Transparent vs. anonymous feedback: Which should you choose?

In an ideal world, employees wouldn’t worry about rocking the boat when sharing advice and opinions at work. They would confidently speak about their concerns and challenges while openly praising their colleagues. 

But employees don’t always feel they can express themselves safely and openly in their internal communications. Best-selling author and leadership development architect Susan Scott explains, “Telling it like it is—speaking ground truth versus parroting the party line which we know to be bogus—is no one’s idea of exalting. In fact, it feels so alarming and risky that we are sometimes willing to put a “for sale” sign on our integrity in order to avoid it.” 

The result? Employers miss out on valuable feedback that could otherwise enhance business practices and create a better work environment for everyone. 

Humans may be hardwired to keep quiet at work, but effective leaders can encourage their people to speak up by establishing an anonymous or transparent feedback culture. Let’s dig into the pros and cons of each, and best practices.

Why do employees feel uncomfortable speaking up?

Speaking up isn’t always associated with a positive outcome. In most cases, we can link the fear of speaking up with a combination of personality and situational company culture. Hemant Kakkar and Subra Tangirala outline these two factors as follows: 

  • Personality: Some people aren’t naturally inclined to express their opinions, for example, if they’re shy or introverted.
  • Situational: Others don’t feel able to speak up if their company culture wouldn’t welcome their viewpoint. 

Research determined that both these factors significantly affected an employee’s tendency to speak up, but “strong environmental norms” had the greatest impact. 

The bottom line: Employers have the power to create a safer space for employees to express themselves through candid feedback. But should this be in an anonymous or transparent setting? 

The case for anonymous feedback channels 

When employees want to spill the beans on bad management practices, offensive behavior, or job dissatisfaction, it can be challenging to deliver this honest feedback in person. Anonymous employee feedback programs can encourage people to speak up because they offer: 

  • A confidential means of communication: Disengaged employees can raise concerns about their leaders, colleagues, business partners, or even customers without fear of retribution or negatively impacting the team dynamic.
  • Psychological safety: When your team members speak up anonymously, they don’t need to worry about consequences such as losing their job, or missing a salary raise or promotion opportunity.
  • The opportunity for whistleblowing: Employees can raise the alarm on non-compliance and serious wrongdoing. 

But how confidential is this feedback style? Most anonymous employee feedback tools will fall into one of two categories: 

  • Contextual clues: The text may contain hints about the source of feedback and the identity of the reviewer. For example, their role, their manager’s name, or their location. It’s down to the reviewer to obscure these details. 
  • Non-identifiable: The feedback from employees is entirely anonymous to everyone except an HR or IT administrator. 

Decide which approach is best for your business, remembering to fully communicate your anonymity process with everyone involved in giving and receiving feedback. 

The case for transparent employee feedback channels

But researchers James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris suggest glaring problems with anonymity as a feedback mechanism –that offering anonymous surveys reinforces the idea that speaking your mind isn’t truly safe. This lack of trust also results in a witch-hunt to discover who provided the feedback rather than focusing on the content of the message itself. 

At the other end of the feedback spectrum, transparency can be a welcome alternative to confidentiality. When employees and managers know how to provide direct feedback that their colleagues can act on, this is a powerful way to strengthen workplace relationships and an opportunity to continue the conversation beyond the confines of a suggestion box. 

CIO David Derigiotis embraces the chance to use direct communication to build rapport between employees at Embroker. He explains, “Interaction between employees creates the opportunity to share meaningful learning moments, to improve with the encouragement of others, and build a bond that will lead to a greater sense of team.”

When done well, a non-anonymous feedback report offers the following benefits: 

  • It builds an environment of trust for reviewers and reviewees.
  • It sets the tone for continuous growth and development conversations with the chance to ask follow-up questions.
  • It provides greater context for leaders to act on. 

Author Kim Scott describes how her “radical candor” feedback philosophy uses transparent communication as a compass to guide conversations to a better place:

Start by soliciting radical candor, especially soliciting criticism—don’t dish it out until you prove that you can take it. Remember that radical candor is even more about praise than it is about criticism—you want to focus on the good stuff, but you don’t want to ignore problems either.”

Best practices for sharing feedback

Whether you’re motivated to use anonymous or transparent feedback in your workplace (or even if you’re still on the fence), there are some crucial best practices to incorporate into your feedback collection process. 

1. Clarify your feedback process. 

Before collecting opinions from your employees, always clarify the following, and specify what this means from a privacy and data perspective: 

  • what information you’ll be gathering
  • who will see the feedback 
  • the expected level of anonymity or transparency.

If you plan to publicize names to your HR team, managers, or specific team members, ensure your reviewer is aware so there aren’t any nasty surprises. Never set expectations for anonymity and then change your mind if you believe it would be more convenient to reveal a reviewer’s identity. 

Whether you use anonymous or transparent feedback, always clarify that there will be no repercussions for reviewers, so your people commit to the process. 

2. Set clear boundaries and expectations. 

Provide clear written feedback guidelines so leaders can extract the most value from the opinions provided. 

For anonymous feedback, focus on asking the reviewer to provide specific details about the event they’re describing. Provide good and bad examples to demonstrate what you’re looking for in each piece of feedback: 

  • An example of helpful anonymous feedback: 

The market research team was late with their feedback because of X. This caused the dev team to fall behind by several weeks and ultimately delayed our product launch. Next time, it would be useful if Y could happen.”  

This is specific and provides the manager with enough detail to examine why there may have been a delay, what could be improved next time, and the cost of the delay to the business. 

  • An example of unusable anonymous feedback: 

“I’m fed up with my teammates being lazy.” 

Here, the manager doesn’t know which team they’re talking about, the type of laziness discussed, or the impact (if any) on the business.

If opting for transparent feedback, ensure the boundaries are clear. Be open to providing constructive insights, but clarify that the reviewer must offer solutions suggesting how to move forward. Consider assigning topics to deliver focused, productive, and positive feedback. For example:

  • What do you appreciate about this project? 
  • What would you recommend for improvement?
  • What did you learn from the experience?

With both anonymous and transparent feedback, clarify how you plan to act on the results and your expected timeline. For example, if you react to Pulse Survey results within a month, your employees may be more inclined to commit to the process again next time—they’ll feel heard! Leave it for six months, and they may not bother next time. 

3. Know when to use the right type of feedback. 

As we’ve seen, there are benefits and drawbacks to using anonymous and transparent feedback in the workplace. The key is to understand when to use each. 

For example, anonymous channels aren’t a good fit for downward feedback between a manager and their direct report. This relationship relies on employees trusting their boss to come to them directly with praise or critical feedback. However, when we flip the roles around, it’s easy to see employees could find it challenging to offer harsher feedback about their supervisor’s tardiness or lack of empathy skills. Anonymity can be a welcome option when delivering feedback to management.