How to Know if Your Employee Feedback Should Be Anonymous

There are two key places for anonymous feedback in a company. The first is feedback directed at the company itself. This may look like a suggestion box, where employees can contribute ideas related to the company’s product or perhaps to office culture. The second is the feedback on an individual, often as a 360 review where peers rate each other on performance. This is the version of employee feedback we’re focusing on in this article.

An organization that strives for honesty may lean towards anonymous feedback, while a company that wants to be transparent may opt for attributed feedback.  

It’s thought that team members will be more honest if they are able to give feedback behind the veil of anonymity. In some cases, anonymous feedback goes horribly wrong, causing personal offense and sometimes leading an employee to quit.

An organization that strives for honesty may lean towards anonymous feedback, while a company that wants to be transparent may opt for attributed feedback. There is no right answer to which kind of peer feedback is best. A company’s culture, specifically the level of transparency and overall appetite for feedback, is the indicator to whether anonymous feedback will work.

The Science Behind Anonymity

The concept of anonymity has been most widely discussed in relation to online comments, a relatively new invention that emerged, of course, with the internet. Some online comments are truly anonymous and allow a user to comment without a name. Others are pseudonymous, and require a user to sign in, which ensures the user builds a reputation as they submit comments — YouTube is a good example, as people are identified by a single username (not necessarily their real name) across the site. Other systems require real names, the best example being Facebook’s comment system, used on some publication websites.

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A study of online comments found anonymity drove incivility (53 percent of anonymous comments were not civil, compared to 29 percent of attributed comments), but anonymity also encouraged greater participation. Online disinhibition effect is defined as a loosening or abandonment of social restrictions present in face-to-face interactions. Diffusion of responsibility means the larger the community, the less users feel accountable for their actions.

The lessons learned in participating in online comments sections likely influence behavior in other online forums, and are thus relevant to internal performance reviews.

Risks of Anonymous Reviews

The first question to ask when considering anonymous 360 reviews is what business value is expected as a result. If managers are under-informed about their reports’ accomplishments or performance, are there other ways to elicit that information, such as more frequent one-on-ones? Is there distrust in the organization? If the potential benefits of anonymous reviews are high enough, they may outweigh the risks.

The first risk is potential for damage to morale. The criticism found in anonymous reviews may make team members feel unappreciated, even if they are given compliments in the process as well. Often this leaves individuals feeling like they should put less heart into their work.

The second is the potential for planned personal attacks. This was brought to light with a recent report on Amazon’s company culture, when employees spoke of the Anytime Feedback Tool, which allowed employees to send anonymous feedback to a person’s manager. Due to company politics, people may plan criticism in order to pave the way for their own promotion. Bruce Elliott, who manages compensation and benefits for the Society for Human Resource Management, told NPR he often would investigate a perceived issue, only to find out someone posted performance feedback with their own agenda.

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Lastly, anonymous reviews stand the risk of bringing out petty comments that are not relevant to performance. One employee is reminded of the time a coworker told her to correct her posture in a performance review.

At worst, an anonymous 360 review teaches employees “how to avoid communicating with one another,” according to Human Workplace’s Liz Ryan. But not every organization is open and collaborative, and sometimes managers need frankness to move things forward.

When Anonymous Reviews Are Appropriate

In a company where regular feedback is the norm and employees are intrinsically motivated, attributed feedback may be effective. But if that is not the case, human resources may want to implement an anonymous system. The reasons for anonymous 360 reviews include enabling subordinates to give feedback on their managers without damaging their relationship with their boss, or losing out on an upcoming promotion or raise. A second group that benefits from anonymous reviews are introverts or reserved personalities, who may not often get their ideas heard, but find anonymity an opportunity to speak more freely.

Different personality types may avoid discussing problems in an attempt to maintain harmony. Here, an anonymous review cycle can address the challenges of a team with a lot of diversity, and will bring issues to the surface that should be dealt with sooner rather than later.

Anonymous Feedback Best Practices

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When launching anonymous feedback, it’s ideal to offer some training on how to give good feedback. Plus, the way feedback is set up may allow for some moderation to avoid “Wild West” syndrome. Here are some tips:

  • Require employees to post feedback that is professional and constructive
  • Train employees on how to give feedback that is helpful, not hurtful
  • Provide opportunities for sending feedback frequently, so that criticisms are not a surprise
  • Give managers access to review and delete (not edit) anonymous feedback to catch any personal insults that are inappropriate for a performance review
  • Similarly, allow managers to see identities behind reviews, although it is still anonymous to the reviewee
  • Tell managers to watch for an agenda behind negative reviews, such as when two people are competing for one spot

Non-Anonymous Feedback Best Practices

The key risk with attributed feedback is that it may encourage fluff in the form of employees exchanging compliments without adding any value. To make attributed feedback work, here are some strategies:

  • Promote honesty and transparency across the organization
  • Train employees on how to give constructive feedback and approach difficult conversations with peers
  • Enable rewards and recognition for risk-taking and openness around mistakes
  • Don’t tie salary or promotions to performance reviews
  • But, be sure to communicate a clear value proposition behind the reviews to encourage participation

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