Your boss or manager has asked you to fill out an employee engagement survey. You figure this will give you an opportunity to have your voice heard, so you accept. While you want to offer constructive criticism, something is giving you pause. You can’t help but wonder, are employee engagement surveys really confidential?
While employee engagement surveys should, in theory, be confidential, they’re not always. They aren’t necessarily anonymous, either. According to the Society for Human Resource Management or SHRM, the details requested in these surveys means HR professionals and others can figure out who responded. How private they keep the survey responses can vary from company to company.
If you’re debating whether to answer an employee engagement survey, you won’t want to miss this article. In it, we’ll discuss the confidentiality and anonymity of these surveys in more detail. We’ll also talk about the flaws with employee engagement surveys and the potential repercussions for honest answers.
First, we figured we’d differentiate between anonymity and confidentiality. These terms don’t have the same meaning. Unfortunately, if you complete an employee engagement survey, you may get confidentiality but not anonymity. Sometimes you get neither.
The word anonymous, according to Merriam-Webster, means “of unknown authorship or origin” or “not named or identified.” That’s easy enough.
Then the word confidential refers to information that’s “marked by intimacy or willingness to confide,” says Merriam-Webster. This info is also “private, secret.”
When you fill out an employee engagement survey at work, at no point does your company ask for your name. At least, they shouldn’t. That gives you the expectation then that you can complete the survey anonymously. Do you really get that luxury or is it just an illusion?
SHRM spoke to Rajeev Peshawaria in the article linked to in the intro. Peshawaria works at a nonprofit in Malaysia that promotes coaching and research on executive-level work. He’s also the writer of the 2017 book Open Source Leadership: Reinventing Management When There’s No More Business As Usual.
He says “there is no such thing as anonymous” when it comes to these surveys. Why is that?
Sure, your company might not ask for your name when you complete an employee engagement survey, that’s true. However, they do request other identifying information. This includes the number of years you’ve worked there, how much money you make, your title, and your department.
Unless you refrain to include the above information, then your HR manager and/or boss should be able to figure out it’s you doing the survey.
Are Employee Engagement Surveys Confidential?
Okay, so we already know that your boss can potentially determine that you filled out an employee engagement survey. That means these surveys are not really anonymous. Are they confidential at least?
If you recall from earlier in this article, confidentiality means the results of the survey should stay a secret. Even if your HR manager or boss knows it’s you who filled out the survey, what you put down remains private. Right?
SHRM spoke with employee engagement consultancy agency employees Megan Connolly and Peter Foley, both of Mercer Sirota. They said this on confidentiality in employee engagement surveys: “They are not technically anonymous because the [company] is typically receiving…data that indicates the employee’s business unit, tenure, etc…Depending on the number of these demographic questions, this approach can generate…concern and skepticism regarding confidentiality.”
Both Connolly and Foley agreed the confidentiality aspect of employee engagement surveys is more guaranteed than anonymity. They do bring up a good point, though. If you can’t trust your boss/HR manager on stay quiet on the fact that you filled out the survey, why should you expect them to keep the results a secret?
For employee engagement surveys to succeed, they depend on confidentiality.
The company has issued the survey for a reason. Perhaps morale is low or there’s been a high rate of employee turnover. Either way, the company wants to figure out what they’re doing wrong so they can improve it. They also want their employees to feel more connected with their work and happier overall. Hence the employee engagement survey gets mass-emailed to all staff.
The company can only change problems they’re aware of. They’ll become aware of these problems if employees bring them up.
If an employee feels they cannot answer the survey honestly because they have concerns over confidentiality, everyone loses. The employee doesn’t voice their true concerns. The company never learns about these and goes right on doing what they’ve been doing. Morale can drop and more employees can quit or leave.
According to Qualtrics, these less-than-honest responses hurt the accuracy of the survey as a whole.
An employee engagement survey might seem like a good idea to get a reading on the pulse of the company. It turns out these surveys have lots of flaws.
Let’s talk about these now.
Employees only have to take one look at the questions on an employee engagement survey to know if their responses are anonymous. If the survey asks for title and income information, as well as other identifying questions, there’s no anonymity.
Since employees know they’ll get found out, why would they answer truthfully? They may fear repercussions and discipline for their honesty. It’s easier for them to fluff up their answers, hiding their true concerns and giving only positive responses.
As mentioned, this does nothing to help the company. It only hurts employee morale and job satisfaction in the long run.
Rajeev Peshawaria, in the SHRM article we linked you to before, brings up a good point. He says that most higher-level employees have so much on their plate that they don’t get around to doing the employee engagement survey.
Peshawaria also mentions that “average- or low-performing employees” are the only ones to fill it out. This skews the results, as the company doesn’t get a full picture of all employees’ concerns and thoughts.
Some employees don’t accidentally forget to complete the survey. They ignore it on purpose. If your company doesn’t mandate employees to do an engagement survey, then why should they? Some might not want to bother spending the time. Others might have concerns over confidentiality and anonymity.
Either way, once again, you only end up hearing from a portion of employees rather than everyone at the company.
One of the biggest hurdles to honestly filling out one of these surveys if the fear of repercussions, as we just talked about. The worst and most severe repercussion would be firing the employee.
In this Forbes advice column, a woman named Regan writes in to Liz Ryan. Regan received an employee engagement survey but hesitated to do it. She’d complained about her company’s management before, including going to her HR manager. Regan had concerns about confidentiality, which Liz Ryan said in this case was warranted.
In another situation, this Reddit user said they got fired after doing one of these surveys. Can that happen to you? Well, it depends on the company, of course, as well as what you said in the survey. We wouldn’t say getting fired is outside of the realm of possibility, though.
If you answered truthfully but had negative things to say and you got fired for it, you should certainly look into your legal rights. Your company could have broken confidentiality rules by firing you on the basis of survey responses.
To have any legal footing, we want to reiterate that you must have answered honestly. Making negative, inflammatory remarks just to get back at a bad boss or manager won’t help you. If you get fired for that, you’d have no legal recourse.
Are employee surveys mandatory? Whether a company mandates employee surveys of any sort will vary. If your company says you must fill one of these surveys out, then it’s best you do so.
Of course, forced participation of this nature has its own issues. There’s lack of anonymity for one, especially if you use your work computer for survey completion. You may also choose negative responses and have a gloomier outlook overall since you had no choice but to do the survey.
How to answer a company survey? Ideally, it’d behoove you to answer an employee engagement survey—or any other workplace survey—honestly. As we covered in the article, that’s not always possible. You could fear punishment and even termination of employment. In some offices, these repercussions could happen.
Only you know the kind of office you work in. If it’s a safe, nurturing environment where managers and higher-ups take criticism seriously, then you should feel safe to make valid complaints. If your workplace has a lot of tension already, and you have suspicions about some of the higher-ups, then you might not fill out the form as honestly.
Go with your gut when doing a company survey. Know that there’s little anonymity, especially with identifying questions. Confidentiality can vary from workplace to workplace as well.
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