It is one of the most commonly held beliefs in general opinion survey design – people should always be given the benefit of anonymity. It is conventional wisdom that people will not give their real opinions if they fear personal reprisals. Instead, you’ll end up with a report full of what people think you want to hear, and no real insight into what people are truly thinking. We all know that our private thoughts – those which most influence our actions – are typically a far cry from what we actually say to people face-to-face. However, as with every rule, there are exceptional circumstances when anonymity in opinion surveys can be destructive and dangerous. Today we check out the arguments for and against anonymity in staff satisfaction surveys, customer satisfaction surveys and other general opinion survey types.
Why Do Respondents Value Anonymity?
Many people won’t even consider taking a survey that is not anonymous. This may be because:
- They fear indirect reprisals for negative answers.
- They fear that their responses will be taken out of context, and used against them in some way.
- They don’t want other people to know sensitive information about them such as medical details, household income, age, etc.
What’s So Important About Anonymity?
Generally, anonymity is a good thing for the survey administrators as well as for respondents! This is because:
- Data will generally be more complete.
- Data will show less bias and more honesty, hence more accurate results.
- Compliance with privacy regulations is simpler if survey responses are anonymous.
When Is Anonymity in Opinion Surveys a Bad Thing?
However, like most rules in life, there are times when the adage that ‘anonymity is always best’ isn’t always the wise advice it seems. For example, what happens if:
In a staff satisfaction survey, several respondents claim that a manager has acted in ways that border on (or, are clearly) sexual harassment.
In a student survey, respondents claim that a teacher divulged other students’ grades to them.
In a survey of patients in a doctor’s office, one respondent says that she observed that one of the nurses had reddened eyes and was acting suspiciously, and suspected the influence of drugs.
What happens now? Are the allegations investigated? How can you get further information on them? Should you just let them rest?
These are difficult questions, and when instances such as the examples above turn up you may well wish that you hadn’t made the staff satisfaction survey or customer satisfaction survey an anonymous one. However, you need to remember one thing … if the survey hadn’t been anonymous, the person may well have chosen not to say anything. After all, the person hasn’t used any other channel to come forward.
What’s the Verdict?
Everybody has a right to privacy, and anonymous surveys offer a great way to help ensure feedback remains open and honest. However, the privacy of respondents cannot be allowed to create ways for ordinary justice processes to be circumvented.
Survey anonymity typically presents far more benefits than it does problems. If you don’t want the complication of having wild and unsubstantiated allegations made, simply design your survey with closed-ended questions (eg. no free text).
If you are truly concerned by the ethics of ignoring a staff or customer satisfaction survey response regarding an issue you feel can’t be ignored, offer respondents a street or email address to which they can send further details of the incident anonymously if they desire. However, there is no way that you can take disciplinary action or proceedings any further without the accuser volunteering more information about themselves and the incident in question.
Anonymity is a great way to elicit honest and open feedback from your staff or customers – but you must be willing to accept it and know how to deal with this information in a prudent manner.
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