A place like Heaven

Just as OPM releases its annual survey results of federal employee opinions about their employing agencies, our columnist and raconteur of workplace lore Mike Causey remembers ruefully some office antics when he had to fill in the same kind of blanks.

At some agencies, workers are often asked to answer “confidential” questions about work life, morale—and, frankly, whatever!

I don’t know how I’d react to these kind of surveys if I was in your shoes as a fed. But I know how some of us did back in the day, when working in the private sector. Because the bottom-line question in those kinds of questionnaires is how you feel about your top bosses and supervisors—or real hot-button things like waste or fraud. Especially if you hold a sensitive job. So, a key point here is you don’t have any idea how accurate those surveys really are. Because you and everyone else in the rank-and-file sees that an important consideration is the question of how confidential (in fact, not always promised) are your answers to the “confidential” survey? Will you or your colleagues really tell the top people and your supervisors about waste, fraud, harassment going on under their very noses? How about even if they are the guilty party?

So, one thing I’m sure you ask yourself is, “Hey, just how confidential is this survey?”  Especially nowadays when there are so many ways to identify people. Are they (the agency, the company or its leaders) using the questionnaire to help build a better workplace, as advertised?  Or are they looking for potential whistleblowers so they turn them into former employees BEFORE they cause trouble?

At one point I worked for a very large company.  With lots of people and departments. Doing half a dozen things. I was on the writing side. And we got treated pretty well. But…

One time, they asked us to fill a survey (8 or 9 pages, I think) about the company. Totally confidential, they said. Even though they asked things like your job title, how long you had been employed, etc. Things that could be used to identify you. Unless you ignored them. Or fibbed.

Even beyond these concerns, suspicious colleagues noted, there were other ways to identify you. Like putting a hidden (invisible) mark on your survey. Or misspelling different words on different survey papers. So that they could pinpoint who filled it out.

Some thought those of us who questioned the questionnaire were overly suspicious. To the point of paranoia. I would counter that part of our business was making sure that the info we got and disseminated was accurate.

We were given a week to complete the survey and turn it in. They were to go into a large box—like a ballot box—on one of the supervisor’s desks. You could stuff it in while he was there. Or wait until he left the office, if you were really suspicious. Or not fill in the blanks, which is what 14 (I think) of us did.  Nothing. Sure, they would know they were shy 14 questionnaires. But they could not know who exactly didn’t do it, right?

Wrong.

A few days after the surveys were to be turned in, 14 of us got notices from management. It had been noted, the memo said, that we did not participate. We didn’t fill out the forms. Now, we were told, our answers were due within 48 hours. New copies of the survey went to each person.

I filled mine in. Lying like the proverbial dog. I doubled the amount of time I had been employed. And added more than 10 years to my real age. Also, I loved everything. Loved my boss. Loved his boss. Loved all members of management. I thought wages were excellent. And that I was so honored and happy to be employed at such an enlightened place.  A place where they would ask us to let it all hang out. To be uncomfortably truthful. Without fear of revenge or reprisal.

It occurred to me later that I made the place seem fantastic (and it was in fact great if flawed like most places.) I made it sound so good it occurred to me that they might figure out who I was (like they did before) and maybe even charge me to work for them. In other words, I would give them $76.50 a week (I think that was my salary) for the privilege of coming in.

Suffice to say that was fantasy. They didn’t start charging me to work for them. And I felt safe because I had done what they told me to do, which included making the place sound like heaven.

I know this because about a week after I turned in the flattering survey I got a note from the big boss thanking me for complying and being totally truthful about working conditions.

So did my 13 former fellow hold-outs.

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