Why Employees Should Be Able to Give Anonymous Feedback, and Why Management Should Listen

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Key Takeaways from Prof. Peter Cappelli’s radio show, “In the Workplace” (SiriusXM Business Radio Powered by the Wharton School–Channel 111)

Anon Sharing

Recently, on an episode of my radio show In the Workplace, co-host Dan O’Meara and I got the chance to discuss anonymous employee feedback with Ryan Janssen, founder of Memo, a new app allowing employees to provide anonymous feedback and upvoting. Here’s a summary of our talk:

Water-cooler talk is nothing new. From sports to office gossip, it seems co-workers have no reservations when it comes to speaking candidly with each other – especially when it concerns work itself. But what happens to these frank discussions when they take place between employees and upper management? Imagine you’re frustrated with a current project and you voice your concerns to the co-worker one cubicle over. The discussion gets going, and maybe she feels the same way. But when you notice your supervisor rounding the corner, the conversation comes to an abrupt halt. If asked, “How’s the project going?” you’d probably give the expected answer: Great!

A Mismatch in Managerial Duty
Employees are not very likely to relay negative information, even if it would be counterproductive to withhold. People are scared to tell their bosses what they really think. Ryan Janssen, founder of Memo, attributes this to managers’ perception that they have two assignments: 1) evaluate their employees and 2) collect information. Often employees will tell you only what think managers want to hear.  I call this distortion of truth “The Santa Claus Effect.” Ryan made the point that if you contextualize this situation through multiple layers of management, by the time information reaches the top, you have upper management looking back at a mirror of their own creation.

It’s important to note that these people usually aren’t acting with ill intentions or moral carelessness. They are most often employees who genuinely care about their work, but the current communication structure does not empower them to share their honest opinions.

Why is Unbiased Feedback important?
There are numerous negative consequences when companies fail to listen:

1) Wasted resources –employees follow through on costly projects they know are bound to fail, simply because they don’t feel comfortable voicing their concerns.

2) Forfeited creativity –employees withhold ideas that might produce better results because they fear unfavorable reactions or reviews from their supervisors.

3) Lost talent –valuable employees are more likely to jump ship if they cannot report grievances about their working conditions to receptive management.

So if openly addressing employee problems is so beneficial, why haven’t employers made it a priority? Well, for one thing they might not even be aware that any problems exist. As Dan pointed out, if there is one pervasive error that bosses make, it’s thinking that everyone who works for them is happy. Sometimes this is the case. But more often than not, it’s an issue of management being out of touch with the real conditions of employees working on the ground level. So how can we open up an honest dialogue between employees and their management?

Ryan’s Memo app attempts to tackle this  problem. Memo allows users to post anonymous messages about their employers, similar to Yik Yak or Whisper. So far, the free app has drawn employees from such companies as McKinsey, IBM, and Delta, talking about issues including compensation, managerial efficiency, and working from home. While other online platforms like Glassdoor offer anonymous reviews, Memo focuses on internal discussions enabled by private company boards.

The reactions from employers have been mixed, with some companies sending cease and desist letters and others adopting Memo internally as an HR tool. Either way, the growing popularity of the app should send a clear message to employers: “We need to talk.”

Issues such as pay inequities, workplace safety and more should be resolved in a positive, constructive setting where employees can speak out without jeopardizing their jobs. All great change comes from within, and employers should provide a channel for employees to openly express what changes need to happen.

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His latest book is “Will College Pay Off? A Guide to the Most Important Financial Decision You’ll Ever Make.”

To read more from Prof. Peter Cappelli, visit his LinkedIn page.


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