Why Your Surveys Need to be Anonymous

Why Your Surveys Need to be Anonymous

If you want the unvarnished truth from your surveys, you're going to need to give the respondent anonymity.

Dustin Hughes
Dustin Hughes
Content Specialist
Why Your Surveys Need to be Anonymous

"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." - Oscar Wilde

That bit of insight from playwright Oscar Wilde was true in the 19th century, and it's true for women, men, and everyone else today. That's why it's important to give people anonymity when you're soliciting feedback. If you want the unvarnished truth from your surveys, you're going to need to give the respondent anonymity.

Why Should Surveys Be Anonymous?

It's about the freedom to be candid. When a survey respondent knows their answers are totally anonymous, they can speak freely. That freedom to speak the truth helps an organization learn valuable information and honest feelings a person might otherwise be hesitant to provide.

If an employee is taking a survey, they want to be sure their answers can't be tied back to them, Experience Management company Qualtrics writes. Most employees wouldn't want to say anything negative about their company to their supervisors. They don't want to be seen as "not a team player," or as a problem employee.

And likewise, if a person depends on the services of a homeless shelter or treatment center, they may be too afraid of retribution to give the kind of candid feedback that is needed.

Making a survey anonymous - preventing any personal data from being collected or seen by the people running the survey - is the most important way to let your clients, customers, or employees know that they are safe in giving you the information you need.

What's The Downside to Anonymity?

There's a balancing act between getting accurate and honest results, and getting actionable results.

A downside of an anonymous survey is that you can't reach out to a dissatisfied client or customer directly to try to make things right.

Also, answers given may be overly broad, or non-specific, writes surveytown.com. And an anonymous survey prevents you from contacting the respondent to get clarifying information that would be helpful in addressing the problem.

Another downside is that some people may give bad faith answers if they know they don't have to "own" their information, surveytown.com cautions. That could lead to wild, untruthful, or even abusive answers (think of anonymous Internet comments, now picture that directed at your organization).

There's no way to guarantee everyone will be totally honest when taking an anonymous survey, but the best defense is to give the survey to a large enough sample of your target population that you can filter out the outliers from the valid answers.

Is Anonymous the Only Option?


There are other options companies or organizations sometimes use when launching a survey. They are:

1. An open or non-anonymous survey

These surveys ask for a respondent's personal information. When you know who your respondents are, you have a better chance at valuable feedback, Gillion Vaughn at Zef.fi notes.

With an open survey, your organization can save valuable time to address pressing issues, and you can follow up with your respondents to find out why they answered the way they did, Vaughn writes.

But the downside of an open survey is that a person might feel coerced in their answers. If their identity is known to the organization, there's a possibility of retribution or scorn. That's especially true for employee surveys or if the respondent depends on services or care from the organization asking the questions. That can lead to overly positive feedback that isn't very valuable for an organization looking to improve.

2. A confidential survey

This option can be used when someone outside your organization runs the survey. The answers are anonymous to the organization, but available to the survey provider. They can follow up for any details or information with the respondents.

This is good for getting detailed, actionable data, while still offering privacy protections and giving the respondent the freedom to answer honestly, Vaughn writes.

However, having an outside organization run every survey can mean more time and expense, and there's still a risk of the respondent being intimidated by having their identity known.