Employee feedback: Confidentiality screws up accountability

Anonymous Employee Feedback

One of the most remarkable things to me about the evolution (revolution?) of business in the modern era is this seeming dichotomy:

  • Organizations now strive to get real-time feedback from customers (think social media, tracking tools, etc.)
  • Organizations still basically have real conversations with their own employees about once a year. (“The Annual Performance Review”)

So stop and think about that: as we’ve become religiously devoted to the idea of making sure our customers are happy, we’ve probably regressed on the concept of making our employees happy. Don’t believe me? Look at the numbers.

There are organizations out there trying to change this idea — TinyPulse is a notable one, and I’ve done some freelance writing for Waggl, another one. But still, I wouldn’t say this idea of “real-time employee feedback” has necessarily caught on broadly; it’s still just in a small sampling of organizations that might be a little more progressive.

And here’s one big issue that’s still out there: the confidential/anonymous employee survey. 

Literally every place I’ve ever worked, from a public school in Houston to ESPN to where I work now, has an anonymous employee survey as a function of the year; typically it happens once, the results phase is out-sourced, that takes a few months, and 3-4 months after you filled out your 1-5s and comments, someone does a 5-6 minute presentation on the results at an all-hands meeting. A few pretty obvious nuggets are pulled out — “63 percent of people report having a good relationship with their boss!” — and the meeting transitions to another topic, and no one really thinks about the survey again until the next one, 8-10 months later. (Maybe the results get attached to an e-mail, but that’s even somewhat of a rarity.)

The main problem with what I described above, besides everything I just typed, is that a confidential survey totally destroys your ability to be accountable or follow up. A few examples:

  • Good Ideas: If you stumble across a great idea on such a survey, you can steal it and run with it at the top levels, sure. That’s happened in companies. But you have no way to connect it back to one person, or allow that person some ability to run with it / develop it.
  • Insightful Comments: I worked at a place once that did those “Lunch with the CEO” things. That’s a good idea generally-speaking and all that, and CEOs tend to be busy and probably travel more, so an opportunity to get 10-12 people in front of them is noble. Afterwards, one of the CEO lackeys sent out an anon survey about the experience; a few days later, he replied all to the attendees and said, “One of the comments on this survey was the best thing the CEO has read in five years!” The CEO had absolutely no idea who wrote it, and the lackey didn’t care. It totally removed a chance for someone to look smart in front of their boss’ boss’ boss. (PS — I wondered for years if it was one of my comments, then I stopped caring.)
  • Negative Feedback: If something is really bad on 1-2 surveys, you miss the chance to follow up directly with those people and see if you can re-engage them or fix the problem.

Those are just some basic ways confidentiality and accountability don’t totally mix.

Now, all that said, I completely understand why these types of things typically are anonymous. There’s probably some kind of legal issue I don’t 100 percent understand, and as we know, talking about failure and challenging issues is even harder at work than in your personal life. (People really don’t like to do it.)

When you go back to the bigger issue of employees not feeling respected (but wanting to), doesn’t it seem like having accountable, real-time feedback loops would help with that?

Again, I understand how most managers would probably address this — “Well, that’s a good idea, but I’m already so slammed on 2015 deliverables. Who has time to give real-time feedback?” For more on that, see here, here, here and here.

Stop. Focus on people. Explain to them what’s good and not-so-good. Be transparent. It will strengthen the tie from employee back to organization, and make them want to excel even more. 

Seems logical — but to many, it isn’t.

Ted Bauer