A few years ago, I witnessed a particular coworker get singled out and eventually forced out of a company where we worked. What happened? She shared constructive feedback to our leadership during an all-staff meeting about our company’s pay disparities by race. She made suggestions for improvement and transparency as a way to truly demonstrate the company’s values. The leaders acted like they appreciated her feedback and promised to commit to the necessary changes.

Many of us applauded her courage after the meeting because she was the voice we all needed. According to her, it felt like the right thing to do since the company claimed they had an open feedback culture, where anyone could share their honest opinions. Little did she know what awaited her afterwards—she was treated differently and, in many overt ways, made to feel uncomfortable for an extended period. Eventually, she had to exit the company.

In recent times, we have seen a global reawakening around social issues relating to diversity and inclusion. Some of us would attest that conversations around diversity and inclusion have been ongoing for some time. Still, it feels like something is amiss.

According to a Harvard Business Review article, “most business leaders understand the diversity part of diversity and inclusion,… [but] it’s the inclusion part that eludes them... [and] the key to inclusion is understanding who your employees really are.” As an organizational leader, can you say that you understand who your employees are? And how do you know that?

A meaningful way to understand your employees is by creating feedback channels that allow all employees to share their opinions or suggestions about workplace practices, without fear of retaliation.

Why Anonymous Feedback Is Important For Diversity And Inclusion

More than ever, many workplaces are adopting initiatives to improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

While many business leaders describe their organizations as transparent, most of their employees do not agree—a study of over 1,400 workers conducted by Slack, a popular workplace communication platform, proves this. In this study, “55 percent of business owners described their organization as very transparent, but only 18 percent of their employees would agree.” Moreover, employees who complain about workplace issues have worse careers, mental health, and physical health than those who experience similar issues but do not complain, according to a recent report titled, “What Works? Evidence-Based Ideas to Increase Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace.”

55 percent of business owners described their organization as very transparent, but only 18 percent of their employees would agree

These findings tell me one thing: even though the mainstream opinion says that results from anonymous feedback can be inaccurate, biased, or self-serving, direct feedback isn’t proving to be sufficient for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Despite the open-door policies that many business leaders offer to make employees speak up, some employees may remain silent. Based on the experience I shared, employees may not speak up once they notice that they belong to a different race, gender, national origin, or other identities than most of their coworkers, to avoid being singled out.

As HR leaders and managers look to design diversity and inclusion programs, consider that some employees need a safe space to share honest feedback—especially when giving upward feedback.

Therefore, I would like to explore the use of anonymous feedback in the workplace.

What Is Anonymous Feedback?

Unlike direct feedback, where communication is open and in the form of emails, phone conversations, face-to-face meetings, or any medium that discloses people’s identity, anonymous feedback is simply the opposite. As the name implies, people share feedback to teammates or other organizational members while protecting their identities.

Pros of Anonymous Feedback

  • It provides the truth and protects the vulnerable: On topics that are considered sensitive, you’ll often find employees who are afraid to share their opinions. But when employees have the option to use anonymous feedback, you will be offering a safe space for them to share their insights and truths about sensitive workplace issues, without fear of victimization. Also, employers benefit from anonymous feedback because they can receive honest and diverse perspectives on critical issues, and they can quickly address those issues before they escalate.‌‌
  • It allows every voice to be heard and respected: In workplaces, where they practice direct or attributed feedback, leaders may give preference to some voices over others. Due to our unconscious biases, people of higher authority, backgrounds, or eloquence tend to command respect and attention. In such situations, the issues they raise are likely to get immediate attention than those raised by the rest of the group. However, when feedback is collected anonymously, it eliminates biases and allows leaders to focus entirely on the feedback.‌‌
  • It encourages new employees to share their opinions: Research has shown that new employees, who happen to be less senior or influential, see anonymous feedback as more appropriate for formal and informal evaluations than their older colleagues. Typically, the last thing a new employee wants is to start on the wrong foot. During my check-in sessions with new employees to discuss their experiences, most of them often took a neutral stance. So, using anonymous feedback can make new employees feel more comfortable sharing their real opinions on workplace issues.‌‌

Cons of Anonymous Feedback

  • It can breed hostility: Many people kick against anonymous feedback because it can create hostility. According to this Harvard Business Review article, anonymity often sets off a “witch hunt,” where leaders seek to know the source of a negative comment. On the one hand, employees can hide behind anonymity to say personal and hurtful things about their colleagues or leaders. On the other hand, leaders may take constructive feedback as a personal attack and become suspicious and hostile to all their employees.‌‌
  • It can be less impactful than attributed feedback: When using attributed feedback where responses carry the employees’ names, information can be analyzed for relevance and impact. However, with anonymous feedback, it can be difficult to analyze information accurately. It is not uncommon for companies who choose to practice anonymous feedback, to find less specific responses since details may reveal respondents’ identities. Vague feedback from employees would have less power to influence behaviors or drive change in the organization.‌‌
  • It can be difficult to act on: Anonymity defeats the purpose of feedback, which is to create a reciprocal relationship and an opportunity to work toward improvement. Since anonymous feedback is often difficult to trace, it can be challenging for the organization to get context or follow up on important issues, especially when a problem is peculiar to an individual. ‌‌

Anonymous Feedback: Training Wheels

Ideally, everyone in your company should be able to give feedback publicly and not anonymously. They should share constructive criticism and not shy away from direct feedback if they believe and trust that their opinions will be heard and addressed.

However, it takes time to build trust. It’s no different than trusting to balance yourself on two wheels—you move slowly and incrementally. Anonymous feedback gives employees the training wheels to build that trust. They can use anonymous feedback to practice their feedback-giving skills, test the waters, and understand how people perceive their constructive (and sometimes critical) opinions. Is their feedback being ignored? Is management reacting emotionally to critical opinions?

Anonymous feedback allows people to develop trust and share their honest opinions and thoughts about company policies and processes, without fear of repercussions.

How to Request for Anonymous Feedback

Traditionally, many organizations have collected anonymous feedback through suggestion boxes or ombudsmen. However, in recent times, technology platforms have created great channels for collecting feedback.

For example, Inkrement, a feedback tool built for Slack, allows your team to request and deliver timely feedback effortlessly. Inkrement ensures that all voices are heard and empowers your team to give critical feedback directly or anonymously, without fear.

On a smaller scale, a manager can request anonymous feedback from peers or teammates in the form of feedback requests. You can ask thematic questions that ensure anonymity. The feedback you receive can inform your team’s discussions and determine training needs, team building, or performance improvement activities.

When requesting for anonymous feedback on an organizational level, it is necessary to:

  1. Set expectations for employees: Let employees know how important their feedback is to the organization. Also, assure them that their responses will be non-identifiable (no identifiable names, titles, or other demographic details). According to a Harvard Business Review article, “respondents are much more likely to participate if they are confident that personal anonymity is guaranteed.” Set those expectations to increase the chances of response from employees.  ‌‌
  2. Provide Training: As referenced in our Feedback Best Practices, it’s important to train employees on how, when, where, and whom to give feedback. They need to keep their feedback objective and focused on the Situation, Behavior, Impact best practices. ‌‌
  3. Deploy a feedback platform: Use a trusted feedback platform to send feedback requests to employees. For example, when employees submit feedback requests through Inkrement, the system protects and encrypts all personal information, both at rest and in transit, through secure connections to ensure anonymity.  ‌‌
Using feedback to grow incrementally

How to Act on Anonymous Feedback

Once you have deployed anonymous feedback to your employees, be sure to:

  1. Gather and share the findings: A significant issue with employee feedback is that the data often ends up unused. After collecting the results, share the data—the positives and negatives—with your employees. Doing this shows transparency and makes your employees develop a positive attitude toward future requests for feedback. You can use Inkrement to download all the responses on a given question. ‌‌
  2. Get everyone involved: Engage your employees, managers, and leaders in discussing and analyzing the feedback findings. Doing this helps to build trust and develop actionable ideas to move the organization forward.‌‌
  3. Identify the key issues: From the discussions and analyses with your employees, you should identify the key issues and understand how they would impact the organization, once addressed.‌‌
  4. Define and act on the next steps: The purpose of collecting feedback would be pointless if you do not define the next steps. Real improvement comes from knowing and working on the next steps. ‌‌

In conclusion, studies have shown that anonymous feedback becomes more appropriate when there are poor interpersonal relationships in an organization. The need for anonymous feedback usually points to deeper organizational issues, such as fear and lack of trust. Therefore, HR and business leaders should aim to resolve those issues and build a culture of transparency and trust. Also, anonymous employee feedback should give you a smoke signal to find areas to probe further—one of such areas may be diversity and inclusion. Anonymous feedback is essential for visible minorities, who would not want to be treated differently from other colleagues.

If you have a truly transparent, diverse, and inclusive culture, one where there is trust, open communication, and a sense of belonging, then organizations would not need to use anonymous feedback. However, it will take some time to build that kind of organization. Therefore, it is crucial to equip your employees with the tools to develop trust and a sense of openness through anonymous feedback.‌‌