my anonymous complaint wasn’t kept anonymous

A reader writes:

I work in a large college academic resource center. We have an anonymous complaint web form, which I used to complain about some student workers who I do not supervise. The IT department tracked my complaint to my computer and I was pulled into a meeting with my supervisor about it.

What is there to be done about this invasion of privacy? I used an anonymous web form and was tracked! Should everyone know that this form isn’t really anonymous? Who, if anyone, do I talk to about this, and what the heck do I say?

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Accepting a job at a lower salary with the promise of a raise later
  • My manager humiliated me in front of everyone
  • Is it useful to mention being in the advanced stages of interviewing with other companies?
  • How can I tell my manager I want a more positive work environment?

{ 84 comments… read them below }

  1. designbot*

    You mention in one of your answers that in this climate job-searching is taking a long time. Could you elaborate on that a bit more? Are you seeing hiring start to slow in some industries, or is it that companies are being really picky and willing to draw out the process more than usual for some reason?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Ah, I possibly should have taken out “this market” for that reason — but the point is actually still true, that job searches today take far longer than people think they will.

      2. designbot*

        ahhh, I missed that! Thanks for the clarification. For a few reasons I’ve been on the lookout for the *next* recession and was interpreting this as a potential sign that someone else was picking up hints of one as well. When you have a hammer, you know…

  2. NonProfit Nancy*

    I feel ya on this one. My company did an “anonymous” survey of employees, but I later heard that HR and the higher ups were triangulating answers based on what else was entered, to figure out who said what. It was totally middle school – they were emailing around people’s answers, laughing, and playing guessing games about who said what. Some people should not try to do anonymous surveys bc they can’t handle it.

    1. Formica Dinette*

      I once worked for a company where the people who had access to employee survey results engaged in similar behavior. Fortunately, I had guessed that about them and deliberately did things to obscure my identity, like change my writing style.

    2. Adam*

      My employer months ago did an anonymous survey because there have been rumblings about the culture here but people generally don’t want to speak out about it. They ensured us that the survey was completely anonymous…and then on the last page it asked us what our general job was and what department we worked in…

      Fortunately that part was optional but I almost submitted the information without thinking about it.

      1. SusanIvanova*

        As part of our recent layoffs, we got an “anonymized” list of demographic information – just age and title – so we could reassure ourselves that there wasn’t any protected category discrimination. Except one of my co-workers had a unique title, so they’d just revealed to everyone what his age was.

        Some people just can’t do anonymous well.

    3. Mallory Janis Ian*

      That is exactly what happened in my previous academic department where all kinds of nonsense was going on involving the dean, a budget officer, and the front desk receptionist. The receptionist ended up bringing a sexual harassment case against the dean, but in the months leading up to that, the faculty and staff had all tried to talk to the dean about his behavior. He wasn’t listening, so everyone decided to put everything in the annual survey that the university sent to faculty and staff as a component of his evaluation process. Then he and a couple of professors who weren’t around enough to see how egregious his behavior was started combing through the comments to try to deduce who’d said what, and then they were tracking them down and confronting them. The dean even confronted all the staff at once in a staff meeting!

        1. lowercase holly*

          what on earth did he say? “hey, you all unanimously accused me of sexual misconduct” ? umm…

          1. Mallory Janis Ian*

            Pretty much. He said, “I had to show this to my wife!” Apparently, every year he would share his employee feedback report with his wife, and always before it had been good. So he showed her this one and then accused us of being the cause of the ensuing hard conversations.

        2. Mallory Janis Ian*

          He managed to escape from that particular fiasco unscathed. Then, a few years later (and with three years remaining on his 5-year reappointment as dean), he sent a filthy text to another woman who was temping at the front desk, and she took it to the upper administration. He was made to step down as dean and return to a teaching role, but he was allowed to say that stepping down was a choice that he made for personal and family reasons. He said that the death of his father-in-law made him realize that he needed to spend his precious remaining days with his wife, children, and grandchildren, but really he was made to step down and was allowed this cover.

          1. a fast machine*

            That is incredible the amount of leway a proven sexual harasser was given, goodness. And he still got to teach! Again, wow.

          2. catsAreCool*

            I wouldn’t want a sexual harasser to be teaching, either. Sounds like a new place he can harass people.

    4. SpaceySteph*

      My previous department did an anonymous feedback survey every year. One year, I was on the team of employees who went through the responses and presented a summary of findings, themes, and recommendations to management. People had the option to identify their team and role (of 4-5 options each), and that plus the text answer details was generally enough to give a good idea of who it was, especially since we were at least somewhat familiar with everyone in the department.
      It was optional to leave it blank, but if you didn’t put your team and role, it was hard to make actionable advice out of the comments because we didn’t know what part of the organization they were directed to. And a few left it blank but then revealed enough in the short answer section to make it obvious anyways. We tried to obscure that as much as possible in our presentation, although management had access to the full survey output as well.

      My advice is that nothing is truly anonymous and you should never treat it as if it is. Answer professionally on a survey if you’re going to fill it out, and don’t put anything you don’t feel you could defend if found and pressed.

      1. Bob Barker*

        Sure, a lot of surveys are not honest about their anonymity. But if the survey-givers say it is anonymous, then it is an absolute defense to say, “The survey was anonymous.” And explain absolutely nothing else. Neither claim nor disclaim your words, just: “I beg your pardon. The survey was anonymous.”

        Truthfully, anybody who intentionally breaks anonymity is too much of an unself-reflective jerk to accept criticism anyway. So like, it’s an anonymous survey, or it’s a survey that’s not worth filling out at all. The only question is in figuring out which one you have before you take it.

        1. sam*

          A lot of times it’s not malicious or intentional though. Often workplaces don’t think through these things enough – departments that simply don’t have enough employees for true randomization/anonymity will obviously always have trouble with 360-degree reviews, because even those that are trying to do everything “right”, will simply know who gave answers when a department only has, say, 3 people.

          Another example – when I was in college, I actually taught a class for my department. At the end of the semester, the students (as per usual) filled out instructor evaluation forms “anonymously”. We couldn’t access these until after grades were handed in so that there was no worry about things like having them impact grades, but…I had spent a semester reading their work in their handwriting. In addition, they all had a pretty distinct writing style. It wasn’t malicious, and we weren’t playing detective, but it wasn’t exactly rocket science to figure out who wrote which evaluations (and they were largely good!).

          1. Jenna*

            Small departments and reviews from coworkers are really hard to make anonymous.
            My boss recommended that I take an interpersonal communication online course because someone had complained about me. My response was something like, “Janet?”(not her real name)
            He looked startled like he didn’t expect me to figure out who had complained, so I explained that I got along well with almost everyone, and if the class he had signed me up for would help me get along better with this person then I would take it happily.*
            I did not, honestly, expect it to fix this particular problem, since the actual problem was that there was no way to deal diplomatically enough with this coworker to make her happy with me. Eventually she transferred to a different department and we politely ignored each other in the hallways.

            *Sadly, the class was not very useful for that situation or any other.

          2. Photoshop Til I Drop*

            This is such a dumb idea, even if you’re waiting until grades are turned in. I had several professors multiple times in college. Smaller schools and unpopular majors probably have even more repetition. If I trashed them in the evaluation after the first course, I would still have to worry about retaliation in a later class (justified or not, I’d still worry).

        2. SpaceySteph*

          I don’t think this is a matter of dishonesty. It’s just that given the limited number of options, plus writing style and tone, you can just tell.
          And you can say “It was anonymous” and not answer anything else, but that’s not always the best career move. A better move is to always respond to a work survey as if your supervisors may know it’s you and not say anything career limiting.

      2. Sparrow*

        Yeah, I am super cautious about these. Last year, the employee survey asked you to mark your “rank” in the office (think analyst, senior analyst, manager, etc) and how long you’d been in the office (1-3 years, 4-6 years, etc). As I was the only one at my level who had been there for fewer than 3 years, I was basically signing my name to it. Instead, I just didn’t complete it. They changed the questions this year to be slightly less obvious, but I will be sticking with bland, generic answers anyway…

        1. Jerry Vandesic*

          It often make sense to lie. Keep your department info correct, but lie about your tenure, job title, etc.

    5. Jady*

      I’ve had my anonymous feedback displayed all around as well. I learned the hard not to believe any feedback is confidential or anonymous.

      It was a really awful situation for me. I got pulled into the VP’s office with my manager and another involved party and was railed on until I was crying to the point I couldn’t talk. It was the most humiliating experience in my life.

      At a job, I will never again put anything in any form of writing – anonymous or not – that I wouldn’t say directly to involved parties. I think the people running these are more interested in identifying problem people than resolving reported issues.

      I’m sure not all companies are like this. But I haven’t seen it, and it isn’t worth the risk to go through something like that again or lose my job.

    6. Artemesia*

      A consultant friend fired a client who tried to use data to penalize . he had hired him to assure Independence. He took the data and cancelled the connection. He did need the money

    7. Elizabeth West*

      We had a survey at Exjob not long after the buyout and everybody filled it out like “Great! Fabulous! Love it!” because we knew it wouldn’t be anonymous. Later, I made a really snarky one just for me and showed it to a couple of people (I didn’t send it to them) and we cackled over it. But yeah, managers, don’t do this.

    8. Queenie*

      In my last job we had yearly anonymous surveys. One year the Director came over to us in IT and demanded to know who had submitted a particular response. You’ll be glad to know we all lied through our teeth and said that there was absolutely no way of knowing.

      The surveys themselves were ridiculous – they’d ask you your age/sex/department which meant that as the only woman under 30 in IT it would have been obvious if I’d written a particular response unless I lied.

  3. Charlie*

    It sucks, but in what universe does anybody expect complaints made to an employer to be truly anonymous? Same with HR; they’re not your therapist or your lawyer, they’re the representatives of your boss.

    1. MK*

      I think that if there is a complaint form that is specifically designated as anonymous, people are reasonable in expecting anonymity (unless there is something like a serious crime happening).

    2. PK*

      I think that if an employer says that a survey is anonymous and then ends up violating that, I’d be questioning their integrity regardless. Nothing is truly anonymous nowadays but having expectations that an employer keeps their word isn’t unreasonable.

    3. neverjaunty*

      Probably in the universe where the employer says “this is anonymous”.

      We’re not talking about a situation where the information was subpoenaed by a lawyer or passed on by a mandatory reporter. This was an ‘anonymous’ survey where the IT tracked the LW down because she had complaints about work colleagues.

    4. Hannah*

      I agree with you. I don’t write anything at work that I couldn’t defend if it was somehow accidentally mailed to the entire company with my name attached to it. “Anonymous” surveys included.

  4. Roscoe*

    #1 I really think this depends on what was said on the form, and what they said when you pulled them in. If it was something like “These student employees are stealing” well that makes sense. I can’t see trying to meet with and accuse employees of something like that based solely on an anonymous note, so I understand meeting with you. If they were mad about your complaint, that is different.

    As far as the negative work culture, I kind of think you can either deal with it or find another job. But you are new there, and the other employees there seem to be fine with this arrangement. If its not a culture fit, fine. But I don’t know what the point of the ultimatum would be. Either stay and deal with it, or find something that better suits your personality.

    1. TootsNYC*

      They s couldn’t be jumping straight to accusations based on these sorts of tips.

      They should be investigating on their own, without relying on the anonymous person. There will be other evidence, or they can start monitoring, or they can simply institute security procedures (and announce that to everyone).

    2. Jerry Vandesic*

      “If it was something like ‘These student employees are stealing’ well that makes sense …”

      It doesn’t work that way. If the company wants an anonymous survey, they need to suck it up and accept the consequences. If someone says something about theft, they can ramp up their monitoring of inventory and investigate leads, but they can’t try to break the anonymity and get to the source. Otherwise they show that they are untrustworthy leaders that deserve no respect from their employees.

  5. nofelix*

    In answer #1 “completed messed up behavior” looks like a typo, should be “completely messed up behaviour”.

  6. Rebecca*

    Not to make light of this, but never assume anything that’s web based is anonymous. My company’s IT department put out a survey for us to rate them, and we had to log into our intranet page to finish the survey. Anonymous, yeah, right. A 10 year old could probably figure out who submitted it based on the work computer address. I rated them all the highest rating, and left it at that. Writing styles can be masked at least, but not handwriting if there’s a lot of of examples floating around.

    I think most of the time the people who put the surveys together really don’t want honest answers.

    1. MK*

      The thing to do is wear a trenchcoat, a fedora and a false beard, drive to a town at least two hours away, accost a stranger at a cafe or bar, going of course by a false name, and somehow persuade them to go to an internet cafe and log into the complaints page from there, and then fill out the form according to instructions that you will be giving them via a cardphone that you have bought 10 before and will throw away immediately afterwards. After that, knock them on the head in the hope that they will forget the entire encounter because of the trauma, and drive back to your home, where you had earlier in the day invited an aquantaince and drugged their beverage with a sedative, wake them up and tell them that they had inexplicably fallen asleep and you spent your entire afternoon and evening watching over them, thus establishing your alibi. As added insurance, publicly and loudly proclaim views opposite to those you wrote in the form, and also pretend you have no idea how to fill out such forms.

    2. MK*

      Seriously though, pretty much anything can be traced back to anyone; it’s a good idea to always keep in mind that there is no absolute anonymity in the digital age.

    3. Not an IT Guy*

      I’ve actually started to be completely honest in my answers just to test if these surveys are anonymous or not. I’m guessing with my company they are because I’ve received no follow-up to such answers as “stop breaking the law” and “I can only be as successful as the company allows me to be”.

      1. Maxwell Edison*

        My last year or so at ToxicJob, I went ahead and started being completely honest in the “anonymous” surveys because I was half hoping they would lay me off and put me out of my misery.

        1. Stitch*

          Hah, me too! I was honest about all the laws they were breaking.

          Except the owners just played nice to my face because they couldn’t retain employees and needed to keep me on, while disbelieving all my complaints, and then badmouthed me once I left. Good times, good times!

    4. J.B.*

      At least that’s marginally better than when someone from it came to my office for feedback and phrased his questions so there was really only one answer.

    1. College Career Counselor*

      There might be an ombuds-person at the university, but that person would not necessarily be able to do anything other than listen. In my experience with people in this role, they typically don’t make recommendations, they don’t keep notes, they don’t follow up with the complainant. They DO anonymize the complaint and they do keep confidentiality (they also typically wait a period of time before reporting the issue so that it doesn’t necessarily get tied to the person in question). In my experience, this person reported to the Board of Trustees and was a way to document problems and issues for someone else to act upon (theoretically), not to address them directly. Also in my experience the ombuds-person can report and ask for investigation all they want, but if the Board (or whoever the ombuds-person reports to) doesn’t want to move forward, nothing will happen.

  7. KB*

    #3 I disagree that mentioning you have other offers only speeds up the timeline. People have a real fear of missing out, and having an offer from “the other company” makes you look more desirable. In fact, in some cases what would have been a “no” turns into a “yes” when the hiring manager takes a second look to figure out why the other company came to that conclusion.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That’s really not typically how it works — it might prompt them to make a decision faster, but it’s very unlikely to get a “yes” when it previously would have been a “no.”

    2. MK*

      I doubt that, unless I know the person who made the offer is a genious at picking personel. I mean, if a manager known for having a top-performing team and close-to-zero turnover chooses you, sure it makes sense to look again at the candidate (though, even then, someone who is great for them isn’t necessarily great for every position). But knowing that someone, somewhere, considers you hirable isn’t that much of a recommendation

    3. VioletEMT*

      The only thing I’ve ever been able to use the “other offers” for was leverage to keep the timeline moving at my candidacy of choice. “I have just received another offer today. I’m very interested in the opportunity at ThisOrg and would like to continue pursuing it, but I do need to let OtherOrg know when I will have an answer for them. When will you be able to commit to letting me know whether we will be moving forward at ThisOrg?” They gave me a date, which they kept. It worked, and ThisOrg is now CurrentJob.

  8. Q*

    My workplace often emails out “anonymous” surveys…that you have to log into with your work credentials to take. We take these as seriously as you’d expect.

    1. Mallory Janis Ian*

      Our anonymous work surveys are conducted by an independent outside company, and the results only are then sent to the university administration and the deans office. In the situation I mention upthread, the dean and his cronies were using what they knew of people’s writing style and manner of speaking to parse who wrote what about the dean’s bad behavior.

  9. AndersonDarling*

    #1. This was brought up at my company regarding our anonymous ethical hotline/form. We had a representative from our IT department say how they would refuse to look up anyone’s IP or login if they were requested to do so.
    But that was under different management…who knows what would happen now. It was reassuring at the time.

    1. Kyrielle*

      It’s adjusted here to make the answer make more sense, I assume because the original answer initially missed that detail, but the complaint was about noise – and was using a form more intended for patrons (but, based on the OP’s comments, not clearly spelled out as such) to report noise issues in that space.

      1. MK*

        I was wondering about that. To be frank, I wouldn think it odd that an employee, even one from a different department, used a complaint form to raise an issue with coworkers.

        1. Elsajeni*

          Yeah, I wondered about that as well — I still don’t think it’s appropriate to track someone down to discuss their “anonymous” complaint, but I do think it’s a bit weird for an employee to submit an anonymous noise complaint about student workers rather than just bringing the problem up with them or with their supervisor.

          1. Meghan*

            I supervise student workers and I feel like going straight to the student worker’s supervisor would have taken care of this nicely. But maybe OP1 tried that and that is why they were resorting to the form? I don’t see why this needed to be handled anonymously.

      2. Brett*

        I was just concerned that “my computer” might have meant it was the OP’s home computer (e.g. cross reference the IP from the form against email login IPs).
        Knowing that it was a form for patrons makes it particularly egregious. That means they traced back someone’s identity without knowing if the person they were tracing back was really an employee! Since it seems unlikely this was a one off situation, how many times have they traced back the identity of complaining patrons without the patron knowing, and have they taken action on that information?

  10. Filmgal*

    I used to work for a large public university in the southern US. There they had an Employee Assistance Program where you could “anonymously” report any shenanigans going on within your department.

    Which then immediately forwarded the complaint to your boss, even if it was about them.

  11. Workfromhome*

    #1 -I always assume no survey is safe no matter what. I worked for a very large organization that did surveys but asked who your manger was and how many years experience you had. It would have been so easy to tell who wrote it. So people refused to answer. They changed to a 3rd party provider they said would “hide your identity”. Yet we got emails saying “Hey we noted you haven’t done the survey yet” Well if you don’t know who we are how do you know we didn’t fill it in?
    I simply ignored them from then on. I told my manger as much that I didn’t believe my identity was protected. If its

    #2 If all he can afford is a salary below what you are worth I’d ask for a piece of the company (stock profit sharing etc) as they are essentially asking you to invest your own $ to build the company. That $ is simply “forgone salary” rather than investment up front. If you were giving this company 10K up front (rather than 10 K less salary) you would certainly expect a piece of the business for your 10K so you could get a return on your investment.

    Honestly I’d be reluctant to take it otherwise based on a “salary” increase even if its documented. Its a big ask and the owner needs to be willing to put his $ where his mouth is. A promise of something wouldn’t do it it would be something like:
    When the company reaches X sales you will be given the Title of senior Teapot manager and a salary of x, when it reaches sales of X you will be given title of VP of Teapots and salary of Y along with bonuses.

    1. Kyrielle*

      To be fair, it’s possible to set up a survey-response system to tell you who has/hasn’t responded but not show you individual responses. You can even set it up so you can’t see any responses until the survey “closes” (so you can’t just figure out who said what by noticing that before Alice responded no one had rated their manager -2, and after Alice responded someone had).

      But you have to trust them to do that, and if you don’t, then I would either not respond or be super circumspect/cautious.

      1. TempestuousTeapot*

        My favorite was the survey that was:
        1- Third party (but could only be accessed through a link to your work iPad and with a specific one-time use link)
        2-Required input of Department, Region, Manager, Full or part time, and Market
        3- Had results shared at a regional meeting on a power point and explained to all in each group how unexpected answers were, *ahem*, Wrong Answers.

        That’s right,we answered wrong and this caused our manager to get a bad score so we had to ‘give up’ any raises until her scores were better and she was rewarded.
        Then we were asked if any wanted to acknowledge our ‘mistakes’ and fix them directly with our regional manager over the break…. I don’t work there now.

    2. Elsajeni*

      Most survey tools do have that ability, though — a survey administrator can see who has and hasn’t completed the survey, and they can see the responses, but they can’t see the names and responses connected. Your organization was actually right that that’s the advantage of the 3rd-party provider; your response is connected to your name in the backend of the system, but the only people who can actually see that connection are the employees of the 3rd-party survey provider, not the survey administrators at your company. (Of course, it’s still possible that a sufficiently unscrupulous person could convince the survey provider to tell them whose response is whose, or that someone really, really dedicated could spend hours refreshing the page and match the time that your name appears in the “Completed” list to the timestamp of your response. But in general, I think people are a little more suspicious of this sort of survey than they need to be; the most likely way your identity will be exposed is your own responses.)

  12. Turquoise Teapot*

    I’m curious as to what, if any, laws might apply here. Do employees have a right to anonymity when an employer states that their feedback is anonymous? If someone’s “anonymous” feedback was made public, could they sue for slander, violation of privacy, harassment, or maybe something else?

  13. Not So Annonoumous*

    Are any annonoumous lines really annonomous? I worked for a big box store in college. I called the “anonymous” line to report how hr dismissed my sexual harassment claim. I came into work the next day and there were 2 hr ppl from other stores waiting for me at the door. They started off with we are really really good friends with the hr person I reported. Then informed me they were there to investigate my anonymous complaint. I wish I knew about AAM back then!

  14. Argh!*

    “How can I tell my manager I want a more positive work environment?”

    I put up with an environment like that for over six years, until the most heinous snake-in-the-grass wound up getting my job and I got forced into Hell-on-Earth (a unit that turned out to be even worse than mine). I’m in a new job now and I have a very negative and cynical boss, and to make matters worse she’s been instructing me to do things that I know are just wrong wrong wrong (she should read this blog!)

    The only hope of changing such a culture is a series of exit interviews from talented superstars who leave in droves, and even then the incompetence may be too entrenched for any turnaround.

    My advice for the last letter-writer: polish that resume and be prepared with a story for why you left. Do anything you can to improve your resume, keep your head down, and minimize contact with the worst gossips.

    1. JustaTech*

      ” a series of exit interviews from talented superstars who leave in droves” – if they remember to have the exit interview, and if they write anything down, and if upper management notices that all of their superstars from 3 related departments have all left for the same other company.
      Which is to say; it’s pretty hard.

  15. Photoshop Til I Drop*

    My significant other was told to take an anonymous survey at work, because the company was trying to get on one of those “best teapot companies of 20XX” lists. He didn’t do it, because he thinks they’re bull. HR sent out a BCC-ed e-mail saying it was being sent to the people who hadn’t done the survey yet to remind them to do it. He wrote back asking how they knew that, since it was anonymous. They didn’t respond.

  16. Jack the Treacle Eater*

    I took a job with a promise of a later raise once. It turned out that the culture at that company was to keep downward pressure on wages; the raise, and other promised raises, didn’t materialise. Not only that, but I saw management repeatedly passing off my work as theirs and taking large bonuses for it. If it isn’t in writing, it isn’t going to happen.

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