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Written by Gillion Vaughn
on October 26, 2017

Should Your Next Survey be Anonymous or Not? 
This is an essential question to ask yourself before you start collecting data from your customers or employees. Sometimes knowing the people behind the answers (respondents) means solving problems faster and learning about individual details that lead to better developments. There are also situations where if respondents aren’t anonymous there’s a chance of getting answers that aren’t completely honest.

You have 3 basic options when it comes to survey anonymity: Anonymous surveys, open surveys and confidential surveys. Remember to always communicate openly what kind of survey you are conducting. This article aims to explain the pros and cons of these different styles so that you can start thinking about what’s best for your organization.

The first rule is that you always want to be honest with your respondents. In the long run, that will get you the most accurate data.

The Anonymous Survey

We’ve all taken an anonymous customer satisfaction survey at some point. You know the ones where you don’t leave any identifying information. As people who make surveys, we know that anonymous results can paint an accurate and honest data picture, but actions can’t usually be individually targeted. Also, when people don’t identify themselves they don’t hold as much accountability for their answers.

Pro:
In the best case scenario, people might be more open to discuss problems. This can be particularly helpful if you aren’t looking for very detailed responses. Anonymous surveys can get honest responses if you have a situation where people could feel uncomfortable telling the truth otherwise.

Con:
The downside of anonymity is that if certain respondents are very dissatisfied, then you can never interview them or do any follow up to figure out how to fix that particular problem.

Example:
Regular follow up from management is extremely important for employees to stay motivated, so if you work in HR, surveys are an essential part of what you do.

Now, imagine that 95% of respondents are very satisfied with an office work environment, while 5% is highly dissatisfied. It would be a waste of your resources to invest lots of time and money into improving the office environment for everyone, because most people are already happy. Unfortunately, you might not be able to help the 5% who are very dissatisfied if your survey was anonymous. Without identification you will never be able to follow up with them and learn more. The upside here is that since the survey was anonymous, no one was afraid of endangering their job simply because they spoke the truth. Those 5% could also be your most profitable or valuable employees.

The Open (Non-Anonymous) Survey

These are the surveys where you leave your personal information or a personal link. When you know who your respondents are, you have so many opportunities to follow up with them and take tailored actions to fix their issues. However, this kind of survey can also make your respondents uncomfortable and get less than truthful responses. This is mostly true if, for example, you work in an organization that lacks transparency and good communication. In that case, employees might be really uncomfortable with identifying themselves in an HR survey. However, contrary to popular belief, studies show that having a non-anonymous survey doesn’t necessarily hurt results, and just gets more tailored responses if anything.

Pro:
An organization can save a lot of time and money when it’s able to tailor its developments individually. When you know who your respondents are, then you can follow up with them and learn the details of why they answered the way that they did.

Con:
The idea of being able to follow up and tailor your developments to the people who need it most is appealing. However, you have to be careful with a non-anonymous survey. Getting honest answers from a non-anonymous survey depends a lot on the nature of the survey and your company culture. You could run the risk of making your respondents feel uncomfortable. Especially when it comes to an employee survey, you really need to think before you go this route. For all of the benefits it can potentially bring, when used in the wrong context it could hurt your data collection. Having a healthy company culture may determine if you are ready for a non-anonymous HR survey. Take our quiz to determine the health of your organization. The healthier you are, the easier it is for you to conduct employee surveys without anonymity.

Example:
Imagine that you have a software company, and when customers are logged into your tool they have the option to take a customer satisfaction survey which they know is not anonymous. In many cases, if a customer is willing to take this kind of survey it is because they either want to encourage you to keep up the good work, or they want you to know that they are having issues with something. If the survey is not anonymous, you should have automatic alerts for particularly dissatisfied customers. When an important customer reports that they are very dissatisfied with the usability of your tool, you can have a customer service rep call them right away to fix the issue. You could be saving a lot of time and money by keeping your customer happy.

However, now imagine the employee survey where 5% of people were extremely dissatisfied. If their answers are not anonymous, you run the risk of them not feeling comfortable to even report the issue to begin with.

Confidential Surveys

This is type of survey when someone outside of your organization (a third party) takes care of the survey for your company. The respondents are anonymous to your organization, but the data is not anonymous to the people who conduct the survey.

This allows those the third party to follow up with respondents and get details about their answers. However, when they report the information they do not report the people’s identities back to your organization, so the people know that they are ultimately anonymous.

Pro:
This option can be a way detailed information from respondents without making them feel uncomfortable about being honest. When people know that they will ultimately stay anonymous, they will most likely share honest information. The respondents do know that the outside person will read and follow up with their responses, but as long as the respondent is totally neutral this doesn’t compromise honesty nearly as much as a totally non-anonymous survey would. Just remember that if people don’t trust the third party, they won’t be totally honest with their opinions.

Con:
In many ways, you get the best of both worlds with this type of Survey. Of course, having an outside institution conduct a survey comes with a price tag, so be sure that the benefits of the survey outweigh the costs. There is always a chance that even being identified by a neutral monitor will influence the honesty of your respondents. While this kind of method will give you a detailed report of the reasons for people’s answers, it will not identify them to your organization. So while the data may be insightful and helpful, you’ll never be able to follow up with individuals to try and fix their specific issues like you would with a non-anonymous survey. A third party will also never know your company as well as you do, so it’s important that the third party really knows what to ask. You may need to invest time and money into training them properly. Also, a the third party will require more time than analyzing your own results as they come in.

Example:
An organization is trying to improve its company culture and has decided to conduct an extensive HR survey. They really want insights to understand how their employees feel in the organization, and they need specific details to help them develop the right way. At the moment, the company acknowledges that their company culture is such that people will feel uncomfortable talking if they are identified. However, they need the kind of insights that you can only get when you interview individual respondents. They choose to have a totally neutral outside party conduct the survey and they make it clear to employees that their names will never be disclosed to the organization that they work for. The outside party is able to interview a variety of individual respondents, and the detailed data ultimately helps the organization to make considerable improvements in their company culture. When they conduct a similar survey six months later, employee satisfaction is up 70%.

Bottom Line: Keep the Trust

As you can see, there are a lot of things to consider when it comes to deciding if a survey is anonymous or not. You can open the door up to all sorts of pro-active development, and you can also skew your data and be mislead if you don’t choose wisely. It’s important to think about your particular situation. What kind of survey is this? What kind of company culture do you have? The bottom line is that the key to getting accurate data is ensuring that people are comfortable in providing it.



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