Many key decisions can be made by your company's leadership, but there are times when you're going to want the honest, thoughtful input of your employees to help guide and inform your choices. When the time comes to ask staff for their feedback, you'll be faced with an important decision: whether to solicit their input anonymously or not.
While anonymous feedback is often presented as a safer, more inclusive option, it has its drawbacks. For example, by the time you get to the bottom of an issue that was presented anonymously, the information provided may no longer be relevant.
Let’s take a look at the benefits — and drawbacks — of anonymous feedback, so the next time you hit send on that survey, you can be confident that it’s the right move.
There are many different sides to this discussion. What makes it even more challenging is that they’re all valid. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming to sort through all the arguments and decide which option to choose. First, let’s examine some of the pros and cons of each method.
The main drawback here is that without anonymity, employees might not be comfortable giving their honest opinions. They might worry that if they deliver truly candid feedback, they could be perceived as critical, ungrateful, or difficult. Worse yet, they may even fear that they could be putting their job at risk.
It seems natural that this thought might cross an employee’s mind. But from an HR perspective, it’s disheartening to hear this, said Emma Bindbeutel, head of people ops at ad tech company Choozle.
“I'm always disappointed to hear employees feel their job could be on the line for completing a survey. Why should a company ask for feedback if they don’t want honest feedback?” Bindbeutel said. “Leaders who are reading the results need to keep an open mind and see the feedback as areas to improve, and to not get frustrated by.”
On the positive side, some argue that the direct feedback non-anonymous surveys provide is a more efficient way to do business. If an employee voices a problem and a proposed solution directly, rather than through an anonymous survey, it could save time and energy for all parties involved.
As well, providing employees with an opportunity to give non-anonymous feedback shows that a company is open to hearing different viewpoints and receptive to the individual voices of their employees.
Conversely, anonymity is often praised as the more inclusive option.
A promise of anonymity — at least in some capacity — is a step in the right direction of giving everyone a voice, said Liz Ratto, head of people at Cedar, a healthcare technology company.
“Even in the most inclusive and respectful companies, there are power dynamics and intrinsic biases in all of us that cause us to react to people in certain ways,” Ratto said. “Failing to acknowledge those realities or trying to only overcome them via policy — such as requiring all feedback to be attributed — lets us off the hook of actually confronting them and doing the work to keep them in check.”
On the downside, being anonymous in a survey could encourage a negative behavior we see all the time in anonymous comments on the Internet: mean-spiritedness. If this happens, potentially productive suggestions could get lost in an unkind delivery.
Additionally, anonymity could actually reinforce the idea that it’s risky to speak up, according to Samuel Culbert, professor of management and organizations at UCLA Anderson School of Management and author of Good People, Bad Managers: How Work Culture Corrupts Good Intentions, in an article on Fast Company.
This idea is also echoed by Claire Lew, CEO of software company Know Your Team. In an article on the Know Your Team blog, she stated that “anonymous feedback breeds a culture of distrust — especially in small teams and organizations.” Lew further said that anonymous feedback opens the door to speculation for both the employees and the person reading the results.
Now that you know some of the pros and cons, the next thing to consider is why specifically you’re seeking feedback. Perhaps you’re a manager wishing to solicit feedback from your staff. Maybe you’re seeking feedback from your own boss. Or, you could be a member of HR wishing to collect anonymous feedback without creating ambiguity and confusion for your team.
After all, if the feedback requires going straight to the source, but the source is unclear, you’re left with uncertainty about what step to take next. The type of feedback you’re looking for is, in part, going to dictate the best approach for obtaining it.
It’s unrealistic to expect beneficial results if the ways you source the feedback are identical across the board, said Ratto. “You risk stifling the evolution of the organization or the development of the person if there is only one way to be in every circumstance.”
When deciding whether to solicit feedback anonymously or not, it’s important to examine the communication patterns you’ve already observed on your team. Consider whether your employees consistently display a healthy, open communication style, or whether hushed “venting sessions” are more common. From there, you can start building feedback strategies that will be tailored to your organization’s collective personality.
These patterns aren’t set in stone — they can change over time, and when they do, it’s necessary to be flexible and adjust your feedback methods accordingly.
“It's more critical to observe and track changes in how your team is communicating than it is to try to adhere to limited communication norms,” Ratto said. “If people who used to directly voice their feedback become hesitant to do so, or if you used to have dynamic Town Hall meetings with plenty of people walking up to the microphone, then future meetings are full of crickets, those are trends to dig into.”
Another approach is to turn to your company values. For example, Cedar’s value of positivity is used to influence their feedback strategy. “Because of this value, as well as Cedar's commitment to supporting inclusion, we need to create an open, transparent environment where we can hear all of our team members' voices regardless of how they're comfortable making them heard,” Ratto said.
Simply put, your company’s culture will dictate the best approach — and it may be a combination of methods in some cases.
For Choozle’s twice-yearly “pulse checks,” an anonymous-but-open approach works best. “We have learned to keep our surveys anonymous, but provide an area for the employee to leave their name if they wish to meet with HR to further discuss their feedback or idea,” said Bindbeutel. “The follow-up has always been beneficial.”
A similar approach works for Aspen Skiing Company, an organization with about 4,500 employees. Human Resources Manager Samantha Hoffmann said that their survey is also anonymous with an option to be contacted by HR.
Hoffmann argued that an anonymous survey is a more diplomatic way to take suggestions — with no biases. “It’s a great platform to get new ideas and hear about someone’s experience as an employee, [whether they’re] brand-new or a 30-year veteran,” she said.
With all of this in mind, remember that human beings are wired to prefer predictable situations. Changing it up by varying the way you solicit feedback too much might make your team uncomfortable or apprehensive, or cause them to think that you’re not taking their feedback seriously. If you decide to go with a hybrid approach, make sure to communicate that with your employees. Share what your plan is, why and how you landed there, and exactly what you intend to do with the survey results.
Ultimately, there are effective ways to implement either approach, so you can take the pressure off trying to do it perfectly. Decide which method, anonymous or not, best fits your company’s culture, values, and objectives, and then give it a shot. But don’t worry about doing it the wrong way — if the method you choose doesn’t yield the results you wanted, you can still learn from the experience. Evaluate what worked and what didn’t, and then tweak your feedback process and try another option next time.