One of the speakers during this year’s WorkHuman Conference, hosted by Globoforce, made the comment that all anonymous feedback is negative. At first, I wanted to completely agree but then it occurred to me that’s not really the case.
I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of anonymous feedback. Not because it’s negative but because you can’t follow-up. If you have a question or want more details, you don’t know who to ask. Because it was anonymous!
Okay, I concede that a lot of anonymous feedback is negative. There are people who feel they can use anonymity to be hateful because the consequences are small. Notice I didn’t say the consequences are non-existent because a person still has to live with themselves.
But I can see plenty of instances where an individual provides anonymous feedback that is constructive or positive.
- An employee knows that something questionable is happening but they don’t want to deal with the peer pressure. I’m referring to situations that aren’t at a whistleblower level but they still need to be addressed. The employee doesn’t know if it’s wrong or a violation, but they want to tell someone just in case. Because they will feel better knowing it’s being looked into.
- An employee wants to offer up some tough love to a manager or the senior management team. I wouldn’t label this as being negative, more of being constructive.
- It could also be the case of an employee offering up some support during a difficult time. Trust me, there have been moments when an employee has come into my office after the company made a difficult decision to say we were doing the right thing – but didn’t want to say it in front of their coworkers.
Some employees want their voice heard but don’t want to be quoted. While we might wish they would, sometimes it’s better to get anonymous feedback than no feedback at all. The harmful destructive feedback that the speaker mentioned above, is nothing more than a copout.
In thinking about my examples above, it is possible to label these as more situations that need confidentiality (versus anonymity.) Ben Eubanks explains the distinction in this post about “Anonymous vs. Confidential Surveys.” While he’s talking about surveys, and I’d like to think any employee survey has a feedback mechanism built into the process, the difference between confidential and anonymous is thought-provoking. Confidentiality only works when people believe their identity will be kept confidential. And if you’ve ever been involved in a confidentiality breach, then you know that it’s a very difficult situation to recover from (if you ever can.)
As business professionals, it’s part of our job to figure out when to offer the ability to contribute anonymous feedback and when we need to know the author of the comment. Often it has to do with the ability to follow-up. If we ask questions that might require a follow-up question, then that’s difficult if you don’t know who to ask.
On the other hand, if employees want the ability to express their feelings, then maybe an anonymous format is acceptable. That being said, authors need to realize that if anonymous comment is delivered in a troll-like fashion, then it destroys the process they fought to create. It could also minimize the way that the feedback is processed (i.e. meaning it would be completely dismissed as trash talk versus serious.)
There could be a place for anonymous feedback in organizations. But it needs to be for the right reasons and delivered in a respectful way.
Image taken by Sharlyn Lauby somewhere in Washington, DC0