The Curse of Corporate Anonymity

Over the years I’ve received a handful of anonymous notes and letters while working at various organizations.  Scribbled on pages torn from legal pads or neatly typed and sealed in envelopes, the notes often lacked specifics and were furtively slipped under the door of the HR Department –

“Some coworkers who work in my department are doing things that go against company policy. 

I thought you should know.  Signed,  A Concerned Employee.”

It’s often a challenge to determine how seriously one should treat an anonymous complaint.   Is there enough information to launch an investigation into the authenticity of the complaint?  Is this a potential ethical violation or something that’s protected by whistleblower statutes (Sarbanes-Oxley, OSHA)?  While there’s a natural human tendency to try to first identify the author/complainant, it’s often more appropriate to focus on the complaint itself rather than the author and certainly, seeking counsel upon receipt of some complaints is the best course of action.

But oftentimes, anonymous complaints are of a more routine nature; the types of things that should ideally be reported to one’s manager or another company representative.  There are certainly employees who are genuinely fearful their job may be in jeopardy and having an anonymous hotline number or reporting mechanism can serve a valuable purpose.  But sometimes, I fear, employees choose to be “Anonymous” because they work in an organization that discourages openness, transparency and the ability to have dialogue without fear of reprisal, chastisement or belittlement. 

A quick evaluation of how your organization solicits and receives feedback/ideas/complaints may provide some insight into your complaint culture.  Do you have a padlocked suggestion box, bolted-to-the-wall of the lunch room, and wonder why you never receive any ideas/suggestions?  Do you mail out annual employee surveys and shake your head at the abysmal 21% return rate?  Are the assessments you collect after a company-wide training filled with dazzling comments such as “the room was cold and there weren’t enough donuts with sprinkles?” Have you ever implemented something based on suggestions/complaints…and failed to publicize the origin of the idea/change?

It may be time to adopt a new model and go back to the basics.  Relationship basics

The foundation of an effective manager/employee relationship is openness and trust.  You want to make sure that conversations regularly occur and ideas, complaints and suggestions are solicited.

In addition to focusing on the things you need to know (like how Bob in Sales is playing it fast and loose with his expense reports or conditions in the warehouse are unsafe) you should also seek out the things you want to know.

  • What’s it like to work here? 
  • How is our relationship?  What do you need from me as your manager? 
  • Do I provide you with the opportunities for success and achievement?
  • What are the things we can do better - in your area or company-wide?

Not only will you garner ideas that increase involvement and engagement, you’ll gather input that can have a profound impact on operational efficiency and the success of your business.

And your employees won’t have to hide behind the nom de plume “Anonymous.”  

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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