I have got an email from my company yesterday, kindly requesting to participate in an anonymous survey.

I have opened up the survey; and it consisted of some rather bold questions. Each questions had a scale of 1 to 5. 1 being "Completely Disagree" and 5 being "Completely Agree"

Some of the very questionable examples from the question set (XXXX is the company name):

I wouldn't work for XXXX, if I could find another job 
I wouldn't feel any kind of obligation to XXXX if I leave XXXX today
I don't leave XXXX because I can't find any better alternative

Obviously, you would not want any supervisor or HR representative to overhear when you discuss such topics, or you would not even discuss these in the office environment at all.

Now what unsettles me (and the most WTF-worthy) was the first question:

In an effort to improve the Process Management in XXXX, and to better analyze the results; we kindly require you to write 3rd, 5th and 8th characters of both of your grandmothers first and last name combined. So that we can map these surveys results to the future surveys.

So if your mother of your fathers name is Dana Scully, and mother of your mothers name is Clarice Starling, you would write N,S,L - A,I,S

To my absent-mindedness and the time being too early in the morning. I truthfully answered all questions!

Then it hit me. In my country you have to provide your 1st degree relatives identity information to a company. And if you know (the company does) Social Identity Number of a person; you can easily find out their names and their 1st degree relative's names.

Basically, now my company can easily tie my survey results to me and I feel trolled or social-engineered or whatever...

How to react in future if they bring up these surveys in an effort to put pressure on me? Can they really use or map these results although they explicitly expressed anonymity at the top of this survey ?

EDIT: It was through an online, 3rd party surveying site. The survey was available to everyone with the link. I have completed the survey from my phone which was on carrier network (3g) and did not have any company proxy/vpn settings.

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  • @MaskedMan Agreed. Just want to know how to behave, if it was malice :). I'm too almost sure it was not intentionally flawed. I have sent an email to creators of this survey too. Which I'll include when they reply. – JuniorDev May 29 '15 at 9:57
  • Why is every potentially negative activity now becoming described as "trolling"? Isn't there a better word to put in the title of this question that would let people address your concern more seriously? Like privacy, possibility for discrimination etc. Oh yeah and if you think I'm trolling feel free to ignore this comment kthx. – Brandin May 29 '15 at 10:48
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    Very related for future readers - workplace.stackexchange.com/q/43784/2322 – Elysian Fields May 29 '15 at 12:39
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    @enderland linked the same question I was going to. Specifically this answer: workplace.stackexchange.com/a/43796/34788, which indicates that they don't need to bother looking up your ancestry, when there are far easier ways to figure out who answered what if that's their goal. – stannius May 29 '15 at 15:13
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Thanks for editing the extra info into the question.

It was a 3rd party site, so the chances are all they'll see is 'rolled-up' data totals, not individual responses. It will depend on the site, how much they're paying for it and a few other things. It may be possible for them to dig deeper, I know the default is that you get a report and not generally individual responses. It's possible they're outsourcing everything to a third party in order to protect your anonymity.

While it's always possible they're trying to weed out troublemakers this way (I've met people who think that way) it seems unlikely.

This sounds like a genuine attempt to gauge employee morale -- something good companies do -- and then use that to prioritize their improvement efforts. Those questions are on the more extreme-end of a fairly standard set of questions. Did they also ask

"Do you have a (best) friend in the office/company"

or

"Did someone praise/acknowledge your work in the last X days".

If so they're drawing from a fairly standard set of 'employee morale' questions. If they're concentrating on company loyalty then they may be concerned about a recent raise in people leaving, or concerned that their benefits are sub-par (or perhaps too generous).

The grandmothers name things means they want a unique identifier so that they can track changes in peoples responses. Again probably 'rolled up' into something like 'X people score went up and Y went down', something you can't quite tell with just raw results. That's a little odd for these surveys but as MaskedMan says in the comments -- it's probably just stupidity. I could see someone in a meeting thinking it's a great idea and never thinking it through.

Also note it doesn't specify the order to put the letters in (i.e. which grandparent first), I don't know how many employees took the survey and I'm not going to crunch the numbers now but it may not be as unique an identifier as you think.

So, what do you do?

If you're really concerned then in the future, just make up letters for that last question or don't complete the survey at all it. If it's truly anonymous then they'll never know and if they approach you then you'll know they're matching results to people ...

I would perhaps reach out to the people who set up the survey, explain that you've completed it but express confusion about the last question. Don't express concern, or accuse them of anything, just ask something for clarification about why it's there. Also ask if the overall results and action plan will be shared.

Finally, examine why you jumped to the conclusion that this was a 'trolling' attempt. Do you really feel that way about your company, in that case there's a trust issue which you have to decide if that's valid or your paranoia. If your feelings are valid then my advice would be to start looking for a new job with a better company (in your opinion).

Edit: And if they do approach you then follow the advice in Mike's answer. Plus you'll know what your company is like and can choose what to do then with that knowledge.

  • "if they approach you then you'll know they're matching results to people ..." If they approach you then you'll also know that they didn't need the letters to identify people. – T. Verron May 29 '15 at 12:16

How to react in future if they bring up these surveys in an effort to put pressure on me?

In the extremely unlikely event that the company brings up your survey answers, just deny that they were yours.

It cannot be proven that mapping characters this way produces unique results for everyone.

Can they really use or map these results although they explicitly expressed anonymity at the top of this survey ?

I suppose it's possible to map the results to individuals. And depending on the laws of your locale, and the written assurances of privacy on the survey, the company may or may not be legally permitted to do so.

But, at least in my experience, it's extremely unlikely they would do so. There are easier ways for a company to gather such information quietly if they chose to do so. I suspect you are worrying unnecessarily.

In the future, if you are suspicious of these anonymous surveys, you could simply choose not to participate. (Of course, if they were actually gathering clandestine answers, then they could also know that you didn't participate.)

If someone from your company challeneged or questioned you about your answers (assuming your answers were of the nature to require challenging), what is to stop you just saying "No, that isn't me"?

If they go through all the trouble of mapping the information to your provided first degree relatives information, just say, "That cannot be me, I did not answer with the real information, just a character sequence that I know I will re-use seeing as the purpose of that is not to identify me but to group future surveys to me"

As @MaskedMan mentioned in a comment, it may be that there is no malice in this

  • Very good strategy if things go wrong, which I doubt that it will – JuniorDev May 29 '15 at 10:30
  • It wasn't stated, but many posts come from the USA, where many states have at-will employment, which means the employer can fire you if they believe, rightly or wrongly, that you give the wrong answer in such a survey. – gnasher729 May 29 '15 at 11:25
  • Thanks @gnasher729 - out of interest, is there such a thing as "the wrong answer" in a survey? Aren't surveys subjective? – Mike May 29 '15 at 12:10
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    "I don't leave XXX because I can't find any better alternative"? I'm sure the company considers the right answer to be, "Of course not! I love working here more than anything else in the world." On a survey like this, there's a big difference between "the answer that is true" and "the answer that the questioner wants to hear". – Jay May 29 '15 at 14:07
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    @gnasher729 About that at-will employment, the employer can fire you even if you gave the right answer (whatever that means) in a survey, or for that matter, even if there was no survey. :) This is my understanding, I would be grateful if someone from US can enlighten me. – Masked Man May 29 '15 at 17:49

The best option may be to just ignore such survey requests unless it is part of your job description or contract. Employees are paid to do their job and answering survey questions is rarely part of the job. Also, it is usually people at a rather high level who will take decisions based on the survey results and people at lower levels have no control over whether these survey results are taken into account or if the decisions taken are agreeable. So there is absolutely no point in spending time on these surveys. It is not like the people asking for your responses are your friends or family so you have an interest in providing them the benefit of your experience and knowledge in such matters; they are merely managers or executives of a company where you happen to be working at present.

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