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4 Min Read

Are Employee Engagement Surveys Really Anonymous?

Dr. Jeff Smith
Chief Product Officer at 15Five

As a psychologist focused on changing the world of work, my goal is to help organizations learn how to create psychologically safe environments for their people. When psychological safety is present in the workplace, employees feel comfortable and empowered to bring their whole selves to work each day, take calculated interpersonal risks, and give open and honest feedback. 

However, many individuals, teams, and organizations lack the security necessary for these conversations. That’s when conducting anonymous employee engagement surveys can help to increase candid, authentic, and useful feedback.

The risks of relying on anonymous feedback

As 15Five’s CEO David Hassell previously shared with Fast Company, the concept of anonymous feedback may present a number of concerns. These can include the fear of removing the details of feedback that are needed for prompt action; not receiving useful or actionable insights; and not knowing the specific person behind the feedback. But there are a number of ways to minimize the potential impact of these risks and turn anonymous employee engagement surveys into a powerful tool.

Anonymous feedback can paint a more accurate picture of engagement levels

Anonymous feedback helps to diversify and triangulate the feedback you receive. Triangulation means considering data from a variety of sources to improve your understanding of the full picture.

Data gained through anonymous engagement surveys is especially useful to look at alongside other forms of feedback, such as regular check-ins, 1-on-1s between team members and managers, team-level debriefs or retrospectives, and external reviews of your company. Plus, anonymous surveys offer everyone an opportunity to speak up without fear of consequences.

Pro tip: It’s useful to provide some guidelines for anonymous feedback, such as asking people to deliver the truth with kindness even if their identity won’t be associated with the feedback.

Offer your people a chance to share more openly and honestly

Research on 360 reviews shares that anonymous feedback more accurately reflects one’s perceptions when compared to non-anonymous feedback. Allowing your people to share their thoughts and opinions anonymously shows that you are supporting those who don’t feel safe instead of forcing them into silence, uncomfortable conversations, or leaving your company. Because the truth is while direct conversations are preferred, privacy is sometimes desired. 

Combating the curiosity to know who said what

Especially when comments reveal blind spots, we all, including myself, have a tendency to want to find out who the anonymous sharer is. But I challenge you to approach this from a personal growth mindset perspective; giving people the opportunity to share observations about your organization’s blind spots, even if they are unwilling or unable to share them directly, can help your business develop. 

Staying curious about feedback, whether it’s anonymous or not, can help you support high levels of organizational engagement and focus on long-term growth.

Pro tip: For surveys with text or open-ended responses, remind employees that those reviewing their responses might be able to deduce one’s identity from details.

The best way to gather feedback 

Conducting anonymous employee engagement surveys and asking for direct feedback shows that your organization wants to give a voice to everyone within it, and helps leaders make more informed decisions. Encouraging the free flow of feedback, learning what matters most to your people, and acting on the results you receive will allow you to build a more engaged and psychologically safe workplace.

Learn about 15Five’s employee engagement feature, Engagement+, to understand what qualities and behaviors are driving performance. 

Dr. Jeff Smith is the VP of Strategic Initiatives at 15Five, as well as a cognitive psychologist and foster dog enthusiast. Jeff’s mission is to use science to help people, teams, and organizations thrive. Jeff has an eclectic background, including leadership roles in learning and development, performance, strengths-based assessments, product, design, UX, CX, and innovation. Jeff loves to translate qualitative research into what’s next – he has been named a Master Inventor (twice), co-invented the Aspirational Workplace Transformation Process, co-authored over 125 IP publications, and is a co-inventor on 15 issued US patents. Jeff received his Ph.D. in Psychology with a minor in Design from North Carolina State University.

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