There are plenty of reasons why employees lie in certain circumstances. Having a negative thought or socially unacceptable idea tied to their name is a risk at work. They may lose their job, their boss may retaliate, or their peers may think less of them. It’s a common enough fear that a few executives who have evaluated Insight have asked the question: are survey responses anonymous?

By default, our employee engagement survey is attributable: supervisors can view the individual responses given by their team members. However, we can make surveys anonymous and still provide actionable information for company leadership. It’s just not what we recommend. A big benefit of anonymous surveys is that there’s less perceived opportunity for retaliation for negative responses. However, a big detriment is that anonymity prevents leaders from truly understanding their people and making meaningful improvements.

So why do we default to attributable surveys? It’s a matter of trust. Our product is designed to increase retention and automate leadership development. Neither one of those things can happen without some degree of trust. Organizational psychologist Roger Schwarz tells us “If team members are reluctant to have their names associated with their responses, then you’ve already identified what is probably the most significant problem in your team—a lack of trust.”

That said, our survey is also designed to avoid placing blame. A person’s perception of the company is simply their perception., and perceptions are something you can influence. Addressing the underlying concerns that explain why employees lie will help you solicit more honest feedback. Address these concerns and employees will see no need for anonymous surveys. They will gladly give you attributable feedback.

1. They want to help you or make you look good

When you send a survey, employees are going to assume you expect a certain result. That may be a positive rating of your performance as their leader, a certain outlook on how the company is doing, or a positive opinion on some other topic that you care deeply about. Employees are not necessarily trying to lie: they simply want you to get the result you want. By framing survey questions in an objective manner—where any response feels appropriate, neither good nor bad—you can avoid this phenomenon of well-meaning people saying what [they think] you want.

2. Some questions are none of your business

If you dive into personally sensitive questions such as personal relationships, personal views, or finances, people tend to dodge the question. And with good reason: as their supervisor, these personal questions are none of your business. In fact, some questions in these areas can violate employment and anti-discrimination laws. While learning more about your employees as people is a good thing for building trust and rapport, it’s best done outside of a survey. You can accomplish your goal through other means, such as going to lunch together or taking a walk around the office.

As an employer, if you really have an interest in the personal lives of your employees, you will need to (1) remain cognizant of the fact that you are an employer, not their friend, and (2) employees do not owe you answers about their lives outside of work. Generally, it’s best to avoid these types of sensitive questions altogether.

3. They want to look good

Employees who are concerned about their standing in the workplace may repeat company lines: they will parrot ad nauseum the goals and values that have been spoken by company leadership. This can cause them to hide their own disagreement with aspects of your company culture. Alternatively, they may hesitate to speak up when they discover that the company is not living up to its stated values. This hesitancy makes for great survey responses and great engagement metrics but terrible feedback.

To avoid this behavior, frame questions objectively and using fixed responses (Likert scales, multiple choice questions, etc.) wherever appropriate. Also, focus on questions that are actionable. A question like “Are our stated company values appropriate?” is not going to give you anything critical or actionable (no one chooses negative-sounding values, and no one will disagree that things like “honesty” and “teamwork” are good). However, a question like, “Can you recall an instance in the past two weeks where company leadership demonstrated our stated company values?” will let people describe their perception of company performance (they either had this experience in the past two weeks or not) while still giving you something actionable to work with (consider how to better demonstrate your values).

4. People tend to say what is socially acceptable

Another reason why employees lie is if their true answer to a question is socially unacceptable. If they believe a widely accepted plan is not the best course of action, they will likely go along with the plan if everyone else does. People generally don’t enjoy being the sole voice of dissent, as it can hurt their professional credibility with their peers and company leadership. Once again, objectively framing questions and making fixed-choice responses will mitigate the risk of this occurring.

5. They think there's a right and wrong answer

In a similar vein, if your questions appear to have a right or wrong answer, employees will probably choose the “right” answer even if it isn’t truly what they believe. While an answer may be socially acceptable, it can still feel like the incorrect one. For instance, if you needed to agree or disagree with a statement like, “I receive adequate feedback on my work from my boss”—knowing full well your boss will read your response—you’re probably going to agree… even if you’ve never heard from your boss. Once again, let’s have objectivity come to the rescue! A better way to frame this question is, “Someone on my team provides adequate feedback on my work.” This does not directly call out any specific person’s performance but does identify whether or not there may be a problem.

6. They want you to validate their feelings

Seeking personal validation is another reason why employees lie. If someone is upset about past situations at work, they may respond to a survey in extremes in order to elicit a strong response to their concerns. This is typically due to past situations remaining unresolved. While their supervisor may feel a problem has been resolved, the employee may not. It may be a matter of no one explicitly acknowledging to the employee that there was a very real problem, the employee not receiving an apology from relevant parties, or the employee feeling they were unfairly treated in the days or weeks since the initial problem occurred.

Whatever the cause, extreme answers can be a sign that your employees do not feel like you are listening. The best thing you can do is be present. Regularly check in with people, listen more than you speak, and follow up when there’s an action you can take to improve their work life.

7. They don't know if they can trust you

You can roll up many of the previously covered reasons why employees lie into a question of trust. If employees don’t know how you will respond to negative feedback or are afraid there may be some sort of personal retribution for non-ideal survey responses, they will not give you the honest feedback you seek. Fostering a relationship of mutual trust takes time. Therefore, you should start building relationships right away—long before you worry about sending another survey—so your people are more comfortable giving you critical feedback and know what to expect from you when you receive bad news.

8. Honest answers may put their job at risk

A specific consequence of an absence of trust is the fear of termination. No one wants to put their job on the line due to some survey. Therefore, if employees are unsure where they stand with you, they will give middle-of-the-road or pleasant responses to any serious questions. To mitigate the risk of a survey feeling like a trap, review your people regularly. This doesn’t have to be a formal process: so long as people know where they stand with you and have no fear of imminently losing their job, they will not worry about the consequences of a few critical survey responses.

9. They don't consider the lie to be a lie

Oftentimes employees will say things that are untrue because they believe them to be true. Or, even if they don’t know a statement to be true, they may believe it sounds plausible. For example, they may assert that the company is doing poorly because they heard that Customer X (whom they’ve never met) is upset about another team’s work quality. They don’t know that Customer X is unhappy or that their coworkers did a bad job, but they may believe it. And if people repeat the rumor enough, employees will eventually accept the rumor as fact. The best you can do to combat this situation is counter rumors with indisputable facts, like hard metrics. If you don’t have all the facts but believe the rumor to be false, you can ask why the employee believes the rumor to be true. What evidence can they present to convince you that their assertion is correct?

10. They don't think you'll do anything with their response

The worst thing you can do with survey responses is throw them away. If company leadership does not react to survey responses, employees will become conditioned to not care about them. If leaders don’t care enough to respond, why should employees complete the survey in the first place? In these instances, if responding to the survey is mandatory, employees will complete these seemingly useless surveys as quickly and thoughtlessly as possible.

We recommend that you survey as frequently as you can respond to the feedback. If you can only react to employee feedback on an annual basis, well, you should only have one survey per year. If, however, you can improve things employees are concerned about on a monthly basis, you can issue a monthly survey. In other words, you’re only going to get out of a survey what you put in. If you demonstrate its importance to you, employees will see it as an important exercise.

Solicit honest feedback with Insight Employee Engagement

Insight helps leaders identify at-risk employees, highly engaged employees, and more. It also guides you in leadership development by outlining what actions managers can take with their direct reports to increase employee engagement. Our employee engagement survey is designed to assess what people care about and how they perceive the company. Objective survey items encourage honest feedback that drive leadership action.