys. Anonymous surveys can also be anonymous and confidential surveys so to avoid confusion, we’re referring to non-anonymous surveys as attributable surveys.

All of these arguments apply as long as you can commit to our framework for attributable employee engagement surveys, but as a responsible HR professional working for a decent company there is no doubt you will be able to do that.

1: Survey response rates are higher

If you are invited to a party that you would really rather not attend, the diffusion of responsibility effect lets you off the hook as long as there are others present and your absence won’t be noticed. 

This same effect allows subjects in anonymous surveys to duck out and let others take the strain, explaining why anonymous employee engagement surveys get lower response rates in our experience. There is a common assumption that people won’t take part unless it’s anonymous, but it is completely untrue.

WeThrive were invited to talk at the London HR Connection 2020 event and discussed the issue of anonymity there.  WeThrive’s Co-founder, Piers Bishop, said at the conference:

“Asking employees to answer surveys anonymously will mean they feel no responsibility to do something worthwhile,” He added that “if staff feel this way while responding to surveys then authentic feedback is not going to be given.”

Chief people officer at the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS), David Blackburn, gave examples of how the FSCS had created a culture of listening, learning and doing using employee engagement surveys. He suggested that listening surveys, heatmaps and word clouds could all be used as alternatives to anonymous surveys that will engage employees.

>Read the article in HR Magazine following this London HR Connection event.

 2: Attribution makes company surveys more representative

As we’ve said, anonymous employee engagement surveys fail validity tests by definition because you don’t know what sample of the workforce you have in the employee engagement survey. 

Furthermore, anonymity necessarily implies averaging of data, which will then not represent any individual unless by some fluke you happen to have a completely average individual in the sample, which most human employee engagement survey populations don’t.

 3: Personally identifiable surveys actually tells you what is going on, and what to do about it

An attributable employee engagement survey, or at least one that gets to the bottom the biological, psychological and/or social reasons why things could be better, gives you crystal-clear 1:1 data on what each individual thinks needs attention. Plus, in the case of WeThrive at least, a comprehensive picture of what is working well and what the staff think could be changed for the better.

 4: An attributable survey makes the company responsible for responding positively and quickly

In an attributable and confidential survey, anyone who takes part has an unwritten contract with their organisation: something like ‘I will tell you what I think needs doing if you will listen and do what you reasonably can’. 

As the company survey closes, it is in everyone’s interests to summarise some of the headlines and start setting up the meetings or whatever is needed to get those improvements under way. In an anonymous employee engagement survey, where it is much less clear how representative the opinions expressed are, or who they represent, this kind of clarity and focus is much less likely to materialise.

5: It generates commitment to change from the staff

Once survey recipients have offered their opinion, and it has been taken up by the managers, the company will be on the way to doing something that works better, assuming the managers are up to that task (we’ll address that in a minute). 

But the staff, meanwhile, are already on the way; having worked through in their own minds what needs to change, their own mental processes will already be aligning towards the better way of doing things, so by the time managers hold the conversations the door will already be open.

You will have noticed that we believe open, honest feedback to be the foundation of a successful employee engagement program and are committed to the idea of attributable employee engagement surveys, and indeed employee satisfaction surveys, and we encourage our customers to try them.

Not every organisation can – some have historic reasons, some fear the unions would not agree, others just don’t feel the staff are ‘ready’. But not one company has gone back to anonymous employee engagement surveys after using WeThrive in 1:1 mode, because the exquisite level of detail allows managers to do their best work quickly, knowing that any conversations they hold will be bang on target from the very start.

Currently our customers are split about 50-50, with larger and older organisations still more likely to go anonymous – although our anonymous product still allows you to see down to groups of four, so you can still get high-quality and specific outputs for a team. 

For their employee engagement program, some organisations use the team version for the foot-soldiers and the 1:1 product in the management layers, though the point at which the split happens tends to go down towards the shop-floor with time.

It is a good employee engagement strategy to start at the top – the line managers who will be implementing the conversations and action plans from WeThrive will be more aligned to the process in their own minds if their own managers have taken the time to go through it carefully with them first.

Some organisations want to transform their employee culture but are not sure that all their managers are ‘up to it’. But that is an opportunity in itself – staff relationships with the line managers is the key to productivity, employee retention and everything else, so leaving things alone is unlikely to be a good idea.

We suggest that each manager needs the best possible support so they can do the best possible job with their teams, and to do that they need to learn. Learn from their own managers, WeThrive gives managers an opportunity to learn from the data itself, from the contextual learning resources in WeLearn, and then to have the chance of holding conversations that actually work because they are focused on the right things and held with the direct aim of improving everyone’s experience of work.

Our experience shows that if you set the whole exercise up right, employees have no trouble answering freely in a employee engagement survey that is traceable back to them – not least because it is in their interests to do so.

If you knew that the outcome of an employee engagement survey would be that a manager would listen to you further, work through the issues and try to put them right, why wouldn’t you want that?

Health administrations do gather anonymised patient data, using it to track disease trends and predict demand on their services. This is very useful to the NHS, the government, the World Health Organisation and so on, but much less relevant use to the person with a ruptured appendix, who needs a highly specific, personalised diagnosis followed by a particular kind of treatment.

There can be some point in holding anonymised employee engagement surveys if you want a high-level view of some aspect of the organisation. However, if you are trying to do something more proactive and specific, like improve the productivity and work experience of individual employees, it is a different story…

Seven steps in the survey cycle 

The WeThrive Framework for Employee Surveys

1) Introduce the survey

Make it clear to the staff that you genuinely want to know what they think and feel about their work and their workplace, that you realise that some people may be having more positive experiences than others but that you want to treat all the information you gather as the starting point for improvement work. Some issues are a fact of life and not everything can be fixed, at least straight away, but where practicable you aim to do whatever can be done to improve employee experience and reduce bottlenecks, stresses, etc. while improving the way the organisation runs.

Further reading> How to prepare your business and its employees for an engagement survey

2) Communication

Communicate this clearly and regularly in the run-up to employee engagement survey launch. Ask staff who will be away doing the survey how they would like to take part – e.g. by email or text if they would prefer to fill it in while away, or by keeping the employee engagement survey open until they return.

3) Reminders

Remind staff regularly during the open period, while thanking those who have already taken part.

4) Say thank you

As soon as possible after closing the employee engagement survey, thank staff again and offer them some headline news: ‘We can see straight away that most people are pretty happy about w and x, and there are some real opportunities to improve the way we do y and z so that the organisation runs better and we clear top some frustrations – there will be a lot more detailed communication from line managers starting week xx and we really want everyone to be taking part in discussions about how to improve their work and our processes in general from then on’. Or something along those lines.

5) Act fast

Straight away start work with the managers, making sure they can read and understand the reports for their teams, can see the action plans and you have agreed what to prioritise. Get these managers into the best possible state for them to do useful work with their teams – remember that WeThrive is full of useful resources to help managers do their work better, directly linked through from WeCoach, so the Wethrive system listens, diagnoses, recommends changes and provides backup resources to help the staff make those changes well.

6) Track progress

WeThrive is there to keep tabs on the actions managers initiate so you can see who has done what, what resources are in use, when it is expected to be done by and what the response was.

7) Prepare and repeat

Prepare for the next cycle – some companies run one major employee engagement survey a year and a number of strategic initiatives in teams where there are changes or challenges, but most use WeThrive 2-4 times a year as part of a continuous learning cycle: measure, learn, change, settle, repeat. This way difficulties and frustrations can be picked up as they emerge, leading straight into a feedback loop aimed at making them better. Having the right employee engagement platform is a must. The system adapts itself as circumstances or individuals change, and there is no chance for problems to become embedded to the point where they are hard to shift.

Conclusion

When we describe WeThrive as a step forward in the evolution of employee engagement and employee experience we really mean it. The move from an anonymous type of survey to something personalised and attributable is consistent not just with recent changes towards a more personalised lifestyle but with the whole drift of evolution.

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About WeThrive

Employee Engagement, Evolved

WeThrive is the agile employee engagement platform that uncovers how your people truly feel, enabling managers to create highly effective teams, increase employee retention and employee morale and deliver better business results.

At organisation, team or individual level WeThive’s unique 4cs model leverages the latest psychological understanding to quickly and easily deliver insights, actions and learning content to help your managers become better managers, creating a high performance culture and improving business results. UK based, WeThrive has an average 91% employee engagement survey completion rate and to date has made over 5000 company-wide recommendations.

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