The Imperatives of Employee Survey Identity Protection and Confidentiality


To land the big scoop journalists work hard to gain their source’s confidence. Not infrequently, identity protection accompanies trust. Without that veil of obscurity, a lot of headline stories would never see the light of day.  Deep Throat, the secret informant behind Watergate, is one of the most notorious. It was 30 years before Mark Felt was revealed as the tipster. More recently, an article by Washington Post reporter Callum Borchers affirms how unnamed sources connected with the Russia/U.S. meddling investigation are granted anonymity by media because they’re discussing sensitive information without authorization and could be fired if caught. There’s a lot of hostility out there when it comes to candor. Sneak, snitch, squealer, rat are just a few synonyms for “informant”- defined innocently enough as “a person who gives information to another”.  So why would anyone in their right mind risk retribution by answering an employee survey, giving honest information, without guarantees of identity protection?

While whistleblowing may be a strong comparative to forthright employee survey responses their frankness fears are common and legitimate. Revelations about a safety breach, abuse of power or untenable situation threaten livelihoods if information gets into the wrong hands. Like former CIA employee, Edward Snowden found (after disclosing classified details about top-secret surveillance programs) truthfulness has a way of jeopardizing reputations and careers.

Are anonymity and confidentiality synonymous?

Academics have investigated the influence of survey privacy on respondents for a long time. A 1939 issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology featured an assessment of signed versus unsigned attitude questionnaires.

In 2007 a fascinating academic paper written by Thomas J. Whelan for North Carolina State University¹ explored whether university respondents of a web-based survey could distinguish between confidentiality and anonymity in different experimental conditions. In the anonymous format, respondents didn’t indicate their identity. Respondents completing the confidential format were asked to provide their name and student ID number. Significantly, informed consent forms read and signed by all participants prior to beginning the survey made privacy assurances clear: records would be kept strictly confidential and responses would be anonymous. The survey focus: academic dishonesty.

Not surprisingly survey respondents asked to self-identify, and later asked to rate their certainty the survey was confidential, were apprehensive about confidentiality and less forthcoming in their responses – despite informed consent assurances.  Responses from those falling into the anonymous survey experiment weren’t nearly as negative.

When we talk about employee engagement surveys we tend to use confidentiality and anonymity interchangeably. But they really aren’t.

Confidentiality is a Latin derivative of confidenti, the state of keeping or being kept secret or private. Another definition suggests it involves a set of rules or a promise that limits access or places restrictions on certain types of information.

Anonymity comes from the Greek word anonymia, meaning “without a name” or “namelessness”.

Whelan’s 450 undergraduate participants were less apprehensive about their survey answers under anonymous conditions.  A justifiable number of whistleblowers who impart highly sensitive information seek confidentiality as part of their anonymity. People participating in employee engagement surveys expect and deserve the same.

Organizations authentically committed to soliciting and acting on employee feedback have a duty to themselves to incorporate strong identity protection measures on several fronts. Employee engagement survey providers like TalentMap can help. Using a 3rdparty to handle and measure employee engagement data adds an extra layer of privacy protection, increases employee feedback survey participation rates and generates the kind of straightforward insights that can headline major performance gains.

As Whelan writes: “Most people don’t have accurate knowledge of privacy technology and the vulnerabilities of the computer systems running the surveys; at the same time, they may have erroneous beliefs about what are and are not safe practices for online behavior. Therefore, subjective perceptions of anonymity, despite assurances of anonymity, may have a significant impact on how people answer….”

Identity protection is a substantial concern for respondents. Perceptions that personal identities can be linked to responses inhibits honest feedback. Less than honest feedback diminishes survey data reliability.  And post-survey action planning and decision making based on unreliable data, well, that’s another discussion for another time.

¹Anonymity and confidentiality: Do survey respondents know the difference?

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