In this dilemma our ubiquitous consultant Antonia was undertaking an attitude survey for medium-sized family-owned service business which employed some 300 staff. As this case arose some years ago, she was using a hard copy questionnaire and, in order to ensure a good quality response from staff, she gave a public undertaking that their responses would not be attributed unless the staff member gave consent. This is in line with best practice which shows that staff feel less inhibited about revealing what they actually think and believe with such an undertaking.
After questionnaires were being completed, Antonia discovered that the CEO of the client, contrary to Antonia’s understanding, had intercepted some responses and was demanding that she should also pass the rest to him.
This was not what Antonia had agreed with the CEO when they discussed the survey several weeks earlier. The CEO did not deny his original agreement but said that he had now changed his mind.
What happened in reality was that Antonia stood her ground. She pointed out that staff had been assured that their responses would have been treated confidentially to encourage them to be as open as possible. It would be all too easy for the CEO to react emotionally to the unguarded comments and hound that staff member out of his employment. She persuaded him to go back to the original agreement so that she would be able to collate staff responses and report them in a non-attributable form.
2021 update: luckily, staff protection has improved since the time of this case and, thanks to on-line completion, it is unlikely that the CEO nowadays would have unauthorised access to completed questionnaires, and would face litigation if he were to ‘hound that staff member out of his employment’.
However, a useful precept for consultants is that ‘no person is a fool in their own estimation’; whatever they are doing, however irrational it appears to us, makes good sense in their own mind. It would therefore behove Antonia to probe why the CEO wanted to see the questionnaires. For example, he may not trust Antonia to feed back the unvarnished truth!
Such questioning would help Antonia establish other ways of meeting the CEO’s needs without compromising the assurances that she had previously made to staff.