In the annual employee engagement survey there’s always been a major focus on ensuring feedback from staff is kept anonymous and that results and comments therefore cannot be linked to specific people. This is rightly seen as protecting members of staff, and therefore encourages them to give honest, frank feedback without fear of jeopardising their careers.

However, I’d argue that today we need to look at employee survey feedback data differently, and focus on confidentiality rather than anonymity. There are four reasons behind this:

1. Culture has moved on
We’re now all part of a sharing culture, where people are happier to give their opinions publicly through channels such as social media. And this applies equally to the workplace –according to Deloitte Millennial employees want to give and receive feedback up to four times a week. So, employees want their voice to be heard, and their problems to be addressed. In fact, as we move to new forms of feedback, such as always-on, keeping data anonymous holds back the ability to act on it in a timely, effective manner.

2. It benefits the business and the employee
Attributable data is much easier to act on. If an employee has an issue, being able to raise it and know that it will be dealt with is actually reassuring, and is likely to boost engagement, motivation and retention. It also helps the business to improve, either by reacting to an individual’s feedback or by looking more holistically across the organisation. Being able to identify people also means that their views don’t get lost in an anonymised mass of data. Take a department of six people – if five employees give similar answers to the annual survey, a smart company will be looking into why the sixth person is saying something different. Do they have a new perspective and new ideas that can be used to drive change, rather than ignored as an outlier?

3. How anonymous is your annual employee survey data anyway?
In some situations, there are ways of trying to work out who gave specific answers. It could be down to the language used in open questions, which self-identify a respondent, or through demographic information, particularly in smaller organisations. Also, don’t forget that despite working with third parties to run annual employee surveys, each organisation owns the employee data and could therefore be provided with full details upon request.

4. Confidentiality is all about trust
Moving away from anonymity puts the spotlight firmly on confidentiality. Ensuring that data is confidential is not simple and straightforward, and requires major investment in processes and technology. At a time of cyber attacks and leaks, companies have a duty to do their utmost to protect any personal data they may have, whether it is of customers or employees. Breaching this trust will not only damage the brand and its bottom line, but will also have wider fiscal repercussions as aggrieved employees and customers take expensive legal action.

Of course, there are certainly instances where anonymity is required when it comes to employee feedback, such as in whistleblowing cases for example. At the same time preserving confidentiality is critical for all personal data, including feedback. But I’d advise companies to take a long hard look at what data in an annual employee survey needs to be anonymous, and the benefits that being able to identify respondents brings to them and the business – it may well change how you collect, analyse and benefit from employee feedback.