4 Reasons to Abandon Anonymity in Employee Surveys

While we still have a long ways to go, I am encouraged by what’s happening in human resources.  Over the past few years, we’ve found the courage to admit that some of our old-school HR practices are B.S. From the uselessness of the break-room suggestion box to the ineffectiveness of annual reviews, when we admit that the old way is flawed, we’re a whole lot closer to an actual solution.

With that in mind, I’d like to nominate another item for the B.S. list: anonymity. HR insists that employee surveys and other feedback tools need to be anonymous, but when we take a closer look, anonymity doesn’t have a great track record. (Check out the anonymous comments for any controversial online news article or how anonymity worked out for Ashely Madison.)

Anonymous feedback didn’t help me either. Early in my career, I was subjected to an anonymous 360 assessment to aid in my development. I was looking forward to the feedback. And, since my team had been producing great results, I expected much of the feedback to be positive.

Boy, was I wrong. I still affectionately refer to the feedback I received as my “you SUCK list.”

Like most managers, I didn’t react well to the feedback.  I was angry. I was hurt.  I was confused.  And defensive.  Not a great combination of emotions to take feedback and do something positive with it.

Eventually, I gained some non-anonymous context about the feedback I received. Turns out, the feedback wasn’t evaluating me in my current role, but was instead explaining what I would need to do to be ready for my next role as a top executive. While the feedback was still pretty intense, this context was critical to helping me use the feedback in a positive way.

When it comes to feedback, anonymity is less effective, and frankly, out of style in today’s workplace. We expect our leaders to be candid and transparent, particularly about the important stuff.  We expect them to tell us the whole story and to openly share their failures and missteps.  Yet, when it comes to asking employees for feedback about something as important as their work experience, we use completely different standards. Why? We’ve convinced ourselves that employees just aren’t up to the task.

I’d like to challenge you to consider how removing anonymity from our employee feedback efforts might improve their effectiveness. Here are four benefits I’ve identified:

  1. Greater Accountability 

Employees have to stand behind their feedback. No more random angry accusations with no examples to support them.

And if employees don’t feel comfortable giving honest feedback? Enter accountability for your managers. If employees prefer anonymity because they’re afraid of backlash, you’ve got a leadership problem (not a survey problem).

  1. Decency

Anonymity encourages indecency. Arthur Santana’s research at the University of Houston seems to support this theory.  Santana analyzed hundreds of randomly chosen comments from online newspapers and compared the comments of those that allowed anonymous comments with those that don’t.  A full 53 percent of the anonymous comments analyzed were uncivil. This led Santana to conclude that anonymity online encouraged incivility. The moral of the story, when our name is connected to our words, we behave better.

Take away anonymity, and even your most disgruntled employees would probably put down the flamethrower and provide more constructive feedback.

  1. Higher-Impact Action

The goal of most employee surveys is to inform meaningful action. We are asking individual employees for feedback about their individual work experiences. But, because of anonymity, we can only evaluate the results at a group level.

As a leader or HR professional, when an employee fills out a survey and is disengaged, I want to take action to address that now, with that employee. That’s where the most powerful steps can be taken. In a world without anonymity, we could do that.

  1. Increased Quality

And finally, let’s address the elephant in the room. HR’s belief is that if a survey process isn’t anonymous, employees won’t be totally honest and the quality of data will suffer.

Research studies suggest that this may not be the case.  A study comparing anonymous versus non-anonymous feedback by university students of their courses and instructors found that there was no meaningful difference in the quality of feedback between the two groups. None.  Furthermore, the non-anonymous survey respondents were more likely to provide more detail in their comments.  So the feedback quality actually improved when anonymity was removed.

It’s new. It’s different. It’s controversial. But if you want to increase the accountability, decency, impact, and quality of your employee feedback, you may want to abandon anonymity.

FOT Background Check

Jason Laurtisen
Jason Lauritsen is a talent strategist and innovator who will challenge you to think differently about talent and the workplace. A former corporate Human Resources executive, Jason is today the Director of Client Success for Quantum Workplace where he leads a team dedicated to helping organizations make work better for employees everyday. He also leads the research team behind Quantum’s Best Places to Work program that collects survey responses from employees at over 6,000 companies each year to identify, celebrate and promote some of the best workplaces in the world. He is the co-author of the book, Social Gravity and some people may know him as the tall, dancing guy with Talent Anarchy.

7 Comments

  1. Parker Davis says:

    I would suggest a great deal of this article may be a result of your poor acceptance of your 360 feedback results years ago. Perhaps I am wrong, but the rest of the article doesn’t convince me either.
    You cited a university study from Bern Switzerland. Different country, different values. But comparing a college evaluation is not valid. Students can own up to an evaluation in a college setting because a single professor, or a single course does not dramatically impact their future. In a college setting professors have no power and very often could care less how they are rated.
    The newspaper study was almost a 50/50 split, but even so we are looking for honesty and critical comments, not civility.
    Providing non-anonymous comments to a co-worker or subordinate is certainly less threatening than providing similar feedback to a senior manager. Some of the items you comment upon are either survey design or feedback flaws. For example, angry accusations without some measure of example are useless whether anonymous or not.
    The issues here are perhaps the lack of talent of the person giving the survey feedback and the construction of the survey.
    Wishing the world were a perfect place, but it’s not.

    • Jason Lauritsen says:

      Hi Parker, Thanks for the thoughtful response (other than your throw away comment about my own feedback experience as reason to dismiss the whole post). I agree that the arguments and cited research are not rock solid, but I think you may be dismissing them a bit quickly. They should at least provoke curiosity. One thing I have found interesting is how little research has been done to investigate the effect of anonymity in workplace surveys and feedback processes. My point in writing the article was to prod people to at least ask the question and think a bit more critically about when and how we apply the cloak of anonymity. There are certainly times when it is warranted, but I tend to think it’s being wildly overused.

  2. Michelle says:

    In my 20+ year career as an HR Leader I have worked within organizations that employ 360 degree feedback, automated exit interviews and anonymous surveys and organizations that do not. My observation has been, organizations that are willing to utilize these tools and genuinely want to know what the employee population has to say typically have talented, engaging and respected leadership in place. The results of utilizing these tools confirms that they are doing things well and enables the organization to engage in continuous process improvement. The organizations that aren’t interested or veer away from such tools typically have poor leadership, an oppressive management style, status quo mentality and disengaged employee populations.

    • Jason Lauritsen says:

      I agree, Michelle. And to take it one step further, those organizations that have moved to attributed, non-anonymous feedback have not only respected leadership in place but also courageous and progressive leadership. What I”m proposing isn’t for the faint of heart. But, it is for those who want to build a workplace that with thrive into the future.

  3. Steve says:

    Interesting article! I think what’s missing from this piece is an employee’s perspective as to why they would like anonymity. When there’s no anonymity, employees can feel vulnerable and fear possible repercussions from higher management. This can lead to lower survey response rates and people not giving meaningful (or potentially negative) feedback.

    In the same way that some employees can be unprofessional in providing poor quality feedback (as you highlighted), unprofessional handling of feedback can be much more damaging to someone’s life. It’s an entirely different realm to newspaper websites, as in the workplace, providing any feedback could potentially lead to feeling alienated in the workplace, or in the worst case risk losing your job and income.

    Agree that it’s important to ask questions and encourage debate, but I personally see the benefit in providing anonymity.

    • Jason Lauritsen says:

      Thanks, Steve. I think there are places and times for anonymity to be used. That said, when the environment is such that an employee has to be fearful of their job or their standing based simply on providing candid feedback when asked for, I would argue that an anonymous survey isn’t going to fix that.

      My main issue is that HR and leadership hide behind anonymous surveys too often when what they ought to be doing is tackling the deeper issue of broken trust within the organization. What is it that the managers are doing to make employees so afraid to provide feedback? And, why is that behavior being tolerated?

      In an attributed world, response rates to surveys might plummet if there is no trust and that is a powerful finding in and of itself.

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