Many companies send employees surveys asking how they feel about their work, their boss and their company. They are asked to be candid and assured that their answers will remain anonymous.
But how anonymous are those answers, really? And are workers justified in either not responding to such surveys or answering dishonestly to mask their discontent because they're afraid higher-ups might uncover their identity?
"It's human nature to want to find out what people think about you, especially if it is negative," said Deborah Roland, vice president of human resources at CareerArc, an outplacement and recruiting company based in Boston and Burbank, Calif. "The impulse is very strong, and it's the reason why 360-degree reviews have gone out of fashion. It becomes too disruptive to the workforce, and personal issues get in the way of" professionalism.
A Forbes advice columnist once told a reader that she "could be taking a risk by completing the survey truthfully" after the reader revealed that her company had e-mailed her noting that she had yet to complete an employee satisfaction survey.
"I don't mean to make you paranoid, but the e-mail message that said 'You haven't completed your survey yet' certainly gives me pause," the columnist wrote. "Who would trust in the survey's confidentiality once they get a message like that?"
"On top of that and more fundamentally, if a company can't get honest feedback except by promising anonymity to employees, that's a sad statement," continued the Forbes columnist. "Healthy organizations don't need employee engagement surveys. In those organizations, people walk right up to one another and say, 'Hey, can we talk about something?' "
Even when an employer promises anonymity, the details that such surveys ask of respondents—the department in which they work, their title, their salary level, their years of service—can be enough to let any company know who responded and how.
Such information does serve a legitimate purpose, said Jeanne Meister, a founding partner of Future Workplace, a New York City-based HR executive network and research firm.
"The purpose of asking demographic questions is to … uncover trends among various segments of employees and proactively address these trends before they become an issue," Meister said. "This is a key way to measure employee sentiment and develop a course of action to avert issues before they become major problems."
Regardless, workers may be justified in believing that it's easy for their manager to know who responded, and how, especially in smaller companies, said Rajeev Peshawaria, author of Open Source Leadership: Reinventing Management When There's No More Business as Usual(McGraw-Hill, 2017) and CEO of The Iclif Leadership and Governance Centre, a Malaysia-based nonprofit that focuses on executive education, research and coaching.
"If a leader wants to know who said what, with today's technology they can do it easily," he said. "Sadly, nothing is anonymous these days. And using data to retaliate is something that happens a lot more often than it should."
When workers distrust the anonymity of these surveys, they tend to answer dishonestly. For instance, they may lie about their title, salary level or years of service. Or, they may be truthful about all those things but lie about their work experience—painting things much rosier than they really are.
"The more identifiable variables a company collects, the more likely they will not receive frank answers from the respondents," Roland said. "If an organization wants candid responses, then fewer identifiable variables are better."
What Can Be Done?
Even when workers answer honestly and raise complaints about a workplace or their leaders, those answers may come back to bite them.
Workplace experts tell of leaders demanding that their subordinates describe their grievances after learning that workers gave the department bad reviews on an employee engagement or satisfaction survey. Bad reviews tend to reflect poorly on a leader and can attract unwanted attention from a CEO or board of directors. But this heavy-handed approach to ferreting out grievances only makes employees more reluctant, in the future, to be honest on such surveys.
Instead, leaders who learn of complaints in their department can first acknowledge the feedback during a team meeting, take responsibility for it and express a genuine desire to do something to address the concerns, Peshawaria said.
"Then [the leader] can invite whoever is willing to see her privately to give her feedback on what she could do differently," he said. "She would have to assure them that there would be no negative consequences.
"Leaders' actions speak louder than their words. By demonstrating a genuine desire to change, [a leader can] win trust. Soon, people will be more comfortable giving feedback directly."
Another option would be to hire an independent third party to speak with workers to get some concrete feedback on how to address their concerns, he said.
The best leaders don't need surveys to gauge how satisfied or happy their employees are, he added. "They keep in touch with people in a human way. Even though it is impossible for a [leader] to personally talk to everyone, the best ones do enough walking around to get a very good sense [of the workplace mood]. They also deliberately create a culture in which it is safe to speak up."