When Anonymous Employee Feedback Hits Its Limits—and What to Do Next

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"Katie, how do you work in communications when you can't even communicate with employees?"


This is a rare, but very real, anonymous response I recently received in an employee feedback survey. The company keeps this survey live year-round to collect questions before monthly all-team Town Hall meetings. This particular employee was upset with a company-wide change made to increase the visibility of the intranet. They didn’t think I had done enough to communicate about the change before the rollout.


Communications professionals face more complexity than ever (in both topics and a growing number of communication channels), as well as increasingly discerning audiences. This is nowhere more apparent than in internal communications, where the pandemic-redistributed workforce is harder to reach and more difficult to align. Communicators are also working through a time when the boundary between internal and external communications is increasingly porous.

Anonymous employee Q&A is a powerful tool for many companies. And, as this example illustrates, it carries the same risk of generating negative swirl as other anonymous platforms on the internet. When the anonymous questions get hard to read, it can leave one questioning if anonymity is even worth it. In meetings, folks will start to ask: Should we just change the settings so people HAVE to submit their name?

As a bit of an internal comms survey expert, I’m here to tell you anonymous feedback is worth it—up to a point. Here are some tips for maximizing the effectiveness of anonymous feedback while minimizing its downsides.

Collecting anonymous feedback is a best practice . . .

Feedback moves organizations forward, and they want it whenever they can get it. There are two important types of anonymous feedback channels for employees. First is the whistleblower kind for reporting harassment, fraud, legal and other issues without fear of retribution. (This is positively vital and hopefully managed by human resources and legal—not communications).

The second kind taps into employee wisdom. If a company wants to do better, its has to know what’s going on in the employee community. If people can report complaints or ideas anonymously, they will be more candid, and this is infinitely more productive than employees stewing in silence or venting to coworkers.

Leaving an anonymous employee survey open is a business-as-usual best practice for companies, and one that's even more critical if working towards a big cultural or strategic shift, or grappling with some other systemic issues. Even if an organization is not working through a pivotal moment, anonymous feedback offers good optics when communications reports the ideas collected and shares how leadership is responding to them.

. . . But not all of it needs to be aired and shared.

SurveyMonkey always has an anonymous survey open and reminds employees of it often—especially in the lead-up to a Town Hall. During the meeting, most questions are read verbatim and executives answer them. Live questions are also received directly on chat.

However, the anonymous Q&A feature on Zoom is always disabled . This gives the organization the best of both worlds: a mechanism for collecting anonymous feedback (the survey) without allowing anonymous commenters to run the agenda with unfiltered commentary on Zoom.

When people aren't asked to associate their name and reputation with a question or comment, they may use it as an opportunity to vent their frustrations. This creates a mechanism for personal attacks or other exclusionary or incendiary language.

The drama of seeing an inappropriate comment at a company-wide meeting can distract from core messaging. It can also enable a vocal minority to change the tenor and tone of the larger conversation, generating a mini-crisis. As a major tech company CEO (and SurveyMonkey customer) advised us once, "If you're enabling anonymous live Q&A to drive the conversation at Town Hall, you're probably letting your most immature employees drive the agenda in your most expensive company-wide meeting."

Making unhelpful anonymous feedback helpful

Following the advice above will result in multiple questions and feedback to share verbatim, and a handful that cannot be shared. Here’s what to do with the questions not read in full:

  • Edit some for tone or length, but still ask the same essential question. This is helpful when someone writes in with a LOT of context or a long, frustrated preamble, but then asks a great question that might help others on the team, too. It’s still worth asking; just edit it to get to the point.
  • If questions are received that don’t apply to all employees, send them directly to executives responsible for that area. Then they can address them in a more focused, organization-specific meeting (e.g. a question about marketing attribution might be more appropriate for the marketing All-Hands).
  • Translate feedback containing personal attacks or inappropriate language into a statement for your exec team. For example: "People are upset about X." It's still feedback, in its own way, and it shouldn’t be dismissed; nor should such comments be given a public platform for exposure. Pass along the message without using the words that make it hard to take seriously.
  • Thank people who do include their names in a survey. Follow up with questions or get more information about their experiences. This kind of vulnerability is courage in action!
  • Remind people to ask genuine, specific questions that help move the company forward. Sharing dislikes is helpful, but it’s even more helpful to share what they would like to see instead.

Take care of your professional listeners

While navigating these choppy waters, remember it can be personally taxing for internal comms and HR professionals to bear witness to everyone's bad day in the form of survey comments. When reading anything that veers into inappropriate territory, check in with the team out of both concern for their well-being, and to stay empathetic to the employee base.

Repeatedly reading negative comments during an intense time at work is the sort of thing that can keep a person up at night. Take good care of them, because the last thing a team needs is to get cynical, and stop trying to make things better.

Grow from all of the comments—even the zingers.

Two things are true at the same time: anonymous feedback is really important, and it has limits. People expect to be able to speak up and be heard at work, and I for one am glad. Honest feedback is the path to progress. Professional communicators just need to set up the right boundaries and context to ensure all voices—even those that hurt—make companies stronger in the end.​

Katie Miserany, is Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer at SurveyMonkey.