Should You Fill Out That HR Survey

Hi Evil HR Lady,

We’ve just received word from our HR team that we’re being asked to participate in a workplace job satisfaction survey. It was made clear in the email that the emails we received contained unique survey codes for each recipient. The statement from the HR team was that this code would only be used for aggregate statistical information. However, having a background in sending commercial email, it’s highly likely that the unique survey code and questions could be traced back to my individual email address (and ultimately back to me). 

The question is, knowing that the HR team could trace my individual survey back to me, should I participate in the survey at all? I’m concerned they are specifically looking to target unhappy individuals by helping them to the door faster. I also know that lying on the survey to make it look like everything is great is really no better. Personally, I’m not particularly fond of the idea of this survey in the first place as I don’t know how many people would be truly honest.

Should I participate? If so, what kinds of responses should I give them?

Well, here’s the thing. You’re absolutely right about them being able to trace the answers back. The question is, will they. If it’s being done by an outside firm (which is probably is, I doubt your HR team is sophisticated enough to pull this off without an outside firm), there is a big chance that your HR department truly never will see anything but aggregate data.

That said, let’s talk about aggregate data. Once upon a time, I managed a small department with 4 direct reports. My manager wanted me to undergo a 360 evaluation, which was fine. My direct reports were assured that their responses would be 100 percent anonymous. And they were. Except for the part that they broke down the results by exempt and non-exempt employees. I had 3 exempt direct reports and one non-exempt direct report. Oops, her answers are no longer anonymous. And then with 3 exempt employees? How hard is it to figure out who is saying what? Not hard at all. Especially since they included the “long form” answers on my report. I worked with these people every day. It wasn’t at all difficult to tell who said what.

Now, either I’m a manager that walked on water (pats self on back) or my direct reports were all smart enough to know that I would be able to figure out who was saying what and did the appropriate sucking up. They were smart, savvy techy HR people who undoubtedly figured out that if they were mean it could come back to bite them. (That said, none of them were mean people, they were all awesome. Best department ever.)

And even though this a a company wide survey, when they break it down, it may not be difficult to tell. “Here we have the marketing department at the Nobsville facility broken down by race and gender!” Yeah, there goes your anonymity.

So my point (and I do have one) is that even if HR is being honest that it will all be anonymous, depending on how they break the data down, it may be blatantly obvious who said what.

So, should you participate? Absolutely. They are probably tracking your email address and you’ll get bugged until you respond. But what should you say? Only what you would say to your boss’s face.

Not enough vacation? Absolutely, comment on that.

Pay below market average? Absolutely comment on that.

You’re blissfully  happy with your work-life balance? Tell the truth.

Your relationship with your  manager? Errrr, be as honest as you can be without being rude. Remember, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Because, unless you have 40 co-workers who all have the same job title, it may be broken down to identifiable levels.

Because if your boss is a jerk, him finding out that his employees think he’s a jerk is unlikely to make him take a deep look at his management techniques and make major changes. No, he’s likely to go full out monster on you. You don’t need that.

I love surveys. I love data. (See that Techy HR person thing above.) I would love to have an employee survey that was 100 percent honest, but I also totally understand that you’ve got to look out for yourself. So, my advice? Honest on company wide policies, and polite on departmental practices.

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8 thoughts on “Should You Fill Out That HR Survey

  1. We had one of these anonymous surveys. There was no unique code but the extensive demographic required made it unneeded. Out of seven people we had only one college educated African American single female with one child, one college educated Caucasian single female with no children, one high-school educated Caucasian married male with no children, etc. There was nothing anonymous about this.

    The other half of this was that for any area of the survey which came out as “improvement needed,” boss would have to create a measurable work plan to correct it and we would all be part of the plan. We were all on our best behavior filling out the survey and boss loved the results which showed s/he was the best boss to have every bossed in the history of the world.

  2. My work has done this twice. Both times were run by an outside company and they will only return data in the aggregate as long as it’s not identifiable. So my department got department results but not all the groups in the department got groups level results because some of the data would have become identifiable. Of couse YMMV, I work for a 8000+ person company. 🙂

  3. I also work for an 8,000+ employee company and we have one every year, run by Gallup. I see what my managers receive, and it is only aggregate data. My direct boss only has 5 direct reports, so it isn’t too difficult to figure out who answered how. There have been a couple of dissatisfied employees for the past couple of years, and they’re always negative. Luckily, it’s all just rating with no verbiage.

  4. i’ve filled a number of these. They are pretty pointless. I’ve never noticed they bring about any change.

  5. The difference between anonymity and confidentiality should also be taken into consideration, explained as needed, and treated seriously.

  6. So here’s the thing. Our higher ups are all about “engagement” Survey comes. Results are out. Our departmental group is very engaged…ruins the curve. We adore our supervisors, we love to come to work, we think our salaries are fair, yada, yada , yada. Every other department lower than 40%. Yet administration makes us sit in 3 hour meetings to “improve” our engagement. sigh

  7. I work for a company that runs surveys like these. If you’re worried about confidentiality, ask about the threshold for reporting data. If the vendor is handling data appropriately they shouldn’t provide results for small sample sizes, say less than 5 people, because it is too easy in those cases to figure out who said what.

    However, also keep in mind that your manager may see your open ended responses verbatim, so if you say nasty things it may not be too difficult for them to recognize your writing style and figure out it was you.

  8. I work in IT and talk with a ton of IT people. There is a new trend of installing keystroke loggers right before company surveys go out. That way management can know who is saying what on a survey that is supposed to be anonymous. We all know the web is not anonymous but the great places to work survey is also easily hackable by keystroke loggers. Two things have become apparent. One “the great places to work” badge no longer has any value. Two companies now secretly fire employees who do not rate the company highly on these surveys. You might want to leave some well-intentioned constructive comment on the survey but in the day of Enterprise key stroke loggers don’t do it if you value your job.

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