Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a decade of writing a work advice column, it’s that people really, really don’t want to have awkward conversations. With problems both minor—like a co-worker who takes all her calls on speakerphone—and major—like chronically late paychecks—many people choose to suffer silently for months or even years rather than facing five minutes of mild social discomfort. It’s perhaps not terribly surprising, given that most people dislike conflict and try to avoid it. But what still takes me by surprise is how often full-grown adults turn to anonymous notes as a substitute for face-to-face conversation.
Fans of the anonymous note clearly think they’ve found a loophole that will let them deliver a message without having to attach their names to it, neatly bypassing the problem of having to deal with any resulting awkwardness. In reality, they’re just passing all the awkwardness over to the recipient of their anonymous missive, who now has to wonder how much weight to give the note and whether it’s serious or a joke, and who now must suspect each of their co-workers of being the note-leaver.
In many cases, anonymous notes are outright cruel, both in content and in the effect they have on the recipient. Here’s how one recipient described the experience:
I received an anonymous note once. It stated how I was loud and gossipy and the wording was really cruel (not just asking me to be quiet but comparing me to Page Six of the New York Post). Though possibly true, no one had ever asked me to be quiet, no one even sat in the cubes around me at the time except for my manager who was an exceptionally kind person and friend. I talked to several friends at work about it privately and asked them to honestly tell me if anyone had a problem with me. They were shocked and couldn’t think of anyone. I spoke to HR but there was nothing else they could do. … I finally let it go as someone else’s problem. But it made me feel awful and look at everyone around me suspiciously.
Anonymous notes also make it harder to solve the very problem being reported, because they make it impossible to ask follow-up questions about what solutions might be workable. That’s exactly what happened to this person, who works in a dog-friendly office and had received permission to bring her well-behaved dog into work with her:
Today, my manager came to talk to me. … They’ve received a couple of complaints that my dog is too large to be allowed in the office, and someone left a note last week saying that they’re afraid of dogs. My manager very kindly asked me to stop bringing her to work.
I completely understand where they’re coming from, and I know very few offices would let me bring such a big dog to work regularly. But this was something that influenced my decision to take this job, and has a real impact on my happiness at work. I’m also a little frustrated about the whole anonymous complaint system. I can’t even offer to make a point of keeping my dog away from the person who’s afraid, or come up with another solution.
Here’s another person stumped by their inability to ask any follow-up questions, this time in the context of a job search:
Just yesterday I got an offer from a company—and a pretty nice one to boot! Then I got this anonymous email from a person who, as far as I can tell, doesn’t and has never worked for the company: “If you need the job, take it. If you are looking to advance your career, look at Glassdoor. Good luck and don’t waste your time. Glassdoor is the truth and everyone here has one foot out the door.”
I really don’t know what to make of this. There are some negative reviews of the CEO on Glassdoor, but when I interviewed I didn’t get the impression they were accurate and another employee said he read the same review and hasn’t found it to be the case. I’m not sure what to make of this.
When you don’t know who’s delivering a message, it’s hard to judge how much weight and credibility to give it. Are you hearing about a real problem, or are you being manipulated by someone with an ax to grind? In fact, some research shows that people are less likely to act on anonymous complaints, because it’s so hard to tell how credible they are.
Here’s a report from a manager who received anonymous reports of employee theft, couldn’t substantiate them, and had to wonder where to go from there:
Recently, we began getting anonymous emails from someone within the office accusing the temp of making unauthorized purchases on the credit card. All receipts and all bills go through both me and the senior person in the office, and nothing has been amiss. … Unless the receipts were doctored, there have been no purchases made that raised any eyebrows. … Ultimately, what I and the senior approving person want is for whomever is sending the emails to come forward with evidence that the temp is stealing, if there is any. If he was stealing, this is something we would want to know, but this email sender has hidden behind an anonymous email address.
It doesn’t seem fair to keep someone under a cloud of suspicion based on an anonymous report, when you’ve investigated and found no signs that the report is credible. But when the notes keep coming, what do you do? The anonymity takes away your ability to talk to the person sending them to say, “We’ve investigated this and found no wrongdoing. Is there something you know of that we’ve overlooked?”
Of course, it’s certainly true that people who send anonymous notes sometimes do so because they fear retaliation. But a workplace that retaliates against people raising good-faith concerns generally isn’t one that will respond any better to anonymous complaints, as this letter illustrates:
Someone at a former workplace wrote an anonymous note calling out management on various valid issues (it was a cliquey workplace and our director clearly played favorites).
The fallout: Our director called everyone into a meeting room, then she read the letter out loud. Once she finished reading, she called out the letter writer about how they didn’t know what they were talking about and then dared the letter writer to tell her what they thought to her face. Then she started swearing, stormed out of the room, then the managers took over telling everyone how hard it was to be a manager and we should all show more respect because her job was hard. Frankly, she confirmed to everyone through her actions that she couldn’t be trusted to hear concerns fairly.
This is clearly a case of a uniquely problematic manager. And some avenues for anonymous reporting are sensible, such as whistleblower hotlines where employees can report serious wrongdoing by their employers (like legal or safety violations). But interpersonal conflicts or workplace dissatisfaction aren’t anonymous note territory; they require real conversation without the shroud of anonymity. And being able to say, “Could you keep it down? I’m having trouble focusing over here” or “I’m having trouble working with your dog so near to me” or any other version of “X is happening; could you do Y to solve it?” is as much an essential workplace skill as any other.