Anonymous feedback can be disastrous. But it might just be your best option for a progressive workplace

The panic! Your boss just added you on Facebook or followed you on Twitter.

There is a tendency that most of us will ignore the friendship request. Some of us would put our bosses in a group where they can’t see anything we post. When unavoidable, we’d post only content we think they’ll approve of. Our communication becomes self-censored.

Let’s put it this way: How much of the truth would you volunteer in a situation if you knew your identity was private, your reputation was protected or your career safe? An indication of how much people value anonymity is the market of apps and websites that exist for individuals to privately vent their frustrations.

Organizations NEED actionable feedback. And some have tapped into anonymity to encourage employees to provide more honest and helpful feedback. Sometimes, with disastrous results. An example is Amazon’s Anytime Feedback Tool, exposed by the New York Times in 2015 for “being a river of intrigue and scheming”. The article describes how employees used the semi-anonymous (only managers know the identity of the feedback givers) to criticize each other. Sometimes without cause.

While anonymous feedback can be helpful, it is not an automatic solution to all your company’s feedback problems. Anonymous feedback also makes it difficult for companies to track problems and follow up. Misinterpretations may also occur. Especially when it’s a problem with a single individual or department, the context of some problems may be misunderstood. Because improving company performance depends on feedback, misinterpreted information could cause more harm than good.

Managed Privacy

Those are some of the worst-case results of anonymous employee feedback. Still, it is a system that works if implemented properly, in the right settings. In fact, anonymous employee feedback is expected to transform employee experience. To achieve that however, several principles must also be followed. This includes letting employees understand what the company aims to gain with the feedback. Employees should also be reminded that their feedback must be specific and, even when criticizing, should include constructive solutions to problems.

Significant thought should go into developing anonymous feedback systems and any application that requires human input. Josh Bersin, Principal and Founder of Bersin by Deloitte, noted:

“Our research shows that companies that value open feedback and communication outperform their peers. This does not mean that an anonymous feedback tool should let employees do away with respect, honesty, confidentiality and fairness.”

You Need the Feedback

Employees walking around without giving or receiving feedback is worse than them walking blind. Even a walking stick provides some feedback. If you need an incentive to implement regular workplace feedback, consider this: turnover is 14.9% lower in companies where employees received feedback compared with those that did not.

But, it’s more than just giving or receiving feedback. The more honest and constructive feedback is, the more likely companies are to advance from it. Employees not offering feedback that organizations would find useful is a challenge. The workplace (bosses and managers) influences careers and most of us will lean towards pleasing our managers. This includes giving only positive feedback at work, and this is where the damage occurs.

The Case for Anonymity

Fear of retribution, to protect their careers or a sense of futility are some reasons why employees don’t give honest feedback. Asking employees about company rules and decisions that they may not care about could result in evasive action, a lie or even praising the circumstances.

Companies use several measures to prevent this from happening. This includes hiring third-party firms to conduct feedback surveys. However, this measure may be expensive and time-consuming. There’s also no guarantee that the employees will be more forthcoming to a third-party.

Employees need the assurance that whatever they say about the company — positive or otherwise — can’t be held against them. The possibility of a future exposure defeats the entire purpose if an employee is trying to provide anonymous and honest feedback.

Effective feedback systems allow multi-directional feedback, rather than a one-way communication with only information from the reviewer. Reviewers can submit feedback about their colleagues. And the receiver can respond and defend themselves when necessary. For instance, if the review is untrue or when feedback has been helpful.

One example is Doull Elementary School teacher, Kyle Schwartz, who gives her students Post-it notes annually asking them to complete the sentence, “I wish my teacher knew…”. The survey also allows the students to choose whether to include their names, remaining anonymous, sharing them only with her, or with the entire class.

Another example is SelfDrvn Enterprise’s Message In A Bottle. The digital feedback system allows employees voluntarily give feedback on mobile or desktop, anonymously or with their identities included.

It also allows other employees to rate the feedback given for whether it was helpful or not. This makes it easier for organizations to easily understand the most popular workplace sentiment, reduces the possibility of ‘attacks’ on employees, and promotes a more open and transparent process.

Companies that haven’t already implemented a survey system as part of their workplace engagement efforts should consider doing so as soon as possible. But, surveys don’t mean automatic employee engagement. It just means that companies have a better idea of what is happening and what they can change.

Anonymous feedback can give you a better chance of understanding and resolving workplace challenges. But it is important to make employees understand the reason for any survey and feedback. That way, people can contribute more constructive feedback.

Need a system that allows multiple channel communication across your organisation? SelfDrvn offers a single comprehensive platform to manage multiple drivers of employee engagement, including pulse surveys and multi-channel peer feedback. Get your free demo today