In This investigation, Whodunnit doesn't matter

If you want to discover something about workplace culture, an employee engagement survey is the best way to get insights. But there’s an ongoing debate: Should your survey be anonymous? In your opinion, which scenario is better?


  1. Leadership knows from its latest employee survey that many workers are struggling and feeling disengaged from the organization.
  2. Leadership knows the engagement responses of Ronald, Celeste and Patrice are down, allowing their manager to ferret out and “fix the problem.”

It’s human nature to want to resolve workplace issues at the source. But managers in “fix mode” often make matters worse by blaming, berating, or misunderstanding workplace dynamics. Often, they aren’t prepared to properly handle negative feedback, especially when it’s aimed at them. They sometimes lack the emotional intelligence needed to truly understand people and relationships in the workplace.

And in this case, the real source isn’t Ronald, Celeste or Patrice. The real problem here is the manager. Why? Because she doesn’t know her team well enough to understand what motivates them intrinsically.

Engagement data on an individual doesn’t really reveal much about a specific employee. It just lets a manager know the person thinks the organization has been unsuccessful at creating a healthy workplace culture. And managers often forget that engagement isn’t an action but an outcome.

Customers ask us why we don’t collect names on surveys. Here’s the bottom line: Anonymity is freeing for employees and good for survey insights.

Our research on Top Workplaces tells us that for employees to feel psychologically safe enough to provide honest feedback, their responses have to be anonymous. If we breach the confidentiality threshold and provide employee-level data, we create a perverse incentive for managers to confront their employees. And when managers start on this fix-the-employee track, the entire foundation for engagement crumbles.

For all these reasons and more, we advocate for anonymity in employee survey results. For workers to freely and openly share their views, they must trust they are doing so in a safe environment free of repercussions.

With an anonymous employee survey, individuals are more willing to share observations, insights, constructive criticisms, and new ideas. With an anonymous employee survey, management reinforces an environment where engagement can grow. Without anonymity, employees fear their responses will become known and that they’ll be labeled as “I’m a problem that needs to be fixed.”

An anonymous employee survey strengthens the foundation of your culture. The best way for an employee to be heard, and for management to understand what’s going on, is through confidential feedback. That’s where the seeds of innovation and performance exist, as does the opportunity to benefit from a truly engaged workforce.

Laura Brinton is content marketing director at Energage, a Philadelphia-based research and consulting firm that surveyed more than 2 million employees at more than 7,000 organizations in 2019. Energage is The Washington Post’s research partner for Top Workplaces.

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