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November 14, 2014

Penny Caven

Confidentiality VS Anonymity – What Difference Does it Make Anyway?

Confidentiality and anonymity, while quite different by definition, are often used interchangeably. As leaders and professionals, most of us already know this but it is a distinction that is not always clear to all.

Understanding the difference between the two terms is critical for the protection of individuals when they participate in activities such as medical testing, research studies or public engagement. In many cases, “harm” could result from revealing information like medical records, religious or political beliefs, or school transcripts. Therefore, prior to undertaking a research study or engagement project, we need to clearly define the activity as either “anonymous” or “confidential.” No activity can ever be both.

The differences in a nutshell

Participation in an activity such as a research study is confidential. In these cases, participants provide personal information (e.g. name, email address, phone number), and can therefore be linked back to the results. The connection between the participants and the results are known, but the terms of the confidentiality agreement limit those who will know of this connection.

For example, if a parent group of K-12 students is asked to participate in a confidential, face-to-face focus group, individual responses would be linked to a participant’s identity because, at a minimum, the researcher conducting the focus group would know who said what. However, because it is confidential, only the researcher and those collecting or analyzing the data can identify the responses of individuals, and they must not share this connection with anyone outside of the project.

In short, an activity is confidential if participants provide personally identifying information but the connection between participant and results is not shared.

In contrast, when participation is anonymous it is impossible to know whether or not an individual participated and, therefore, there is no way to determine the connection between individual participants and the results. In the case of an online aptitude test for example, this would mean that the responses cannot be linked in any way to the participant.

In fact, if participants are told that they will remain anonymous, they cannot be asked for any personal information that could possibly give away their identity. So if the participant in the above aptitude test wanted to retrieve the results, they would need to be given a unique identifier, such as a number.

To sum this up, when dealing with an anonymous activity, the individual’s responses or results cannot be linked to their identity in any way.

As it relates to us

The distinction between confidential and anonymous is especially important to us at ThoughtExchange, as we conduct hundreds of online engagement processes that involve thousands of participants. Consequently, we have put a lot of thought into what is important to participants, our customers, and the integrity of a ThoughtExchange process.

  • We provide a confidential experience rather than an anonymous one in order to better promote social civility and reduce the incidence of rude or hurtful responses.
  • While the thoughts of individual participants are shared with others, the associated identify of the individual participant is not.
  • It is our responsibility to ensure that responses are never publicly tied to personal identifiers such as email addresses or names.
  • It is our corporate policy not to release the association of any names to thoughts, even to our customers; unless we’re legally required to do so.

As it may relate to others

Large-scale public engagements are great for many reasons, however if you are like most leaders, you know there are also times when simpler forms of listening are required. Perhaps you need to ask participants of an event to complete a comment card at the end of the day, or hold an intimate focus group to test out design concepts for your next annual report. In cases like these, where you are looking for general input or feedback, anonymity is probably the route to take as there is no need to match responses back to individual participants.

As you create your next comment card or ask for volunteers to participate in a focus group, be clear about whether you are deeming it confidential or anonymous – and be sure to clearly explain this to your participants. Doing so will provide your stakeholders with a great sense of comfort and assurance, remove any misconceptions, and likely generate higher participation levels.

Will your next form of listening be confidential or anonymous?

Penny Caven
Penny is our Service Design Manager with over 20 years of experience in adult education, including extensive experience managing employee learning, business process development, and organizational change across multiple industries. Passionate about helping individuals succeed at work, she gets excited solving business problems while encouraging effective and positive change. You will generally find her on or near the water, and most often in her kayak.

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