The senior manager in my department was able to figure out which survey was mine.
Q: I work for a large organization, and each year the company expects everyone to complete an employee survey. The survey, which contains questions about work, benefits, motivation and practices, also allows us some room to make our own specific comments. It is advertised as being completely anonymous.
This year, the senior manager in my department was able to figure out, based on the text entered in the comments section, which survey was mine, and called me into the office for a (nonthreatening) discussion of the issues I raised.
Is this normal? And what does it say about anonymous surveys? — Howard
A: If management is explicitly playing up the survey’s anonymity, tossing aside that entire premise after the fact is weird. Even though the follow-up conversation was “nonthreatening,” you might rethink how you respond to these surveys in the future.
And even if this was a totally innocuous one-off, and your manager followed up with you for completely practical reasons, you might also wonder if the ones you answered in the past were as anonymous as you’d assumed and question management’s trustworthiness in general.
While having an open comments section seems well intentioned, it’s not that surprising that it might result in entries that make some employees identifiable. And I suspect that some managers overestimate the payoff of anonymous feedback.
After all, anonymity has downsides. I’ve addressed the problems it raises in peer performance reviews: The theory is that it will lead to more honest feedback, but in practice it can just be another venue for office politics and score settling.
So the question is whether you would have offered the same comments without anonymity. It makes sense that systemic problems can be more efficiently identified and addressed through truly anonymous feedback. But perhaps the company ought to also make sure there are other avenues for ideas and comments that employees don’t mind putting their name to.
That’s more of an issue for management. But your situation reminds me of an acquaintance who always insists on signing his name to anonymous feedback forms, on the theory that if you’re not willing to attach your name to what you say, then you shouldn’t say it. I don’t know that I fully agree, but it’s a good standard to keep in mind when you’re not really sure just how confidential your feedback really is.