Capturing employee feedback is an important skill required to fuel a culture of high performance. But a critical part of executing an employee feedback survey is how to handle collecting data, especially when some of the responses you’re after may include answers to sensitive questions.

Here’s what to consider, in the short- and long-term, to make sure you’re implementing an effective anonymous survey.

Communicate the difference between “anonymous” and “confidential” for your employee feedback survey

Whether it’s a brand new engagement initiative or you’re working to improve an existing strategy, make sure employees understand the difference between anonymous and confidential responses. A confidential survey is one where responses can be combined with other data that’s been gathered, such as demographics, for example. By combining data, efforts are made so that you can’t connect results to one individual.

“On the contrary, an anonymous survey ensures that responses cannot be connected to individual people,” says Talmetrix CEO Chris Powell. Many organizations choose anonymous (or confidential) surveys to encourage employees to give more honest feedback.

“Anonymity really gets down to the level of reporting you’re after. The question to be answered is: How fine will we report the data?” Anonymous data allows you to look at the macro trends of data versus individual responses. There can be trade-offs when choosing an anonymous survey. “The areas where anonymity become less effective is if you’re trying to tease out specific things, for example. The more specific you want to get, the less anonymity really helps you get there.”

While results gathered can be more honest by using an anonymous survey, you’ll want to setup your survey so that it ensures validity and reliability.

“Reliability, which is aimed at consistency, is why surveys tend to be longer than what some people may prefer. That’s because with surveys, employees can respond with false positives,” explains Powell. “They’re not necessarily telling you the truth in that scenario, even if it’s anonymous. The reason why we build in reliability is so that we can tease out if there are any false positives in how employees respond.” Ultimately, anonymous feedback can help uncover more candid feedback, but it doesn’t automatically provide all the conditions necessary for a survey to be most effective. 

Work on building trust

Using anonymous feedback has gotten more attention recently, in part, because of the lack of trust in the workplace, says Powell. Trust between colleagues stems from a combination of a person’s perceived intent, character, and competence, he says.

Trust has eroded within the workplace over the years. It has eroded because of marketplace changes and the changing nature of work and employee-employer work relations. “And, also for a number of reasons, there is a lot more uncertainty in the workplace,” adds Powell, which can hinder the ability to collect honest, reliable, and valid feedback from employees.

There’s also a great deal of uncertainty around what happens when an individual shares information that they believe is sensitive. “[The idea that there] could be retaliation is still fairly prevalent, not just in the hourly workforce but in management as well.”

Powell explains a lack of trust is often behind how employees are looking for a safeguard when it comes to sharing their thoughts and feelings through an employee feedback survey. While proactively communicating the difference between anonymity and confidentiality is important, part of the bigger picture for leaders is fostering long-term trust.

Leaders can adopt these 6 practices to build trust in the long-term:

  1. Communicate the why. Employees want to know why they are being surveyed. Communication throughout the process (including the goal of the survey and how you intend to use the data) minimizes apprehension and helps employees see how the engagement program can benefit them.
  2. Be as transparent as possible…and not just with your engagement initiatives. As a leader, aim to be as transparent as possible when it comes to issues and actions that can be shared. When it comes to your engagement process specifically, be sure to explain each step along the way. Avoid using too much scientific terminology or jargon, and be sure to clarify the difference between anonymous or confidential responses.
  3. Include an anonymity threshold. Including an anonymity threshold ensures data intended to be anonymous is kept that way. This means groups below a certain size can’t be filtered for certain factors, as it would make it easy to connect answers to individual people. Be sure that your survey tool has this threshold, particularly if you have small departments or are a smaller company. You can even explain this process to employees, which can help to encourage honest results.
  4. Provide a timeline. In your quest to be open with employees, don’t forget to provide a timeline that captures what employees can expect after they take the time to do a survey. After all, if they are sharing their candid feelings and thoughts, they deserve to know what the next step is.
  5. Demonstrate you’re consistently using employee feedback. “Trust is easily eroded and hard to earn,” says Powell. If you aren’t timely in how you communicate and act on what you’ve learned from your survey, you can end up destroying the trust you’ve been working to build. At minimum, acknowledge what you are asking for, confirm you received it, and share what you are going to do (or not do) with it. Then be sure to thank employees for their opinions.
  6. Build it on a 1:1 basis. Trust is most commonly built on a one to one, person to person basis, rather than at the organization level, explains Powell. “Trust really is most impacted at the direct manager or department level leadership. Those relationships are so critical that if trust is broken at that level, it’s going to be hard for trust to be at the organizational level.

Stop Guessing, Start Knowing: Learn Best Practices for Employee Engagement

Engagement efforts aren’t a top-down proposition. Change during an engagement initiative moves in all directions — across departments, up from the rank-and-file, cascading through different levels. Learn how to build a culture of engagement at your organization. Download our employee engagement guidebook to get started.

Guidebook for Employee Engagement

Talmetrix is re-inventing how talent-focused organizations and their employees work together to fuel a culture of high performance. Contact us to learn more about our innovative solutions.


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