Why Anonymous Employee Feedback Can Be Harmful

In today’s workplaces, employers are faced with multiple issues. Some of these include high turnover rates, poor relationships and mistrust of supervisors. Even under positive circumstances, supervisors may seek to better the workplace by reaching out to the very people who work there. As part of this, anonymous feedback is offered, or occasionally required, from employees, often with surveys. As a result of this feedback, companies hope to identify and tackle the challenges they face. 

Anonymous feedback isn’t new to workplaces. It can be useful to employees who fear that expressing their opinion could be at the detriment of their own job.

This fear is prevalent in startup environments that lack a human resources department. But even if safe space is available, adult conversations are sometimes replaced with anonymous surveys. 

This form of feedback has become a norm in many of today’s workplaces. Although the technique is attractive to many employers and employees, it’s important to explore the following problems and how they might be solved.

Anonymity Concerns 

Employees may fear that their feedback is not truly anonymous. Some surveys tend to ask questions relating to a demographic and the employee’s background, albeit not their name. When answered, some of these responses might reveal the identity of the participants – a flaw that employees worry could have a negative impact on their job.[1]

Fortunately, any questions relating to demographics can be reorganized in a manner that can help to gain trust from participants.

“In employee surveys, it’s generally best to put demographic questions at the end, make them optional, and minimize their number. Such placement avoids creating an initial negative reaction at the very moment when readers are deciding whether to participate.”[1]

When a survey is sent to employees, the supervisor may increase response rates by reassuring  them that their identity will remain anonymous. As part of an experiment, Harvard Business Review “…told employees that the anonymous surveys contained no hidden marks and that [they]  would never be able to connect any individual survey to a specific employee.”[1]

Inactionable Feedback

In some workplaces, employees are asked to offer feedback about their peers. But this can be counterproductive as the feedback inevitably lacks authenticity since it can relate to workplace politics. To avoid fruitless feedback, employers should rethink any feedback that’s based on the premise of anonymity, according to the New York Times.[2]

“So maybe the better strategy, for workers and managers alike, is to obsess less about feedback structures, and focus more on how to deliver genuinely useful and honest criticism within whatever structures exist.”[2] 

Liz Ryan, a former HR advisor, refers to anonymous surveys as “360-degree” feedback that replaces positive and honest feedback. “360-degree feedback offers weak people the perfect opportunity to take potshots at their colleagues sends the false message that mechanized, inhuman batches of disconnected ‘feedback’ are just as good as human, contextual, supportive coaching but every living being knows that isn’t true.”[3]

Fortunately, this can be changed with the right mentality. “Your first step as a Human Workplace leader is to remove the barriers to trust that are keeping your employees eyeing one another suspiciously instead of supporting one another.”[3]

While anonymous surveys may be well-intended, they can backfire. On the other hand, anonymous feedback can bring to light critical issues – but to investigate and resolve specific issues, the identity of that respondent may have to be revealed.

“Anonymity can be important for reporting HR issues, like sexual harassment, in environments where coming forward is risky or unsafe for the victim. Unfortunately, if a specific issue is to be resolved, the identity of the accuser often has to be revealed confidentially to investigators. Not only does anonymous reporting makes that difficult, it can even undermine trust that confidential allegations will be looked into seriously. This puts victims of mistreatment in a double bind, leading too many to simply not report issues.”[4]

Workplaces may have more to gain from building trust within their organization, and creating an environment where employees feel safe expressing their issues. If leadership is willing to rethink their communication methods, they can cultivate more positive workplaces that encourage open discussions instead of closed ones.

Cited works 

[1] Morrel-Samuels, Palmer. “Getting the Truth into Workplace Surveys.” Harvard Business Review. August 1, 2014. Accessed September 12, 2019. https://hbr.org/2002/02/getting-the-truth-into-workplace-surveys.

[2] Walker, Rob. “The Trouble With Anonymous Feedback.” The New York Times.  December 8, 2017. Accessed September 10, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/08/jobs/trouble-with-anonymous-feedback.html.

[3] Ryan, Liz. “The Horrible Truth About 360-Degree Feedback.” Forbes. October 21, 2015. Accessed September 13, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2015/10/21/the-horrible-truth-about-360-degree-feedback/#2ea3060f69b9

[4] Snow, Shane. “My Company Is Killing Anonymous Employee Feedback – Here’s Why.” Fast Company. January 25, 2018. Accessed September 12, 2019. https://www.fastcompany.com/40518499/my-company-is-killing-anonymous-employee-feedback-heres-why