Anonymity and Confidentiality in Employee Research

Paper BagAnonymity and confidentiality has always been a contentious issue in employee research and seems to have become more so over the last year or so.

At The Survey Initiative, we frequently facilitate pre-survey focus groups, and always include a telephone number/email address in our questionnaires allowing potential participants to contact us directly, which has led to many conversations along the lines of “I’m the only bloke aged 35 who’s been here for 10 years and works in Sales & Marketing so you’ll know who I am”.

Being an ethical organisation, we conduct all of our surveys strictly in accordance with the Market Research Society’s Code of Conduct, the key applicable rules being:

Rule 26. Members must ensure that the anonymity of participants is preserved unless participants have given their informed consent for their details to be revealed or for attributable comments to be passed on.

Rule 27. Members must take reasonable steps to ensure that anonymisation is effective, with reference to developments in technology and to the data environment into which data are released.

Which is rather vague in that it outlines what we must do, but not how to go about it.

So what do we do to guarantee anonymity/confidentiality?

It’s probably easier to explain this through the process we use for paper surveys. You receive a questionnaire from us, you fill it in, you put it in the supplied Freepost envelope and send it back to us. So far, your answers and opinions (unless you have shown them to anybody else) are between you, your pen and your piece of paper – nobody at your organisation has seen them. Once your questionnaire is received, your responses are loaded onto the survey database by our dedicated team. Remember that you are completely anonymous to him/her. He/she has no idea who you are. And as we are processing 100s, in fact 1000s of questionnaires from all over the UK, all over the world, the team’s concern is to load the data as quickly and as accurately as possible – they do not have the time (or the inclination!) to peruse individual questionnaires to identify people who they don’t even know.

Effectively the same process applies to online surveys, where Freepost = hitting submit and your responses are sent directly to our secure server this time missing out the middle man of the data capture team. Once again – nobody in your organisation has seen them.

And why do we ask these demographic questions?

It’s important for us to be able to measure and understand engagement across the pillars – Engaging managers, Realising potential, Strong strategic narrative, Employee voice and Integrity and across topics such as Day to Day Life, Communication, Leadership etc. It’s also important that we do so at an organisational level as well as at a more local level.

Whereas engagement may be high overall or by pillar or by topic for the organisation, we need to look at the data by department or location or region or whatever to see if there are any comparatively low scoring areas which are otherwise hidden. If for example you are telling us that communication in your area is poor, it could be overlooked if communication is generally very good in your organisation. The problem here is that you could feel ’every year I tell you communication is poor and nothing ever gets done about it’. But if we can identify that your team/department has an issue, then we can address it, learn from other teams what they’re doing better, enable you to devise an action plan with your manager.

We ask these questions not to identify you as an individual – we have no interest in that whatsoever – but to enable targeted steps to be taken to improve your working life.

There is a comment attached to rule 27 (above) of the MRS Code of Conduct – Members should be particularly careful that they do not inadvertently identify participants. For example this may arise where sample sizes are very small (such as business and employee research).

To ensure this, in the intro blurb and immediately before the demographic questions section of our questionnaires we clearly specify the minimum number of responses below which we will not report. If for example there are fewer than 10 responses from males in your organisation, or fewer than 10 from people in your team, or fewer than 10 who have been there for 15+ years then we will not report on those cells. The responses are included in overall reporting, but we do not report on groups which are too small in headline cross-tabulations, PowerPoint presentations, workbooks etc.

We understand the importance of anonymity and confidentiality to you, and appreciate your participation in our surveys which is entirely on a voluntary basis, and accordingly treat you with the respect you deserve.

The Survey Initiative is an award-winning organisation with over 18 years expert experience in the field of employee research. If you would like more information about how we can help your organisation with or any aspect of employee research, then give us a call us on 01255 870735 or contact us via our website.