The case for building employee satisfaction through confidential and anonymous feedback programs

Employee feedback programs address and prevent internal issues and protect your company’s reputation. To be effective, they require structure. They require an established set of rules and guidelines that ensure authentic, reliable feedback. But, these programs have inherent pros and cons. This guide will delve into the different types of programs and why you need to lean into anonymity.

 

Read the guide below.


What are Employee Feedback Programs?

At their core, employee feedback programs are simply a mechanism for employees to deliver information to decision-makers regarding their experience at work, which can be anything from relationships with coworkers and supervisors, to feedback on the direction of the company and leadership, to the workplace environment more broadly. There are four primary reasons to have an employee feedback program.

1. Increase Employee Engagement and Productivity - Studies show that disengaged employees cost organizations between $450-550 billion every year. What's more, 69% of employees surveyed said they would work harder if companies would include more recognition. Understanding why employees are disengaged starts with giving them safe ways to speak up about the changes they would like to see.

2. Employee Retention - Employees with lower engagement are twice as likely to quit the following year. With the cost of turnover as much as two times their annual salary, engagement is important to business operations as well as the bottom line.

3. Risk Management - According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in 2019, employers paid out a record $68.2 million to those alleging sexual harassment violations alone. The risk of a public scandal is not just about dollars spent on legal action. It’s also about the irreversible damage to the company’s reputation, especially now, when companies are being held to higher standards than ever.

4. Company Culture and Employment Brand - More companies are investing in continuous improvement in the company’s employment brand. Having a reputation as a great place to work yields better hires and improved succession planning and contributes to the items above.

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Why Your Company Needs an Employee Feedback Program

Though employee feedback programs are easy to define, research shows they are challenging to deploy successfully. Surveys show that 89% of HR leaders believe employee feedback has a positive impact on their organizations. Yet a large proportion of employees indicate they don't feel comfortable raising issues. 

In fact, many employees who experience harassment said that they are so afraid of retaliation they don't report the behavior. That’s why more HR leaders are using confidential and anonymous strategies for employee feedback. Getting real feedback helps: 

  • Foster authentic insights into the true employee experience 
  • Promote honesty, openness, and integrity among employees
  • Build trust with employees by giving them safe ways to resolve issues
  • Create a workforce that feels valued and engaged

Executives and managers may not work in the same area where employees conduct their day to day duties. With remote workers, this is even more true. Managers and company leaders may not find out about issues until they have become serious enough that someone decides to come forward.. Employee feedback allows employees to proactively highlight workplace dynamics, policies, or behaviors that may affect productivity or cause liability for the company. Plus, research shows that these programs can increase employee engagement and company morale. 

Reducing Harassment and Producing a More Inclusive Workplace

Workplaces are incredibly diverse. From baby boomers to millennials, there are up to five generations working side by side in most large companies. This vast array of knowledge, experiences, religions, sexual preferences, and backgrounds can lead to misunderstandings, microaggressions, miscommunications, and even more serious issues like bullying.

When properly integrated, employee feedback programs enable employees to broach sensitive topics, like sexual harassment issues or office politics, that may be too difficult to discuss openly. Stressful announcements like company mergers or COVID-related adjustments to the workplace can also go more smoothly with employee feedback.

Feedback can help your HR team identify where awareness and education might be needed. For example, if there are complaints about gender bias or sexual harassment, it is important to address these issues with education, clear policies and communication around these topics, and accountability for leadership to ensure that no illegal behavior has taken place.

When you try to meet specific office culture goals, employee feedback can be the barometer of progress. If your company is alienating some employees by establishing certain policies, real-time feedback can let management know there is a problem. By ensuring that feedback is coming directly to those who can make changes, it creates a productive environment, rather than leaving employees to gossip unproductively with one another about all of the problems happening in their workplace. 

Though every business stands to benefit from employee feedback programs, some programs have more true, unvarnished insights than others. Let's look at some different types of confidential and anonymous feedback programs to see which is right for your business.

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The Difference Between Confidential and Anonymous?

So what’s the difference between confidential and anonymous? In workplace terms, confidentiality refers to a condition in which the employer ultimately knows the employee’s identity but (at least theoretically) takes steps to protect their identity from being discovered by others. 

Anonymous, on the other hand, refers to when the reporter’s identity is not known to the employer. Though terms like confidential and anonymous often go hand-in-hand, they are NOT the same. If you are looking to implement a confidential or anonymous employee feedback program you should first:

  • Explicitly state the definitions of anonymity and confidentiality
  • Set expectations around anonymous feedback 
  • Utilize anonymous communication tools to scrub messages of identifiable information

By undertaking these steps, you prove to your employees that you are committed to maintaining structured and deliberate opportunities for them to share their honest thoughts. 

Whistleblowing vs. Feedback

There is a misconception in the workplace surrounding the term whistleblower. Though it’s often associated with illegality and disloyalty, the intentions are broader. Without the help of whistleblowers, it is difficult for upper management to become aware of workplace violations.  

In any case, company leaders should investigate all official complaints and communicate back to the person who lodged them. This is critical to signal to staff that their concerns are important.  

Many employees look for alternative employment after observing a compliance violation. To retain valuable staff and save on the cost of replacing them, you want to avoid this. You want whistleblowers to come forward so you can deal with the breach and create a safer, more appealing workplace. 

You also want to ensure that your employees understand the difference between whistleblowing and feedback. They will then be more likely to provide feedback without concern. And you'll need to provide a mechanism for your team to deliver that feedback. Feedback should be acknowledged and incorporated where prudent.  

Getting ahead of negative issues is also very important in the age of social media. When employees do not have an outlet to address or report problems, they may voice frustrations on platforms like Glassdoor. And some stories could end up going viral and negatively impact your company's reputation. 

In these instances, reactive efforts to improve reputation can be difficult and expensive. Uber famously hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder after Susan Fowler’s blog post exposed the harassment and discrimination she experienced at Uber. That’s not cheap. It is far better to be proactive, and give employees a way to communicate with management safely. Being proactive also keeps negative publicity from influencing investors or board members.

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Benefits of Honest Employee Feedback

It's common practice for business owners and managers to offer constructive criticism to their employees. Requests for upwared feedback from employees, however, are rare.. Even the most tenured company executive can benefit from employee feedback. 

In most cases, employees on the frontlines are closer to organizational challenges. They can provide an invaluable inside perspective on what works and what doesn't. Asking for feedback engages employees and, if carried out responsibly, shows that management cares about improving the workplace.  

Resolving Retention Issues

The latest research in the field of employee engagement reveals two-thirds of employees feel disengaged. That’s a troubling statistic when you consider that 69% of disengaged employees would leave their current role for as little as a 5% increase in pay. 

Fortunately, research also shows that 90% of workers would be more likely to stay at a company that listens to them. You can improve employee retention by facilitating a means for employees to provide feedback. And research shows that employees are more likely to give feedback through anonymous channels.

Improve Corporate Reputation

Business leaders know the value of the company's reputation. Businesses with strong positive reputations attract better talent. They are perceived as more valuable, enabling them to charge a premium for their services. What’s more, because the market believes that reputable companies are more likely to deliver sustained earnings and future growth, they enjoy higher market values. 

Those factors are important in an economy where 70-80% of a company’s market value comes from hard-to-assess intangible assets. Things like brand equity or intellectual capital are hard to quantify. Charities and non-profit organizations are especially vulnerable to anything that damages their reputations.

The last thing any organization wants is for an employee to tell a negative story to the press without a chance to mitigate the issue or limit reputational damage. Employee feedback programs enable workers to report problems to decision-makers, who can resolve the issue before any harm occurs to the company's reputation.  

Solve Recruitment Challenges

A LinkedIn survey shows 94% of HR professionals agree that the employee experience is essential to the future of recruiting. That same survey identifies 23% of learning and development professionals who say they partner with recruiting agencies to identify skills gaps and hard-to-fill roles within their organization.  

Another way to accomplish both of those goals is to use an employee feedback program that enables workers to provide valuable information about the company's state and identify skill gaps you can target through recruiting.

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Why You're Not getting the Whole Truth

There are two primary reasons why some companies fail to get true insight into what their employees are thinking and feeling. Employees don’t trust the system, and they don’t think it does any good.

1) Lack of trust in the feedback system. People know culture surveys and direct HR complaints are not truly anonymous, so they do not even bother putting in the effort to be honest and detailed. Employees may fear repercussions for providing truthful insights. Or they may have mild, more general concerns that don’t seem “important” enough to report. But either way, knowing they are traceable holds them back from revealing important issues. 

Even soliciting honest feedback from departing employees during exit interviews can be tricky. Vacating employees are mindful not to burn bridges or jeopardize future references. They also often suspect their feedback won’t be taken into account anyway.

2) Nothing ever changes as a result of surveys. When much of the feedback HR receives through culture surveys is watered down reflections of the inner work culture, there’s not much they can really do. So nothing of consequence changes. Then in a vicious cycle, disillusioned employees choose not to provide further feedback.

The unfortunate result is some employees are under stress about issues that could be resolved. Issues that impact multiple employees, such as a micromanaging supervisor or a bullying coworker are left undetected and unaddressed. If you don’t provide a safe place for this feedback, you risk losing valuable employees. You also potentially face escalating issues, decreased performance, lawsuits, or worse. 

How can you provide these safe avenues? Read on!

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Confidential Program Types

A confidential employee feedback program is often executed using emails, in-person meetings, culture surveys, and more. For the benefit of reporting to the company’s leaders, employee responses are aggregated by team, location, job role, and/or manager, ostensibly to create some confidentiality for each individual employee. The problem is… even confidential surveys are not truly anonymous. So the quality of feedback will be poor, because employees won’t trust that they can speak frankly about the challenges of their work environment.

Pulse and Employee Satisfaction Surveys

Pulse surveys typically enable managers to track the same item over time. Things like “How likely are you to recommend your current role to a friend?” It’s the equivalent of the NPS survey for your employees.

Far shorter than annual engagement surveys, pulse surveys are more agile than traditional collection methods. Greater agility allows for frequent feedback, with managers reacting more effectively. 

Results from pulse and employee satisfaction surveys should be taken with a grain of salt, however. They are not always anonymous. Employees may be inclined to sugar coat answers or hold back information in these types of surveys. Or, get bored of being repeatedly surveyed and reply with inaccurate information.

Skip-Level and Executive Feedback

One of the best ways to discover a bad manager is to have a private meeting with the manager’s supervisor(s). It’s meant to allow the employee to talk to senior managers without fear of retribution. 

The challenge here is that the employees know which managers have relationships with other managers. The employee's boss may socialize with upper management and become defensive or dismissive. Fears of retaliation also come into play as their feedback is plainly not anonymous.

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HR Investigations

Sometimes employees go directly to HR to report an issue. Whatever the complaint, from harassment to safety concerns, you are obligated (often by law) to fully investigate the claim. These investigations must be prompt, swift, and thorough. 

Case management tools and other systems can be used to manage the investigation from start to finish. And confidentiality is critically important. SHRM recommends that the investigator have no relationship with any of the involved parties. This helps ensure conduct and document interviews are fair and result in an unbiased conclusion.

In smaller companies, it may be impossible to find someone who doesn’t have a relationship with any involved parties. But inappropriate sharing can happen even in larger companies. Just ask the 69,000 participants in the subreddit ”askHR”!

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Exit Interviews

Though data from exit interviews are a lagging indicator–collected after the employee decides to leave the organization–studying why an employee exits the company can help reveal:

  • How their needs changed during their employment
  • What their key motivators for leaving were
  • How they rated their overall experience of working in the organization

Exit interview best practices dictate using a reputable third party to protect confidentiality. Respondents can be given the option to waive confidentiality in some instances, which would allow data to be provided to human resources if needed. 

Fact: 92% of workers are open to their organization collecting data on their work if it contributes to boosting their performance, generates personal benefits, or improves their wellbeing.

But as noted earlier, soliciting honest feedback from exiting employees can be tricky. Most employees will refrain from negative comments to protect future job references.  

The Importance of Confidentiality 

What happens if information is not-or cannot be-kept confidential? Confidentiality is incredibly important to employers and employees alike because confidential information can be misused to retaliate against a complainant, resulting in costly lawsuits filed against the employer. 

What are the Consequences for a Breach of Confidentiality?

54% (approx. 39,000) of the EEOC claims faced by employers in 2019 involved allegations of retaliation. As such, most states have laws that make it illegal to disclose sensitive employee and management information, such as:

  • Discussions about employee relations issues
  • Disciplinary actions 
  • Impending layoffs/reductions-in-force
  • Terminations
  • Workplace investigations of employee misconduct

Beyond the legal implications, a breach of confidentiality can lead to a loss of employee trust, engagement, productivity, and loyalty. That's why best practice dictates that managers take steps to protect the confidentiality of their employees.

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The Tip of the Iceberg

Though confidential employee feedback programs are undoubtedly useful, they do not provide the candid, honest feedback that is most valuable to employers to avoid risk and make real, necessary changes. 

Employees have limited trust in confidentiality, and perhaps rightfully so. Most articles referencing employee confidentiality have to do with keeping the employer’s information confidential - not the employee’s. Even SHRM has an article "How Anonymous is that Employee Survey?” with the following paragraph:

“A Forbes advice columnist once told a reader that she ‘could be taking a risk by completing the survey truthfully’ after the reader revealed that her company had e-mailed her noting that she had yet to complete an employee satisfaction survey. ‘I don't mean to make you paranoid, but the e-mail message that said 'You haven't completed your survey yet' certainly gives me pause,’ the columnist wrote. ‘Who would trust in the survey's confidentiality once they get a message like that?’”

And from many employees’ standpoint, change as a result of providing feedback is also limited. According to the Wall Street Journal article, It’s Time to Get Rid of Employee Surveys,

“The reason companies do these surveys—to find out what is going on in their workplace and with employees—remains as important as ever. But workers don’t like the surveys and often won’t respond to them, and most companies don’t do anything with the results anyway. “

Employees understand that there are email addresses, cookies, or other unique identifiers attached to confidential information. So for many, confidentiality provides no safety from repercussions. On top of that, they have no indication that anything will change as a result of their input. It's all just lip-service as far as they're concerned. For the most part, confidential feedback is perceived as a waste of time. 

And as the Wall Street Journal article continues:

“and now, management has access to a host of other data that can tell it what is going on in the workplace far better and faster than the annual survey can.”

That’s where anonymous feedback and third party data collection can come in. Anonymous feedback gives employees a safe place to let you know what is going on when HR and upper management are not looking. Anonymous feedback is a type of feedback companies should invest in.

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Anonymous Program Types

An anonymous employee feedback program is one in which employee responses truly cannot be tied back to an employee record. It makes it impossible to identify the employee who provided the information. 

Anonymous Suggestion Box

The most common and underrated form of anonymous employee feedback programs is the suggestion box. The suggestion box is the original safe space for employees to speak up about workplace harassment and provide feedback.

Today, the suggestion box often takes the form of an anonymous reporting and communication platform. This is where employees have a secure way to report harassment directly to company leadership without fear of retaliation.

While the suggestion box helps capture true sentiment, it does not allow you to address issues in a meaningful way, because there is no opportunity for two way communication. There is no avenue for resolution that some anonymous feedback programs enable. Also, with remote work becoming more common, a physical suggestion box doesn’t make as much sense as not all employees would have access to it. 

Whistleblower Hotlines

A whistleblower hotline is a channel that empowers employees to anonymously alert an organization about violations and suspicions of misconduct. This enables managers to act on possible wrongdoing at an early stage. 

Whistleblower hotlines are most commonly used for

  • Corruption
  • Discrimination
  • Sexual harassment
  • Financial fraud

Employees think of this as the place to report illegal behavior and serious misconduct. Most of these hotlines fulfill a requirement for compliance. Many of them include features that bypass notifying the senior management (since those might be the issue). Feedback is sent directly to an ombudsman or even the corporate board.

Public companies especially are subject to comply with legislation such as Dodd-Frank, UK Bribery Act and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA.). 

For these reasons, whistleblower hotlines are generally thought of as a destination of last resort. An employee may skip feedback as they feel their issue is not at an "Erin Brockovich” level complaint.   

Where then, do employees who really want to be heard go? When they really want change, where can they provide feedback? How can you learn about problems that are impacting your organization?

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Successful Employee Feedback

The world is more uncertain now than it has been in decades. Employees are anxious and concerned about changes in their workplace. One way to alleviate stress is to provide employees a way to voice concerns without fearing consequences.   

Unfortunately, many HR teams rely on outdated feedback systems. Employee anonymity is not guaranteed, and therefore honest, unfiltered feedback is not given.

To manage employee stress and uncertainty, you need a truly anonymous employee feedback program. Employees need to be empowered to speak their minds safely. Anonymous reporting gives the most accurate glimpse into employee sentiment free from judgment or backlash. The employee truly has nothing to lose in "telling it like it is".  

Additionally, a really good anonymous program protects an employee's anonymity while allowing for ongoing discourse between management and that employee for a potential resolution to be worked out. 

This last point gets to the heart of our noted preference at the beginning of this guide. Anonymous programs are more robust in helping you limit risks. Companies should make use of a platform that enables employees and management to work through issues. In this way, even when a resolution cannot be reached, you have better insight into issues through unfiltered feedback.  

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