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Anonymous employee feedback: Is it the best approach to communication?

Does anonymity ever have a productive role to play in your business? In some ways, anonymous employee feedback makes sense. When you give people anonymity, the opinions they offer aren't linked back to them. So, in theory, people can be more willing to share their honest feelings. But anonymity may also stifle communication by limiting our ability to engage with people as individuals.

Updated 7th May 2023

In a 2021 Forbes article, Claire Schmidt, CEO and founder of AllVoices, made her case for anonymous employee feedback. She points out that three quarters of employees would be more willing to provide feedback if it were anonymous. In turn, that increase in feedback results in employees being more engaged with their work culture and less vulnerable to turnover.

At Weekly10, we have considered the role anonymity should play within our own app and similarly within our own company's structure. And, while it certainly has its merits, our platform relies on open, two-way feedback. Although we do insist on privacy between managers and employees.

Is anonymous employee feedback necessary?

Chaka Booker, writing for Forbes all the way back in 2016, suggested anonymity has its place. The reality of businesses and their inevitable hierarchies means that, in order to facilitate feedback from everyone, anonymity is sometimes necessary. But, Booker also suggests, anonymity can poison constructive feedback.

First, let's imagine that anonymous employee feedback is the encouraged norm. You might encourage employees to leave out details and specifics in order to protect their own and others' identities. But this inherently limits the quality and accuracy of th feedback you obtain.

Anonymous employee feedback is often easier to ignore, demonise as a spiteful comment, or perhaps even misconstrue the sentiment. Some people may dismiss negative anonymous feedback as being from someone who obviously "doesn't know me."

As Detert and Burris argue in the Harvard Business Review, it may start a "witch-hunt" to determine who said what. This often distracts from the central issue the feedback initially set out to highlight. Similarly, giving anonymous feedback can often allow us to use language that, though not explicitly discriminative or abusive, can be framed in an overly critical way. It can become a self-serving vent about our colleague's incompetence rather than a constructive piece of feedback for their benefit.

The Alternative

For those who advocate an anonymous employee feedback system, the argument seems inherently contradictory. It's one thing to insist you're aiming for openness and honesty. But the demand for anonymity implies that there are consequences for speaking out. And how does encouraging employees to fear social reprisal supposed to encourage honesty?

By comparison, our employee check-in is personalised on the individual level. As such, it can't be anonymous. Each employee has their own set of check-in questions, and their own goal-tracking to update each week. Employees may not have the shield of anonymity. But weekly check-ins help managers to build up a dialogue over time. When employees do raise issues, managers can earn employee trust by supporting them tactfully.

Anonymity may help to get the ball rolling in a discussion. But it's arguably much better to create an environment where people feel comfortable speaking openly. It's much easier to support employee wellbeing when people aren't beating around the bush.

Ultimately it is a question of business culture, as the leader or member of a company, at whatever level, you decide how honestly and openly you treat your colleagues. However, we at Weekly10 would invite you to consider when and how you use anonymous feedback and perhaps that, most of the time, the best communications are those with a name to them.