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Our company is conducting a survey on the employees' opinion of going back to work after two months of work from home due to COVID-19.

The survey is done via a third-party, but it was stressed at multiple occasions that this survey is not anonymous and the data will be shared on a "need-to-know" basis (no specifics given), but the answers won't go into anyone's employee file.

The questions don't ask for personal situations or medical conditions, but the possible answers nevertheless allow anyone who gets their hands on them to deduce certain political stances and opinions, which, given the current political climate, I'd like to avoid at all costs. Partly because our company itself makes heavy political statements (on the other side), but mostly because I do not wish that managers make mental notes of what people say in this survey, which could come back and bite me years down the track. (They might do that silently and inadvertently, in which case I would have very little recourse.)

The company has stressed that 100% participation is desired, although they haven't stated that filling out the survey is mandatory. There will undoubtedly be more or less gentle nudges, pushes and eventually questions both from the company as well as from managers if individuals haven't filled out the survey. What can I give as an answer in this scenario to anyone asking why I haven't filled out the survery if I do not wish to do so without coming across as uncooperative? The aim is to make no statement about any of the survey questions at all, but not answering the survey could inadvertently do exactly that: Give away an opinion that I'd like to keep for myself. So the intent of the answer should be to come across as neutral as possible.

Thanks.


Edit: Thanks for all the answers. Having to choose between voicing my true opinion, telling them what they want to hear and remaining silent, I have decided to sit this one out in a passive manner. If this comes back to me, then so be it.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Lilienthal May 7 at 11:09
  • What is the format of the survey? e.g. if multiple choice does it have a "Don't know / No opinion" answer? Could you just tick that for every question? – colmde May 7 at 13:25
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    What are the questions like? We had a non-anonymous (first question asked for login name) survey. Because there are plans to let 25% of the people going back into the office, management wanted to know who volunteers for those spots, and who needs to stay at home (no reason required, but it gave as example schools closed for kids). This seems totally legit to me. – Sjoerd May 7 at 17:21
  • Could this question be widened, to explore ways to express your preferences to management without being labelled as a dissenter or conflict? I've provided an answer on this (see workplace.stackexchange.com/a/157973/25730) but it's slightly wider than the strict scope of your question. – Thomas W May 7 at 23:54
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    @bta We have a unique link to the survey page. The third-party company that conducts the link can map these links to individuals. Fake names are not possible, as well as guessing someone else's link. – Black Snow May 8 at 3:12

12 Answers 12

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If they are requesting a 100% participation with attributable results, then give the sorts of answers that you would give when called on in a meeting in front of management. If that means saying nothing, go with that. If that means wishy washy non-answers, go with that. If that means being in a spot where you feel you have to be "true to your ideals" by evangelizing your point of view, then go with that.

Personally in my company, I would be true to my ideals and not worry about it, but I don't see many instances of people weaponizing dissent.

With the specific clarification that your ideals lead you to not answer, that seems to be the route to take. This can take a few forms:

  • You can be active and open. "Hey boss, I'm not comfortable sharing my views on this subject in this format." This may start a conversation that is worse for you if you are afraid of publicly failing to Think Alike.

  • You can be passive and open. You just wait until you are specifically chased down for not completing the survey to speak your views. This runs the risk of failing to Think Alike but it's possible that the survey results will be irrelevant by the time they decide how to deal with unsubmitted surveys.

  • You can be active and closed. This would take the form of sabotaging the effort to get your feedback until it's irrelevant. It could mean "technical difficulties" in filling out the form or clarification question after clarification question delaying completion. The defining characteristic here is being seen trying to get it done without ever actually finishing.

  • You can be passive and closed. This would mean trying to fly under the radar that you haven't done it and will shrug it off if confronted. Likely if confronted, you would use the "Sorry I forgot, I'll get around to it when I have time" and just ride out time until they stop asking.

How you choose to play it really comes down to your personal values and your company culture. Every way has its own pros and cons that are heavily colored by company culture.

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    Neutral answers (sliding questions) are certainly a possibility. Being "true to my ideals" would however mean to not participate in such an event. Much like I would not vote if there's a camera in the voting booth. "Weaponizing dissent" is not necessary to cause damage. It is enough if managers make inadvertent mental notes of who said what. – Black Snow May 5 at 16:36
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    There is nothing in the instructions which says your answers have to be honest. Just tell them whatever they want to hear, and then forget about it. – alephzero May 6 at 1:40
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    When following the tactic in the first paragraph, one might also raise the concern that a non-anonymous survey is likely to end in a skewed result with the survey's organisers. This would in my opinion show that your (and others') answers might not accurate while keeping plausible deniability about having not been honest yourself. And in the best case the oraganiser realises that making the survey anonymous might actually be a good idea. – RikuXan May 6 at 3:06
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    @RikuXan Definitely. Non-anonymous surveys seldom reflect true opinions, in particular if trust has been breached beforehand (individually, not on a broad scale). Plausible deniability only works if you have a chance to deny. If they later make decisions based on this survey and not tell you that they are based on the survey, there's little chance for recourse. This is how illegal discrimination is being made legal, generally speaking: Just keep your reasoning fuzzy and vague. Or don't reason at all. – Black Snow May 7 at 3:58
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    @RikuXan It is possible that the intention is to validate their existing viewpoint rather than actually collect information. They chose the surveys to not be anonymous for a reason presumably. The reason for the lack of anonymity is an important factor in how to proceed, though it's unlikely to get the real answer that. – Centimane May 7 at 12:42
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a survey on the employees' opinion of going back to work
[...]
the intent of the answer should be to come across as neutral as possible.

Unless you're a professional doctor, you can avoid passing your opinion by stating that as you're not qualified to assess medical risks, you think it's important to stick to official directions issued by the healthcare authorities of your state, whatever those directions may be.

I believe that communicating your law-abidance isn't going to bite you back.

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    There's nothing wrong with what you've said (and I agree), but in the United States this could be interpreted as political. – user117978 May 5 at 23:18
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    Interesting stance. Indeed, the refuge to "I'm not qualified" could work since ultimately, this is a disease, and only health experts can determine what the best course of action is, so employee opinion would be largely irrelevant. – Black Snow May 6 at 4:15
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    Or even better, simply reverse the question. "I'd be quite interested to hear what management think on the issue" – Richard May 6 at 6:32
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    @hmmm with how things are in the US lately, a statement such as "the sky is blue and grass is green" could be interpreted as politically charged. – alroc May 6 at 12:05
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    This entire COVID-19 CF has already been politicised on many levels. There is no way you could say anything and not be politically categorised, even if you just state facts. Because people will always assume you state them for a particular reason. – Black Snow May 7 at 4:03
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it was stressed at multiple occasions that this survey is not anonymous

If they've stressed this to you multiple times, they are aware of the consequences of non-anonymous surveys - i.e. data on these is often skewed towards what people want to hear rather than the truth. This says they don't want an honest answer to the questions.

If you have managers bagdering you to complete this, then you are backed into a corner and don't really have a choice. You have to cooperate unless you can afford to lose this job.

I would fill out this survey and give them the exact answers they are looking for. Your opinion already doesn't really matter from the sound of the situation.

It might be compromising your principles, but if you don't agree with the political alignment of a company that is vocal about that alignment, you are already likely against your principles for working for someone and contributing to the success of someone who is opposite of you politically.

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    My worry with telling management what they want to hear is that you are then encouraging them to go ahead with their plans. But it sounds like that's the opposite of what you want. – Simon B May 6 at 15:45
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    OP can fight this but I think his fears of repercussions are justified. It sounds like they've decided what their plans are and are manufacturing consent for it. This is a situation where the ethical right and you-need-a-paycheck right are different. – LawrenceC May 6 at 16:03
  • @SimonB But not encouraging management or worse, trying to discourage it from something they are already known to do, is something you only do if you feel your position is strong (OP does not sound that way) or if you can afford to lose this job (option already mentioned in the answer). – Mołot May 6 at 20:07
  • When I'm outside the workplace, their jurisdiction ends (largely), so whatever they ask us to do, I don't plan to do comply. Some of it would be outright illegal to enforce (e.g. bug our private phones with spyware etc.). So having a neutral opinion or telling them what they want to hear would be an option if it wouldn't be against my personal interests. Because in this case, the survey just becomes a struggle session: "Tell us that you want measurement A, B and C, even though you don't agree with them." – Black Snow May 7 at 1:24
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    Yes, really. The company already doesn't want an honest answer to the questions because they're making sure you understand it's not anonymous. It's a trap obviously meant to weed out dissent. It's crappy and OP should find another place to work of course, but I recommend lying to keep your paycheck in the meantime. – LawrenceC May 7 at 13:46
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What can I give as an answer in this scenario to anyone asking why I haven't filled out the survery if I do not wish to do so without coming across as uncooperative?

You can't. Either take a stance and refuse to fill it out or play along. There is no way here to not cooperate, but appear cooperative. Now whether the hassle of not filling it out is worse than possible conseuquences of playing along only you can figure out.

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    I understand that refusing to fill out the survey constitutes taking a stance, about the survey. The aim was to provide an answer to anyone asking that makes no stance about the questions themselves. I think there's a difference. – Black Snow May 5 at 16:43
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    @BlackSnow there really isn't. Refusing to fill equals telling them "You wouldn't like what I would write" - certainly a stance about the questions, with less details, but not a bit less strong. – Mołot May 6 at 20:09
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    @Mołot There really is. – user76284 May 6 at 22:21
  • How to express and phrase your position to avoid creating conflict, is a crucial factor in this and ignored by a binary can/can't comparison. I've provided an answer on this: workplace.stackexchange.com/a/157973/25730 – Thomas W May 7 at 23:29
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What can I give as an answer in this scenario to anyone asking why I haven't filled out the survey if I do not wish to do so without coming across as uncooperative?

You either cooperate, and do what is asked of you, or you don't.

If you don't, you could indicate that you don't feel comfortable with non-anonymous surveys as a matter of principle.

Or, if you feel pressured to participate, do so but provide only non-answers, like "I don't really know" or "I don't feel qualified to answer" or "No comment".

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    '... but provide only nonsense answers' - well, this line of behavior may well come back and bite the OP, couldn't it? – Igor G May 5 at 21:15
  • This is an opportunity to provide input on an important topic. I've provided an answer as to how to do that in a non-conflicting and non-controversial way. – Thomas W May 7 at 23:27
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So the intent of the answer should be to come across as neutral as possible.

Given:

  1. Telling the truth is something to "avoid at all costs"
  2. The company desires your participation
  3. You don't want to appear uncooperative or noncompliant

There is one and only one clear option for you here:

Lie.

You can't avoid (increasingly pressuring) questions about your position on the survey without filling out the survey. And you can't tell the truth on the survey. The company has 'stressed at multiple occasions' that the survey is non-anonymous, so they already know they're not expecting entirely truthful results. I'd guess they don't actually want entirely truthful results, which is why they're carrying it out this way. So, if your top priority is to avoid making waves, just give them what they want. Fill out the survey with answers that are as anodyne and noncontroversial as possible.

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  • I generally have a moral problem with the act of lying itself, but there's also a technical one: If you lie, you have to lie consistently. I.e., you'd have to remember what you said. "Given them what they want" only eliminates the technical problem, not the moral one. Ideally, I want to give them nothing in this scenario. – Black Snow May 7 at 10:09
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    @BlackSnow: Given the subject, it's hard to prove that you lied. You just claim that you changed your mind. The known facts are changing daily, so why would you be consistent in your opinions? In two weeks time, you can't even remember precisely when you filled in the survey, let alone what you filled in or why. – MSalters May 7 at 13:50
  • @Blacksnow those are both good points. As far as "ideally, give them nothing," though, at some point you're going to have to compromise - given your specifications, it sounds like it is not possible to give them nothing without coming across as uncooperative. So you may just have to pick your poison. Given your ethical and logistical hesitation to lie, I'd suggest that you probably already know the answer: Don't fill out the survey, and come up with a single, bland, not-untrue reason as to why you've taken that position. – Alex M May 7 at 21:39
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    @ThomasW Totally disagree. There are any number of rationales the company might have to want to have survey data to point to, without necessarily requiring that the data accurately represent the real opinions of its respondents. – Alex M May 7 at 23:28
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    They probably want to specifically roster who could work from premises, who might be able to work from home, etc. If remote work were less viable and cashflow/ headcount an issue, retention might become a factor but that seems like a separate issue/ question at this time. – Thomas W May 7 at 23:59
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What can I give as an answer in this scenario to anyone asking why I haven't filled out the survery if I do not wish to do so without coming across as uncooperative?

As the other answers have stated, the only way to not come across as uncooperative is to fill out the survey. Assuming the survey is just about going back to work, when confronted about not filling out the survey I would say something like:

I'll leave it up to and trust management to make the correct decision regarding our return to normalcy.

The only reason they would continue to press the issue after that is because they want to gather that information for some other purpose. If you ultimately are forced to fill it out, be sure to enter the most neutral answers possible. After things have settled down, I would start looking for a new company to work for since you obviously do not trust your current company.

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    "because they want to gather that information for some other purpose" What worries me slightly is that the nature of the questions do not require names attached to their answers. I would understand if they gathered the numbers for each sliding question (e.g. to find out how many people are in favour if XYZ etc.), but I don't understand why they need to know who is in favour of XYZ. – Black Snow May 5 at 16:34
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    @BlackSnow well, it could easily be that they might decide for individual departments to come back and others not depending on the respective vote or see if they can organize a rotating shift in departments that do not 100% want to come back etc. pp. It might still be possible to do that semi-anonymously but they might simply have considered it not important enough to go through the hassle to get the detail level they want and protect the remaining privacy as that might require custom solutions not readily available. Not saying there is 100% no foul play, but it's well possible there isn't. – Frank Hopkins May 5 at 16:40
  • @BlackSnow and with foul play I mean intentional gathering of information for other purposes than stated. I wouldn't feel too enthusiastic about management trying to push a 100% compliance with a non-anonymous survey either - independent of whether I personally see a privacy problem in it or not. – Frank Hopkins May 5 at 16:42
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    We already had rotating shifts in place before, and we're certainly going back to that when we go back. I think that's a given. "protect the remaining privacy as that might require custom solutions not readily available" Previous surveys done with that survey company were (said to be) anonymous, so I guess it's just a tick box for whoever creates the survey. Foul play may not be intended, but once data is available, it creates its own desire to be used. Which, I believe, is one main argument against surveillance in general. – Black Snow May 5 at 16:49
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You said the survey is about

employees' opinion of going back to work after two months of work from home due to COVID-19.

and

possible answers nevertheless allow anyone who gets their hands on them to deduce certain political stances and opinions, which, given the current political climate, I'd like to avoid at all costs.

This sounds like you may have already looked at the questions. Although your employers may be political ideologues, they may be asking this for perfectly pragmatic reasons, and aren't interested in your political leanings. They want to know whether they need to go on renting 100,000 sf at $50 /sf-yr downtown.

In that case, simply saying, "I really like not having to commute 75 minutes twice a day, and I think I'm more productive from home," may be all you need to say. Do you think virtual meetings are more or less productive than meat meetings? Are you missing spontaneous work-related interactions? Could you get the equivalent of brainstorming with a video meeting?

That's a personal preference, not a political opinion.

If I were running your company, that's what I'd want to know.

Can we save $5 million a year at each location by having employees work from home?

Never ascribe to malevolence what can be explained by incompetence--or social ineptitude.

Also, making the answers clearly related only to your personal lifestyle preferences takes it out of the realm of the political. And you should count yourselves lucky that you CAN work from home, and there's still enough work to keep you busy! Good luck on this.

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    This can even be an entirely sane business decision. "We didn't invest in work-from-home before, as that didn't look profitable. But now that we did, those are sunken costs. Future rent is an avoidable cost on the other hand.". – MSalters May 8 at 11:40
  • The question whether we can move to permanent WFH came up, indeed. And they are not ruling out this out, at least for some staff. – Black Snow May 9 at 6:21
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You are trying to balance expressing your actual preferences, where the survey is mandatory, in a company where the culture may disagree.

I don't believe other answers have effectively addressed the question of how to express your feelings without creating conflict.

From my perspective, it would be untrue to yourself and avoid a really important opportunity to provide information to management to just agree/ say what you think they want to hear. If they didn't care at all, they wouldn't run a survey.

So the question is how to provide a useful signal, without causing conflict or undue risk to yourself. I would believe Non-Violent Communication provides a framework for this. Key principles here are expressing how you feel without ascribing blame/personal attribution, and being willing to listen without judgement to other's viewpoints.

Some possible example statements:

  • "I feel concerned about the health of my family, and have aged grandparents who are in the high-risk category."
  • "I feel that official medical guidance is still urging caution."
  • "I feel concerned that Covid cases are still high and working closely may cause a risk to the company of illness spreading among all workers."
  • "I understand management are under some commercial pressure, and I would like to understand what we can explore for remote and safer working options."

I'm not very skilled, so others may be able to apply this better than I!

Some references on NVC:

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  • @JoeStrazzere I believe this better addresses the actual problem encountered by the OP. It gives some strategies to better resolve the tension between expressing their actual preferences and saying nothing/ not doing the survey. I agree that potentially the OP's question could be wider. – Thomas W May 7 at 23:47
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    The survey is not mandatory, but there will be/is pressure to fill it out. The aim is to deflect the survey at this point, not to provide answers that create least friction. However, your links look like a very interesting read. Thanks. – Black Snow May 8 at 3:17
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"I defer to the judgement of management on this issue."

Whether management realizes it or not, requiring a non-anonymous survey creates conflict. Negotiating in a conflict situation is tricky business, but for any negotiation to be successful, one must always seek a win/win situation. In order to do this, one must understand the goals of both parties.

As suggested in other answers, making results not anonymous is for a reason. Management likely wants complicity. A comment in another answer suggests turn the question back on them "I'm interested in how management feels..." While I appreciate the cleverness, this response is passive aggressive, and may not be the best move. A variation of that response is "I defer to/trust the judgement of management/leadership for this."

Responding by deferring is complicit rather than challenging, which is what management (presumably) wants anyway. It may also provide the least offensive response because it is, in essence, no response, which is what the OP (presumably) wants to do by not filling out the survey. If these presumptions are correct, this response creates a win/win situation.

If these presumptions are not correct, what are the risks associated with this response? Will the OP be viewed as a lapdog? Is that a bad thing in their corporate culture? Will this response be interpreted as noncompliance? Will not being bold about how they truly feel cause the OP to be passed up for a leadership role in the future? Without knowing more about the culture, it's hard to say, but I believe this answer is the safest response with the information provided.

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  • What if the professionals say "25% can go back to work" and management wants to pick this 25%. Wouldn't your input whether you prefer to be in that 25% or are needed at home be very useful? You are the expert on your preferences, after all. (And if you don't have a preference either way, I bet that answer will be possible as it's the most flexible answer from a management perspective) – Sjoerd May 7 at 17:35
  • @Sjoerd excellent point, this is the type of risk I was addressing in my last paragraph. Perhaps the OP could seek guidance on the purpose of the survey? – Jason May 7 at 20:36
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  1. The survey is voluntary

  2. You know what management whats employees to say

As someone said in the comments, it sounds like they are manufacturing consent.

I think that the worst thing you could do is refuse to take the survey, or say that you would rather "defer to management because you are not an expert". This effectively signals to management that your political or scientific opinions significantly differ from theirs.

Think about it; there's 3 types of people in this scenario...

  • Anyone who holds the same opinions as management will happily take the survey
  • People who don't care one way or another will fill it out honestly and be done with it
  • The people who refuse to take the survey want to hide their opinions from management

By not taking the survey, you have effectively revealed to management what you did not want them to know.

So what should you do? If it is an opinion survey, just lie on the survey. You are under no obligation to tell the truth, and it is highly unlikely your opinion will change management's actions in the future. Thus, the most logical course of action for you is to lie.

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It is highly unusual that a company not only conducts a non-anonymous surveys, but also points that out repeatedly.

It may very well be that the results of this survey are reported upwards, either to stockholders, a mother corporation if you have one, or the authorities. The repeated hints might well be a company's way of saying "wink, wink, please give us the results we need to look good".

In which case you're in even more hot waters than you think if you don't.

Unless they have also explicitly told everyone to be truthfull, the best way may yet be to disregard the whole thing as a show, give them whatever answer they're obviously looking for, and move on with your life.

Some battles are not worth fighting.

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  • "or the authorities" A possibility I haven't thought of. Although that's a bit remote, it's certainly possible they would do that. – Black Snow May 8 at 5:25

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