Sign up with your email address to be the first to know about new products, VIP offers, blog features & more.

Employee Survey, can companies track individual answers?

employee survey

Do your employees trust you enough to fill out an employee survey?

Employee surveys

The topic of employee surveys is always a controversial topic. Management wants to hear employee opinions and employees want to do the right thing but are afraid their answers can be tracked. If you have read this blog, you know that I am always thinking about corporate culture. Part of this is because I believe that employees who believe and trust the leadership team can make for a more cohesive, fun and effective workplace. 

Can management track employee survey results to the individual level and as an employee should I be afraid of retaliation? Simply put, employees should not be afraid.

I have been involved in these surveys for over 15 years. I have helped create them, purchased them and tried to encourage employee participation with employee surveys. I am here to tell you that in all my years around these surveys, I have never seen or heard of management having the ability to track individual responses. This week I try to explain why employees should not fear the employee satisfaction survey.

When an employer asks employees to fill out an a company survey, there are a number of fears:

  • Big Brother is watching over the employee and can trace the answers back to the individual.
  • Comments and writing style can be interpreted and traced back to the individual.
  • Leadership will hold grudges against departments and managers will hold grudges against individuals.

Ohhhh, the paranoia and mistrust.

This goal of this post is three-fold:

  1. Debunk the myths that individual answers are read, tracked and hunted down.
  2. Provide the business logic behind why a company would NOT (and should not) track individual answers.
  3. Explain why employees SHOULD all participate in these surveys.

I understand why many companies end up with low participation when it comes to employee surveys. In some companies, the leadership or the HR department sends out a single email with a link to the survey. The company will give the survey all of 20 seconds at the company meeting and then expects everyone to participate.

Leadership should dedicate real-time to explaining why and how the results of these surveys can make a difference. If an unfamiliar list of questions arrives in my inbox, I am going to get a little suspicious on a good day. Catch me on a bad day and I will get down right pissy. Unfamiliar links to web sites will make me suspicious and think that there is a virus, bot, or spam in my inbox. We tell our children not to talk to strangers driving windowless vans, and we tell employees not to click on suspicious looking links. Can you blame me for not participating? Employees need to understand why taking a few minutes out of their day to answer survey questions can make a difference. Employee surveys should be explained at least 3 different times, three different ways. If I receive the message via email, hear the message from the company leader and hear the message from my manager, I am probably going to understand this is important.

Employee surveys SHOULD BE (and usually are) conducted by an outside third-party to add credibility and protect anonymity. Hence, the link to the unfamiliar website. The goal of collecting this information is NOT so that companies can comb through responses and find out who has a negative attitude. Seriously, no one has the time to sift through the answers. The goal of the surveys is two-fold:

  1. Figure out what changes the leadership should make to IMPROVE the work place.
  2. Figure out what employees like and where leadership should NOT make changes. Employees really do appreciate the company picnic!

Best Place to Work lists are often made via employee surveys. An outside, third-party will survey all of the employees in the company in a number of areas, and the companies with the best results and the most participation make the list.

The categories can include the following:

  • Management transparency: the amount of information management shares with the company. Does management share the vision of the company or explain the financials?
  • Benefits: Is the employer’s benefits competitive with companies of a similar size in the local area and industry?
  • Training and Development: Is the company investing in the employee force with employee training?
  • Vacation: Is the vacation policy competitive with other companies in the industry?
  • Career: Is your manager helping you grow your career?

High scoring companies are then sent an in-depth questionnaire that goes into details of the company. Companies with the best answers make the list.

Making the list helps in the following ways:

  • It’s always good when an outside third-party validates to the employees that the company is a great place to work. This reinforces to the employee that the company is a good place to work and helps with retention. Employees have bragging rights they can flaunt to their peers which helps employee referrals.
  • Smart candidates will search out the companies that make these lists and apply to these companies before applying to companies who do not make the list.
  • Internally, making the list becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When an outside third-party is telling employees they are working for a Best Work Place, the employees take pride in the company, the building, who they hire, and their work ethic.
  • The Best Place to Work logo is listed on business cards and in email signatures as a subtle reminder to employees and marketing tool to potential recruits and customers alike. This logo legitimizes the business.

In talking to my HR peers, some of them have had a hard time making these lists because the employees do not want to fill out the survey. These peers work in companies that have all the characteristics of a Best Place to Work, but they are missing the employee participation in the survey. To make these lists, the employer needs a very high percentage of the employees participating in the survey.

Right or wrong, low participation within an employee survey is interpreted to mean the employee force isn’t engaged, doesn’t care or has nothing good to say.

This assumption makes sense. Low participation should not happen in a company where employees are engaged and are proud of where they work. If the management team explains how filling out the survey helps the business, why wouldn’t an engaged workforce that believes they have a great company help with marketing, recruiting, and making the company even better?

Aggregate level results of the survey are shared with the management team and this information is very valuable because the results can help leadership FIX and improve any shortcomings with the corporate culture, benefits, vacation policy etc.

I have never seen individual names attached to survey results or individual comments.

Debunking the myths:

As an HR professional, I do NOT want to ask employees to participate in a survey that can be tracked to the individual level. If a manager wants to get identify individual comments, then go mid evil on them and cut out their tongues. If they need individual level feedback, they probably are not going to be able to keep it quiet and we are focusing on the wrong thing. I WANT the data to be anonymous for the following reasons:

  • The company knows they are NOT going to receive honest feedback if the answers are personally identifiable. The information will be what the managers WANT to hear, and not what the managers NEED to hear. 
  • There is too much risk at stake. Who knows where this information could land or how it could be interpreted. I would literally vote with my job if I thought this information was going to be tracked to the individual level. HR would be useless in this type of non-trusting and suspicious environment. Yes, I really would have to find another place to work. Within a profession that already has a bad rep, no one would trust HR. No would trust management and who wants to work in that environment?
  • At the end of the day, data is the most effective at the aggregate level. Whether we have 50, 100 or 100,000 comments, focusing on the 1 or two negative (or positive) outliers is taking away focus from the real issues. Leadership needs to accept that we are not going to please everyone on all of the dimensions surveyed. There will ALWAYS be someone who doesn’t appreciate everything or interprets the questions in the literal sense and doesn’t see the big picture. There will always be a “worst” score and if we solve that worst score, the next worst score will take it’s place.
  • Working in HR I have talked with the folks that are responsible for these surveys. I know of more than one company that has been subpoenaed for individual information and they were not able to produce it because it literally didn’t exist. (FYI, Suing your employer is not the way to remain anonymous in an employee survey folks)
  • No vendor that administers survey’s wants their results trackable to the individual level. If the word got out that the third-party administering the employee survey is sharing individual comments and results with management, we would hear about it. Glassdoor, Reddit, and TechCrunch would be spreading the gossip like wildfire. 

Next time you are worried about your individual answers being tracked, think about the downside for management and the survey provider if the word got out. It just isn’t worth it. Companies spend a LOT of money to run these survey’s and it isn’t to ferret out any individual employees.

Next week post: what leadership can do to reduce paranoia around employee surveys. 

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

If you felt this post was valuable please subscribe here. I promise no spam,

“like” us on Facebook, I read all comments below. Thank you!