Confidential Survey Not So Confidential?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about surveys:

The company a friend of mine works for was making a survey about some issues. They were promoting the survey and told all employees that it was confidential (the employees don’t have to write their names in the survey.) My friend answered all the questions and wrote a lot about each one, because he thought no one would know his identity. (He was afraid there would be retaliation against him if his identity was known.) After 2 or 3 days the HR manager called him and asked him about the information that he wrote on the survey questions! Is it right to say that something is confidential, then approach an employee about his answers?

Signed, Feeling Betrayed

DearĀ Feeling Betrayed:

It certainly seems to be an ineffective action to tell employees their responses to a survey are confidential, then to ask them about what they wrote. UNLESS there is something in what they wrote that is a liability concern or could indicate serious safety, security, economic or other wrongdoing at some level. For example, I know of company that did a similar survey. An employee wrote that the supervisor was sleeping on the job and making everyone else unsafe as a result. The tone, spelling and words in the writing clearly pointed to one employee. There was some debate about talking to him, but the legal department said it would be wrong to not try to find out more, so they contacted the employee in a way that didn’t give away everything that had been written–just in case it wasn’t him! At first he denied writing it, but later came in and said he had. It turned out he had no evidence or even strong reason to think the supervisor was sleeping on the job. He just knew he sometimes didn’t see him for long periods of time and figured that was what he was doing. Not the same thing!

All of that is to say, if your friend made allegations that are serious, that may be why HR is trying to talk to him about it. If his remarks were not of that nature, it could be he has talked about the things around work so much that it isn’t a secret how he feels, and HR is aware of it too, and wanted to find out more.It sounds to me as though there was a lot going on in the background through all of this anyway. The fact that there was a survey at all, probably indicates something. And, any time things have gotten to the point that the only truthful communication has to be anonymous it either says the employee is very paranoid (has someone ever been fired for disagreeing or pointing out concerns?) or supervisors and managers have been very harsh (ditto the previous question.)Hopefully, even though your friend’s survey was not anonymous something productive will come out of getting things in the open. He may find he will be respected more for having the courage to say something–and back it up with facts or examples–than if he were only to talk anonymously.I’ll hope for a good outcome through all of this.

Tina Lewis Rowe