Research Power: Anonymous vs. Confidential Surveys

I like data. I like reviewing it, pulling out trends, and sharing insights. I also like when I get the opportunity to ask others what they like and get some anonymous feedback, because I believe that anonymity helps to improve the quality and quantity of responses.

Recently I was listening to a podcast, and the speaker mentioned offering a confidential survey, which he felt was more valuable than an anonymous one. I had to stop and consider the differences, and I realized there certainly may be times when offering confidential surveys can beat offering anonymous ones.

Types of surveys

  • Anonymous-Anonymous surveys collect information and aggregate it without leaving a “trail” to find the specific participant
  • Confidential-Confidential surveys collect information but tie the response back to a unique identifier for each participant. This allows a third party to follow up if need be on specific answers.

How they work and why they matter

I’ve seen the impact that suspicion/doubt has on response rates for anonymous surveys. If the people being surveyed do not think their responses are going to be protected, they will either lie, tone down the truth, or not respond at all. In the end those altered responses hurt everyone who the survey was intended to help.

In the past I’ve put together anonymous surveys for our staff to take, but inevitably there’s a manager here or there that wants me to find out who put in some responses. It’s always funny when I give them a look and reply, “You know this is anonymous, right? I put things in place so even I can’t tell who responded unless they put in unique information that applies only to them.” In the past it was puzzling to get that response; now I think it would sometimes be valuable if those had been confidential, not just anonymous.

For instance, if Bob puts on his survey that he’s feeling frustrated with management and doesn’t plan to stay longer than a year at the job, but his manager doesn’t know that Bob feels that way, then the information is virtually useless if it was gathered anonymously.

In the same scenario above, if we gathered that data in a confidential survey, I (or some other third party) could reach out and try to help diffuse the situation without the manager directly knowing who the respondent was. The employee is still protected, but the problem also now has the chance of being solved. Win-win!


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