Anonymous or Confidential Employee Surveys – The Differences Explained

Anonymous or Confidential Employee Surveys – The Differences Explained

Table of Contents


At first glance, anonymous and confidential employee surveys might seem the same. But in fact, they are not.

Anonymity refers to a situation where the identity of the respondent isn’t known by anyone doing the survey. Confidentiality refers to a situation where the identity of the respondent is known by the system administering the survey, but great steps are taken to protect that identity from being revealed to anyone.

Etymologically speaking, the two survey types match up to their word origin. Anonymous is the condition of not being identified by name or any data considered personal. While confidential is keeping one’s answers private or restricted. 

In an anonymous survey administered to employees, there is absolutely no way to tie that information back to that employee. So if you want other information from the respondent to get a fuller picture, you will have to ask those questions to them in the same survey.

In a confidential survey administered to employees, the information collected is tied back to the employee file on record. But this is done on the backend, so the privacy of the respondent is protected. Any unique identifiers that can be manually traced back to the respondent are not revealed by the survey provider, since that defeats the purpose. 

Rather, the objective of confidential surveys is to collect the information provided and analyze it in the context of certain predefined segments such as geography or demography, but not drill down to the actual response.

When to Use Each Type of Survey

When deciding what survey to use, it comes down to the type of data you want to explore and your objective for the survey.

There are several criteria you have to consider, which will determine if one is better suited over the other. We’ll cover these criteria.

The Number of Questions

If there are fewer questions you want to ask, a confidential survey is more appropriate. The answer to this question can be automatically tagged in the employee’s file, where you are able to see this new information in light of all the previously collected information and aggregate the findings.

However, if you are thinking of an anonymous survey, there is no way to extract more findings from that one or a few questions, unless you have several other questions in the same anonymous survey. So you will have to depend on listing as many questions as you need to get all the information areas, which may not translate into a positive experience for the surveyed employee.

Longitudinal vs Snapshot

If you want to compare survey findings to the last time the survey was done, or compare it historically to see where the information is trending, confidential surveys are more suitable. This is because they promise confidentiality of answers, but have a record to go back to which can be drilled according to the attributes organizations maintain within their HRIS (Ex. location, department, age, gender, etc.).

Whereas, if historical trends, either for exploratory reasons or benchmarking performance, are not important to you, the anonymous survey is an option, and might be easier to explain to an employee population that is more skeptical than most. It will allow you to take a snapshot, and collect responses from one point in history, without any reference to other data.

Aggregate Level Data vs Group Level Data

If you are collecting company-wide aggregate level data, anonymous surveys are a viable option. Whether you survey a whole organization, or a department, or a certain location, if the objective is to collect aggregate level data for that sample, then there is no harm in administering anonymous surveys.

You run into problems when you intend to not just collect aggregate level data, but also group such data based on smaller segments. Then, confidential surveys are the better choice.

Level of Trust 

Truthfully, both anonymous surveys and confidential surveys protect individual employee responses. It comes down to a matter of trust. If you want to give your employees that extra layer of assurance, then you could try an anonymous survey where the employees see that the information they will provide will not be tagged with any other existing information.

But you can communicate such trust in confidential surveys also, by making a promise to all employees that their answers will be protected. Platforms like WorkTango ensure this.

It is important to tell employees exactly how the data is being collected, and of course, communicate that badge of confidentiality that is guaranteed to all, to put any questions such as “Are employee surveys really confidential?” to rest. 

The Verdict, Anonymous or Confidential Surveys?

When it comes down to it, confidential surveys are much more useful to organizations because of the ability they give you to drill down into results. 

And, with employee survey vendors like WorkTango, you can deploy confidential surveys knowing that individual responses are protected.

Any advantage of anonymous surveys also applies to confidential surveys. For example, the ability to collect aggregate data and snapshot data can also be done by confidential surveys. 

However, the reverse is not true. Meaning, the advantages of confidential surveys do not apply to anonymous surveys. Because anonymous surveys always start from an absolute blank state, there is no possibility to make an inferences by cross-referencing with other data, for trending or descriptive purposes. 

On the issue of privacy, it’s only that anonymous surveys are perceived to be more private. So it’s customary to make a proclamation of privacy and security of responses by the surveyor.

Are Employee Surveys Really Confidential? 

So given confidential surveys are the ideal choice for most organizations, should we simply assume the best and turn a blind eye towards how it’s conducted? Absolutely not. There are certain pointers to be aware of when dealing with confidential employee surveys.

To understand the level of confidentiality of employee surveys, we should consider two perspectives. The organization’s perspective and the employee’s perspective.

Organization’s Perspective

The confidentiality threshold is the minimum number of responses that must be captured for the question before it can be displayed to the reviewer. For example, Worktango’s confidentiality threshold is 5, the HR Manager or People Leader won’t be able to see survey results, unless at least 5 responses are gathered for any attribute segmentation of the responses. Setting such a requirement ensures that employees do not worry about being the only ones to leave feedback.

Tip: Be sure to confirm with a new survey vendor how confidentiality thresholds work in their platform. Many platforms give the option to set your own and some platforms don’t have it at all and can erode employee trust.

The organizations could also have rules in place that govern how it conducts surveys. One of these governing principles could be the inclusion of an employee survey confidentiality statement before every survey. 

Whether the survey is sent via email, or if there is an access code for it, it’s important to assure in the copy that employees’ anonymity will be protected. All survey communication can accompany such a pledge that will ensure that confidentiality is one of the core values of the company.

Employee’s Perspective

From an employee’s perspective, there can be doubts, and rightly so. In a world that is rapidly becoming digitized, information accessibility comes at the cost of privacy. There are always measures in place, but there is also homework to be done on the part of any survey respondent, employee or otherwise.

If there are any questions that ask for names or exact title of held position, these could be causes for concern. As a matter of fact, any one question could trigger a doubt. The best way to deal with this is to create a forum whereby any survey question can be questioned. By explaining the purpose of every information field, the employee will be in a better frame of mind to fill out the survey.

Sometimes, to assuage fears, employees may want to see a third party administer the survey, who have their own sets of promises, besides the organization’s promise of protecting employee confidentiality. For example, refer to this Gallup confidential document, where they promise that at no point their client John Hopkins or any affiliate of the organization, “including senior leaders and managers, will be privy to the origins of specific feedback”.

Some employees may be more data-savvy and may have questions like where the data will be stored and for how long. It’s important to have these answers ready. They may also have questions more relevant to their working environment, such as who exactly is it that will see the group-level data of their responses.

Sometimes, determining the confidentiality of the survey depends on who is asking as well. Employees might be well within their right to ask questions like who will be seeing the data, if it’s someone at the managerial level, their team members, or someone else.

What Makes Most Sense

There is no substitution for transparency. While data privacy is a legal requirement in most countries, data confidentiality is not. But without data confidentiality, surveys are doomed to fail.

So confidentiality is not just important for the protection of your employees, but for the sake of quality and unbiased responses, without which surveying does not amount to much. 

When surveys are confidential, the answers are more reliable. Each survey cannot be filled twice, they may go out to the wrong person, or the respondent can’t change their answer if they are called to. These are all greater risks with anonymous surveys, but not confidential surveys.

Confidential surveys build trust the right way. It is clear about what it sets out to, and thus builds trust among employees who see that the organization cares enough to get feedback the right way.

While confidentiality is the way to go, it’s not a guarantee for all platforms. Whether you are the surveyee or the surveyor, it’s a good idea to ask or understand beforehand what type of confidentiality promise is in effect.