I Need You To Know Who I Am

Staff surveys, and why forced anonymity sucks.

In a previous life working for Megacorp Inc., I shared some responsibility for surveying staff on how they felt about working there. In common with most employee surveys, we forced anonymity on our people. Apparently this was done so that staff could speak up, and feedback honestly and openly, without fear of retribution.

What this enforced anonymity indicated to me is that the business has a deeper problem, a lack of trust. I took a look at some of the data from the previous five years surveys, which showed me there was growing, strong disagreement to statements such as:

  • It is safe to speak up
  • Change is managed well here
  • Megacorp Inc. keeps things simple

Conversely – the number of people strongly agreeing with these statements had flatlined over the same period of time.

I’m no expert, but I’m seeing things here that make me think enforced anonymity maybe isn’t the key to unlocking open honest feedback.

I showed my findings to the divisional Managing Director who agreed to meet with me and talk about what I was seeing. He never showed up for the meeting, then cancelled a rearranged meeting before telling me I should take the information to HR. ‘People stuff – that’s their job’. In this case, I think you can add a total lack of interest to the lack of trust I mentioned earlier.

This data shows me there are people at work who do not feel they can speak up for fear of retribution, and I have experienced that myself too. However I’m no fan of anonymity, and I believe this fear is something we need to help people through. Forcing anonymity on people is not helping. In it’s own way – this simple act reinforces the kind of behavior we are saying that we don’t want.

When I worked on the survey team, I always asked if we could make anonymity optional, so that those who choose to stand by their comments can do so. My request was always refused, though never with a satisfactory explanation.

When I completed the survey myself, I used to frig the system by adding my name in every open comment box I could, knowing that colleagues would go in behind the scenes and redact my name, and the name of anyone else trying to be heard. My reason for doing this was not purely mischievous, more importantly it was driven by a desire to be engaged in making our work better.

If I have ideas about how we might work differently and you really want my opinion, then you need to know who I am so we can act together. In these circumstances, anonymity is completely disempowering. What your enforced anonymity says to me is that you don’t really want to work coactively with me and with others; you are just using the opportunity to survey our feelings and attitudes as a means of satisfying yourself.

I often spent time on the road, visiting colleagues in offices all over the country. When I asked how they felt about the surveying process, two things regularly came up:

We don’t trust that the survey is anonymous

Nothing changes as a result of what we say

Pretty much says it all, huh.

The next time you are tasked with surveying the attitude of your staff, or asked to complete the survey, consider this: I need you to know who I am; otherwise, what’s the point?

Note: A version of this post first appeared on HRExaminer in January 2015.