Anonymous Vs Confidential Surveys: What’s The Difference?

Philip Cleave
January 11, 2024
Picture depicting the importance of survey respondent's privacy

While you may be forgiven for thinking that anonymous and confidential surveys are the same, the fact is they’re not.

With an anonymous survey the identity of the respondent isn’t known by anyone doing the survey. By contrast, with confidential surveys 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.

When an anonymous survey is administered to staff, there is absolutely no way of tying that information back to that employee. Therefore, if you want additional information from that respondent to give you a more complete picture, then you’ll have to ask those questions to them in that same survey.

With a confidential survey that is administered to employees, the information that is gathered can be tied back to the employee record that an organization holds for them. However, this is done on the backend, in order to protect the privacy of that respondent. Any unique identifiers that can be manually traced back to the respondent are not revealed by the survey provider, since that would defeat the aim of confidentiality.

The objective of confidential surveys is to gather the information provided and analyze it in the context of specific predefined segments such as demography or geography, without drilling down into the actual responses.

When should you use each type of survey?

To answer this question, it simply depends on the type of data you want to explore and your survey’s objective.

There are different types of criteria you need to think about, which will determine if one is better suited over another, which we’ll explore now.

The volume of questions

If you only want to ask a few survey questions, then a confidential survey will be a better fit for you. The answer to a question can be automatically tagged in an employee’s file, allowing you to see this new information in light of all the previously gathered data and aggregate the findings.

However, if you’re considering an anonymous survey, there is no way to extract more findings from that one question, unless you have several other relevant questions in the same anonymous survey. Therefore, you will have to depend on listing as many questions as you can to gather all the information areas you need, which may not translate into a positive experience for the surveyed employee.

Longitudinal vs snapshot

If you need to compare your survey findings to the previous time that your survey was completed, or compare it historically to check where that information may be trending, a confidential survey would be more appropriate. This is because while they promise confidentiality, there is a record to go back to which can be drilled down into according to the attributes an organization maintains within their Human Resources Information System (HRIS).

However, if historical trends, either for exploratory reasons or benchmarking performance purposes are not important to you, the anonymous survey is an option that might be easier to explain to your employees. It will allow you to take a snapshot, and collect responses from one point in history, without needing a reference to any other data.

Aggregate level data vs group level data

If you want to collect organization-wide aggregate level data, anonymous surveys can be a viable option. Whether you’re surveying a whole organization, a department, or a specific location, if your objective is to collect aggregate level data for that sample, then there is no harm in administering anonymous surveys.

You’ll only run into problems if you not only intend to collect aggregate level data, but also group such data based on smaller segments. In this scenario, confidential surveys are likely to be the better choice.

Degree of trust

While both anonymous and confidential surveys can protect individual employee responses, what you decide to use comes down to yours and your employees' level of trust in these surveys. If you want to give your staff an extra layer of assurance, then you could try an anonymous survey where the employees will see that the information they provide will not be tagged with any other existing information.

However, you can communicate this level of trust in confidential surveys too, if you make a promise to all your employees that their answers will be protected.

Ultimately, it’s important to tell employees exactly how their data is being collected, and of course, communicate that this confidentiality is guaranteed for everyone, which should put any questions such as “Are employee surveys really confidential?” to rest.

Anonymous or confidential surveys? Which is best?

There is an argument for saying confidential surveys are more useful for organizations because of the ability they provide for you to drill down into results.

Many advantages of anonymous surveys also apply to confidential surveys. For example, with a confidential survey you can also collect aggregate and snapshot data.

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

Are employee surveys really confidential?

So, if an organization decides that the confidential survey is the best option for them, should they just turn a blind eye to how it’s conducted?

Definitely not. There are several areas to be aware of when dealing with confidential employee surveys, which we will go on to look at next.

The organization’s perspective

The confidentiality threshold refers to the minimum number of responses that must be captured for a particular question before it can be displayed to the reviewer. For example, if you set your confidentiality threshold to 5, then your HR team wouldn’t be able to see the survey results, unless at least 5 responses were gathered for any attribute segmentation of the responses. Setting this kind of requirement ensures that employees do not worry about being the only ones to leave feedback.

Organizations can also have rules in place that govern how they conduct surveys. So, one of these governing principles could be the inclusion of an employee survey confidentiality statement to be read by every employee before they take your survey.

Whether your survey is sent via email, or you need an access code for it, it’s important to ensure in your copy that your employees’ anonymity will be protected. All survey communications can include such a pledge that will ensure that confidentiality is one of your company’s core values.

Employee’s perspective

From your employees’ point of view, there can be doubts. This is not so surprising when you consider how much the world is becoming digitised, as information becomes ever more accessible, sometimes at the cost of privacy. While there are always measures in place, there is also a lot of homework to be done on the part of the survey respondent, employee or otherwise.

If there are any questions that ask for names or the exact title of a job position that is held, these can be causes for concern. In fact, any one question can 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, it will put an employee in a better frame of mind to fill out a survey.

Sometimes, to help allay their fears, employees may want to see a third party administer their survey, who have their own sets of promises, besides the organization’s promise of protecting employee confidentiality.

Some employees may be more data-savvy and be keen to have the answer to questions like where their data will be stored and for how long. They may also have questions that are more relevant to their working environment, such as who exactly will see the group-level data of their responses.

Occasionally, determining the confidentiality of a survey depends on who is asking as well. Employees might be well within their right to ask questions like who will see the data, and whether that person is a manager, one of their team members, or someone else.

Concluding thoughts

We hope you found this blog interesting. And if you weren’t already familiar with anonymous and confidential surveys, you now understand their differences and when it’s best to use them.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for transparency. While data privacy is a legal requirement in most countries, the same cannot be said for data confidentiality. Yet confidentiality is crucial, not just for the protection of your employees, but for the sake of quality and unbiased responses. This can make all the difference when it comes to the reliability and value of your survey results, which is why confidential surveys tend to have the edge over anonymous surveys, when it comes to surveying staff.

Optimize the success of your survey

Making your surveys anonymous or confidential are both great ways to protect the privacy of your respondents. Yet, if you’re to gain the greatest value, you still need the right tools to support whatever approach you take, create great looking surveys, gather feedback and be able to quickly identify your most valuable insights.

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