Anonymous vs. Non-Anonymous Employee Feedback?

Over 85% of employees report feeling a sense of disengagement from their current employment. This is costing North American economies a staggering $550 billion in lost productivity annually. The importance of ongoing peer feedback and allowing employees to feel heard has very real fiscal impacts.

We have come a long way in employment relations and human resource management. Our understanding of team optimization is more sophisticated than ever and leveraging the insights of employees is changing company culture, retention and productivity.

As we endeavor to evolve employee feedback surveys, the debate between anonymity or non-anonymity for participants has yet to be settled. Both have considerable merit and while there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are a range of points to be considered.

Anonymous Employee Feedback

Perhaps it is best to start by clarifying the difference between anonymity and confidentiality as both are frequent features of employee engagement surveys.

Anonymity, as you might expect, means the exclusion of any questions which may directly or indirectly lead to the identification of individual participants. Special attention is required to avoid the potential for reverse engineering responses in order to figure out who said what.

Confidentiality is slightly cloudier. This refers to accepting identifying questions but that the collector of responses has an obligation to keep them hidden. When the receiver or analyst is another employee company, doubt or mistrust can sometimes occur. Employees are more comfortable with a third party survey analyst.

Pros of Anonymous Surveys:

Encourages Honest Expression and Response Validity

The undeniable pillars of any employee survey are high response rates and honesty. Without either of those, it becomes a redundant exercise. Anonymity serves a number of functions for encouraging both.

Maybe it is from the advent of “Gotcha Journalism” or a deeper environment matter but honest constructive feedback can feel like a risk to employees. Anonymity allows them to respond without that real or perceived threat. There is no personal cost or the concern of being blame for hurting the feelings of others diminishes.

Furthermore and often overlooked, not everyone is willing to offer strong open forum opinions. Introverted or quieter employees are given an equal voice in anonymous surveys with the reduced risk of personal exposure.  

Improves Employee Trust

Trust and threat of repercussion are two of the biggest factors affecting employee responses. In the extreme view, employees worry about being judged or even reprimanded for their responses. Naturally, these concerns skew responses to avoid personal damage but damage the validity of the survey.

By maintaining anonymity, the social desirability bias is removed as their responses carry no threats and win no brownie points so to speak. A sense of security and trusted foundations allow the respondents to put the concerns to one side and offer their unbridled opinion.

Preserving relationships

In an ideal world, we could all offer our objective, honest thoughts on every matter without the fear of our peers taking it personally. It would allow for emotionless decision making in pursuit of collective success. However, that is not reflective of our working world.

In almost every facet, employees are stationed at the weaker end of the power dynamic. It doesn’t guarantee a negative experience but does mean teams are subject to the reactions of management. This dynamic is interrupted within anonymous surveys. Employees are given equal share of the power levelling the playing field.

Without totally mitigating personal reaction to constructive feedback, anonymity goes a long way toward shielding the responders from tensions created by their willingness to do the right thing.

Cons of Anonymous Surveys:

Opportunity to Foster Mistrust

Depending on the current employee environment, anonymous surveys can contribute to embedded feelings of mistrust. The positivity of shielding employees from direct fall out can become a negative on the managerial end.

Management always like to feel approachable whether it is how employees view them or not. They prefer employees to raise concerns directly for two main reasons – so they can deal with them as they arise and to avoid highlighting perceived flaws publicly.

With the lack of transparency and employee opportunity to shift the blame, leadership figures can feel disproportionately spotlighted by constructive feedback. The feedback tends to be one-way creating extra tension and mistrust especially when individual leaders are singled out.

Question Clarity Importance

The most obvious part of an anonymous survey is that you don’t know who offered what responses. For the most part, this is perfectly workable but the glaring issue is follow-up. Both the surveyors and responders both want action after completing the feedback request but this can be challenged by a lack of clarity.

The onus is of course on the surveyor. The questions must leave no room for ambiguity and need to be clear at the first time of asking. Where missteps occur, valuable information may be lost causing employees to feel their time was wasted or that the employer is out of touch.

Following Up v Breaking Anonymity

With careful planning and testing, this can be solved but a deeper issue remains – Open Discussion Follow-Up. How do you act upon responses that are not fully developed action items?

The options are:

  1. Don’t follow up meaning you miss out on solutions and bonding moments where your team comes together to forge a mutually advantageous plan.
  2. Take an educated guess on what the respondents meant and risk being wrong or,
  3. Ask the team.

Asking the team

The unanimous impression of anonymity is that nobody is put on the spot for their response. However, this line may need to be blurred on occasion. Follow-up questions are natural to either get to the root of a problem or to investigate real solutions. The employer is naturally inclined to favor the follow up but it is not without risk.

Compromising anonymity is a slippery slope. Doing so recklessly can break the trust in the system which can be near impossible to regain. It requires care and the agreement of the respondents before pursuing this avenue.

Non-Anonymous Employee Feedback

Non-anonymous surveys aim to encourage transparency, personal reflection and accountability, and follow-up discussion of cohesive actions. They are typically better suited to an environment where issues are frequently discussed openly rather than simmering below a challenging culture.

Pros of Non-Anonymous Surveys:

Informed Discussion and Follow-Up

Of course, where anonymity might stumble transparency excels. Full transparency in surveys makes for a more collaborative follow-up process.

The entire follow-up and actionable result of the survey becomes streamlined without anonymity. Open and frank discussions can be had about the best methods of solving problems, counteracting threats or improving employee conditions. Unobstructed, employees and leadership can work together on the results to ensure the path going forward is amiable for both.

Open Dialogue

Transparent results offer management clear insights into areas or individuals that may be experiencing negative conditions.

For employees, transparency allows them to ask for help or highlight personal ideas they have. Ranking number one in possible employer supports, 37% of employees feel recognition is most important. Acknowledgement of their problems, successes and how they are affected by company plans is personal to their engagement.

Not everyone is forthcoming about issues or concerns unless they are formally asked and in a judgement free zone, they may feel they will be better heard.

Bringing the Team Together

The sense of belonging or togetherness in not automatic in every team but transparent surveys make it more possible. In a psychologically safe environment, a carefully crafted survey has the ability to break down barriers and unify teams.

Speaking freely and openly is extraordinarily empowering for team members. Giving them the platform to communicate validates thoughts they may have internalized and opens the door to more honest sharing. When done under the right conditions, sharing through surveys and follow-up discussion can be a powerful exercise.

Cons of Non-Anonymous Surveys:

Employee Exposure

Unfortunately, the idyllic empowerment exercise is not appropriate or possible in every company. In fact, for companies with low levels of psychological safety it may be detrimental to even encourage open forum discussion.

Psychological safety refers to the freedom from embarrassment or reprimand an employee feels when contributing their opinions and ideas or admitting mistakes and worries.

At the lower end of the spectrum for sharing conditions, employees may fear losing their jobs by offering constructive feedback. Feelings of judgement and lack of security can force employees into a situation they are completely uncomfortable with.

Lack of Honesty

With the above conditions in mind, the team is likely to be much more wary of the bi-directional nature of the survey.

Where employees are discouraged through perceived or actual job concerns, dishonesty is incurred. Typically, an employer can recognize this as the diversity of responses reduces. Most employees will just offer the answers they think you want to protect themselves from argument. If this is something you notice, it might be time for anonymity or a deeper discussion.

Abusing the Power Dynamic

In an anonymous setting every response is given the same level of respect. However, this is always the case for non-anonymous surveys.

Leadership find it easier to dismiss the views of those lower in the hierarchy than them. Rationalizing complainant responses as ignorant of the bigger picture or trivial due to their position can be instinctive protective reactions. Unfortunately, this fosters toxic company culture. Just as anonymous surveys level the power dynamic, non-anonymity enables leadership to abuse the dynamic if they disagree with the results.

Conclusion

Anonymity and non-anonymity in surveys have their place. They are just variations of the same tool with the same hope. Choosing one over the other depends largely on the aims and dynamics of your workforce.

Pre-assessment of your culture and expected results is usually the best place to start. If you enjoy a safe, positive company culture, you might see more benefits from non-anonymous feedback but you need confidence there is nothing simmering below the surface you’re not aware of. If there is any turmoil, anonymity affords an extra layer of protection and a foundation for honesty

Ultimately, an employee survey is designed with the intention of progressing your company culture, business aims and harnessing the power of your team. By keeping those three factors in mind, the decision of how best to leverage their knowledge becomes easier.

Photo by Annie Spratt 

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