Anonymity (in the workplace) is an anti-pattern

I am a very strong proponent of privacy and anonymity in general, but I have slightly different views regarding the benefits of anonymity in the workplace. In particular, there tends to be a strong bias for anonymity in surveys (either engagement surveys or pulse surveys) and in performance reviews (peer feedback in particular).

Anonymity has of course some advantages in those scenarios, and it is better to have anonymity in surveys and performance reviews than not having surveys and performance reviews, but I'd argue that ultimately anonymity is an anti-pattern and it avoids asking more complicated questions about company culture and psychological safety.

Anonymity in surveys and performance reviews

Anonymity is common in surveys and performance reviews, and it is even expected by most respondents.

In surveys, anonymity tends to mean that your answers won't be tractable back to you as an individual. Most engagement surveys do ask participants for demographic information, but it should still be difficult to link an answer to an individual in particular. Pulse surveys, which are usually done at a team level, also tend to be anonymous in that answers are not linked to names. The benefits of anonymity in surveys are increased participation, more candid responses, and more focus on issues rather than individuals.

In performance reviews, anonymity is a bit more ambiguous, in particular for peer and manager (bottom-up) feedback. The feedback you provide to your peers and manager is anonymous to them, but not necessarily to their managers. That means that your peers won't be reading your feedback directly, but their manager will know you wrote that feedback. The same benefits as for surveys apply here, as anonymity in performance reviews allow for more candid feedback.

Anonymity is the standard in most companies for surveys and performance reviews. The benefits are clear, with increased participation and more candid feedback at the forefront. But what about the drawbacks?

Anonymity isn't always anonymous

Anonymity can sometimes be abused, as it can be a shield for vitriol. We just need to look at the most toxic parts of the Internet to realise that anonymity is a substancial component allowing for such behaviour. In the professional realm, anonymity can veil personal attacks or harassment, but even without going to these extremes, it can just yield useless ranting and venting (and I've been guilty of the latter a few times).

Ultimately though, anonymity isn't always anonymous. Demographic data tends to be used for surveys, which can help narrow down the identity of some respondents. Giving specific examples of behaviours or events might reduce anonymity, and without that context the feedback might be significantly less valuable. In performance reviews, interpersonal relationships can come into play, and negative feedback can be seen as backstabbing.

Those structural issues with anonymity in surveys and performance reviews potentially break trust that the information is actually anonymous and might undo most of the benefits of anonymity. In essence, more than anonymity itself, what fuels increased participation and candid feedback might actually be trust?

Getting the benefits of anonymity without anonymity

Now, before I go any further, I want to acknowledge my privileged position as a man in tech. Anonymity does offer some protection against retaliation for marginalised groups, and it is important that diverse voices are heard. Unfortunately, anonymity might not always be anonymous, and what is needed instead is true psychological safety and trust in an organisation.

Anonymity is a good stopgap solution while trust is being built, but the goal should be hat feedback is given with a name attached to it. Getting there requires the aforementioned psychological safety, but also training on how to provide feedback in the first place. Establishing a healthy feedback culture requires significant effort, but can surpass the benefits of anonymity.

Some steps that can be taken towards that direction include: leading by example, fostering psychological safety, teach techniques such as the Situation-Behaviour-Impact feedback model, creating formal feedback loops and forums for employees to share their feedback openly, highlighting constructive feedback, ensuring that feedback is acted upon, and organising team-building activities that encourage openness.

Of course, this is quite idealistic, and reality is more complex and nuanced, but I would like to work in an environment where feedback can be shared freely and openly instead of relying on anonymous surveys and performance reviews.

Antonio Villagra De La Cruz

Antonio Villagra De La Cruz

Multicultural software engineer passionate about building products that empower people.