Anonymous surveys aren't anonymous

Some years ago, I remember taking a command climate survey. It aims to survey just that, the climate of the command, the leadership, the work environment.


I take one of these every so often, especially since I’ve only ever worked, so far, in the headquarters company; that means, surveys of the brigade or battalion, and surveys of the company.

That time, my battalion commander called me into his office. He needed me to complete some task irrelevant to the command climate survey, but commented of the survey, “Del, I know that was you. You can’t write kill into the freetext. It triggers red flags.”

When I was in the Marine Corps, we used kill to mean yes, no or acknowledged. Sometimes, as a term of endearment. It was my catchphrase, and so that’s how he knew it was me. I said, “I thought those were anonymous.”

He said, “Not really. If the way you write hadn’t given you away, the other data did.” Male, Asian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic, age, rank, unit, and the fact that I clicked a link from my email address to get to the survey.

Wasn’t surprised. Just didn’t give it much thought.


Sometimes the surveys are for organizational levels a couple levels above one. I took one such survey yesterday. In many ways, these surveys aren’t so much about the climate as they are about one person, the top officer.

A couple levels above one’s head, I believe, might be a little too far removed to perceive the connection between one’s work environment and decisions coming from that level.

One, when we get a mission or task, we don’t usually know (or bother asking) whether that mission is coming from our boss or our boss’s boss or even higher.

Two, we’re often too busy to reflect on that.

Three, when we do have time, as in off duty, we prefer not to think of work. Or at least I do, when I’m writing these articles.

Four, these surveys impose on our time, as if we didn’t have enough to do. Depending on how fast the progress bar moves, I speed through these as fast as possible, scanning to avoid anything that may trigger an investigation; multi-negative questions about sexual misconduct or bigotry.


These surveys throw in such multi-negatives because the Army knows it pains us just reading these things. Questions like, paraphrased, “Overall, my unit does not avoid quickly responding to complaints of [X]. Disagree or agree?

What’s the focus of the question? Overall? Avoid? Quickly? I realize the most logical interpretation might be, “My unit responds to complaints of [X].” I realize this now that I’m slowing down and feel like I have time to think. But do you know how challenging it can be to not think of something or to realize that avoid means negative, while skimming?

These questions probably come from people more interested in fucking with us than obtaining useful information.

Some survey questions aren’t questions, but instead request that the user “Click Agree to show that you’re actually reading this survey.”

Also, there were a lot of questions. Maybe a hundred. Do we really need to ask that many questions?