don’t send anonymous notes at work

From time to time, I hear someone suggest sending an anonymous note to a coworker, a manager, or HR in order to let someone know about a problem without having to deal with the awkwardness of having a conversation about whatever the issue is — from “you smell” to “my manager is a jerk” to “Fergus plays on the Internet for five hours a day.”

But anonymous notes are rarely, if ever, a good way to handle a problem.

First, they have very little, if any, credibility. When you don’t know who’s delivering a message (and the person has deliberately chosen to obscure that), you have no idea how much weight to give it. Maybe the person telling HR that their manager a jerk thinks that because they’re under-performing and resent the manager’s efforts to hold them accountable. Maybe the person telling you that you smell is the office prankster playing a terribly misguided joke. There’s no way to know. What the recipient does know is that the sender wasn’t willing to own the message they’re delivering.

And so now the receiver is in a really awkward position. They have to wonder whether the note is reporting a real problem or it’s from someone with an unsubstantiated ax to grind. Should they spend time investigating? How much time, if a first look doesn’t reveal any problems? Does it make sense to spend significant amounts of time on something that they have no way of knowing is credible? (And unsurprisingly, there’s some research showing that people are less likely to act on anonymous complaints … which makes sense, given all these factors.)

Plus, if the message is something of the “you smell” variety, now the recipient has to wonder which of their coworkers left the note, which can cause awkwardness in their relationships with everyone, and that’s unfair and even cruel.

And yes, sometimes people contemplate sending an anonymous note of a management issue because they’re afraid of retaliation. But an environment that retaliates against people for raising concerns in good faith isn’t one that’s likely to handle an anonymous complaint well either. And an environment that does handle complaints effectively (anonymous ones or otherwise) is one where you likely don’t need the cloak of anonymity in the first place.

So, down with anonymous notes.

{ 175 comments… read them below }

  1. AnotherAlison*

    Good advice.

    Can I also speak out against anonymous fridge notes? I left one once, with a really snotty tone yelling at whomever took my Diet Coke, and then the person left a really nice note back apologizing and saying they thought it was theirs and that they replaced it. I actually think it was a friend of mine who did it, and then I felt stupid and mean. (If you must leave a note, don’t make it anonymous, and assume the person who stole your food did it by accident and will replace it once the error is pointed out.)

    1. INFJ*

      ugh. I couldn’t agree more! In addition to the reason you provide of giving people the benefit of the doubt, those notes are such a source of negativity for the 99% of people it doesn’t apply to.

    2. seejay*

      So I left a polite anonymous note on my new neighbors door, thinking that he didn’t know where the garbage chute was, because he left what looked like a bag of garbage in front of his doorway, plus a package that belonged to the previous tenant. I took the package with the intention of putting it back in the mail with “return to sender” on it. (the guy had dumped it back downstairs in the lobby twice after others had placed it in front of his door, as we all usually did to avoid packages from getting stolen from there)

      Well, the neighbor wrote a horrible, aggressive, nasty comment back on said note, *DEMANDING* the return of the package that he claimed was stolen and that whoever took it better leave their apartment number on the note. Apparently the package and the bag of “garbage” was arranged to be picked up by the previous tenant. Woops. My mistake. Problem was, it was such a nasty, aggressive, terrible response, I was horrified and actually freaked out by my honest mistake that I’m now afraid of the guy. I snuck the package back out in front of his door and I don’t bother picking up his packages anymore from the lobby.

      Definitely doesn’t make me want to be friendly and nice towards new neighbors, that’s for sure. >>

      (anyway, that’s my only experience with leaving an anonymous note, but yeah, not much of a fan of the guy across the hall from me currently)

      1. Caramel Popcorn*

        Wow. Busybody much? This is exactly what Allison is talking about in her post. You didn’t have all the information so you left an unsigned note & took something that wasn’t yours and you had no business being involved in. Then you get snitty and passive aggressive when called out on your “mistake”.

        All the way around this is a perfect example of why anonymous notes are a bad idea, as is sticking your nose in other people’s business.

        1. sstabeler*

          a) seejay had a legitimate belief the package was discarded- which makes it legal to take it (albit if it turns out not to be abandoned, you must return it- it is just an exception to the usual rule of returning the item when caught not being a defense to a charge of theft.
          b) the issue is with the aggression in the reply- particularly since the original note was apparently polite- had the reply been reasonably polite ( as in ” to whoever took the package- it was actually arranged for the previous tenant to collect it, so please can you return it to me- I apologise for the confusion”) then there would not have been an issue, and seejay may well have apologised in that case.

        2. seejay*

          Wow, rude yourself much?

          I made it clear that it was a misunderstanding but if you also read, it’s a common habit in my building by almost all the tenants to pick up packages in the lobby and deposit them by tenant doors in the hallways. We have thefts by strangers who break in through the front door and this helps minimize it. This guy had removed the package left in front of his door twice and put it back in the lobby, increasing the risk of it getting stolen and the temptation of thieves to break in so when someone put it back, my goal was to at least put it back in the mail. And yeah, I made a mistake, but that certainly doesn’t necessitate the stink eye criticism from a stranger in the internet. Nice one.

  2. eplawyer*

    This isn’t middle school. You are not trying to find out if Suzy or Fergus likes you. If it is a problem, you need to be adult and own it.

    1. babblemouth*

      Speaking from experience, anonymous notes are *also* useless at finding out if Fergus likes you.

      1. Poohbear McGriddles*

        If Fergus would stop spending five hours a day surfing the internet, he might be more attentive.

      2. Mallory Janis Ian*

        Ha. That’s why if you want to find out if Fergus likes you, the proper note contains checkboxes for him to indicate his feelings:

        Dear Fergus,

        I like you. Do you like me?

        __ Yes __ No

        An Admirer

    2. Chaordic One*

      Many years ago at one of the offices I worked in, on Valentine’s Day someone sent cheap children’s Valentine cards to everyone in the office and signed them all “your secret admirer.”

      There were a couple of people who thought it for real and who seemed a bit disappointed when they found out that everyone in the office got one.

      Personally, I liked it!

  3. Michelle*

    What about anonymous comment boxes? We have those at work where you fill out a sheet and you don’t have to sign it and it goes in a locked box that only HR or management can open.

    1. Catalin*

      I can only believe those notes are taken with salt, because what action is HR going to take?
      “Hey, Fergus, we’ve gotten some complaints about you not being fair.”
      “Well, with whom? When? What exactly is the complaint/how do I resolve this?”
      *everyone eats pretzels*

      1. Solidus Pilcrow*

        hmm, pretzels – my favorite driving snack!

        * This post certified free of relevant content! *

          1. ALICE*

            wait there a “driving snacks?!”

            I have to get in on this.

            What should I choose, I’m pretty clumsy and my food often end up in my bra or in between my legs and on the seat beneath me. Pretzel sticks actually seem like a good answer to this… hmm… what else…

            1. Ayla K*

              Once, I was in line at a drugstore and there was a young family in front of me at the pharmacy about to go on vacation. The parents told their son to get sunscreen and their little daughter to get snacks for the car. She came back with a giant bag of gummy bears and explained: “salty snacks like pretzels and nuts make you thirsty so I pee more, and chocolate always melts and makes a big mess. But gummy bears don’t melt, and they keep me full. They’re the PERFECT SNACK.”

              I was like “…that girl has a good point” and bought some too.

            2. Solidus Pilcrow*

              Other snacks I like for driving: peanuts (honey roasted, yum! – obviously not good if you’re allergic), almonds, cheddar and cracker Combos (hard to find, but good!), dried fruit such as papaya, pineapple, cherries, or cranberries.

            3. Tess McGill*

              My go-to driving snacks are Bugles, gummy bears and Diet Coke. Every once in a while, if I’m driving early, I like the little chocolate doughnuts. I never buy these foods at any other time because they seem to only taste good in the car. ;)

          2. HaveToGoAnon*

            For ~10 years, there was a story in my family that my uncle choked on beef jerky while driving, blacked out, drove off an overpass, but survived. Miraculously, the accident dislodged the beef jerky so he didn’t suffocate. But, it turned out that it was drugs, not beef jerky, that caused the accident. I’m kind of embarrassed that I fell for that story because I was in my 20s when it happened, and that I maligned a harmless snack food because of the incident.

      2. Natalie*

        It just ends up like Newsradio: “You suck.” “You suck.” “Howard Stern rules.” “If you can read this you are a dork.” “We need more complaint cards.” And this one, “I have doobie in my funk,” which I assume is some sort of reference to the Parliament Funkadelic song, “Chocolate City.”

      3. UpsideDownPedestrian*

        This actually happened to me. My supervisor said, even more vaguely, “I’ve had some complaints about interpersonal issues with you.” I was super concerned and asked “Can you give me any details about whatever the interpersonal issues were? Who did I accidentally offend? I’d like to remedy it with them.” She said she couldn’t tell me, and seriously just suggested that I “work on my personality in general”. The result was twofold:
        1. I suddenly felt like I was walking on eggshells around every single person at work and pretty much stopped talking to everyone for fear of saying the wrong thing.
        2. It took me a good half a year to secure another job (chosen career has a long interview process), so dealing with that for so long left me with a massive case of Impostor Syndrome/Self-Consciousness that I’m just now getting over despite effusive positive feedback from my current job.

        1. Tiffany Perkins*

          I am dealing with this exact thing right now. I’ve been left with the impression that I spend all day offending everyone around me. My boss gave me 2 small not-anonymous examples and then said he has a long list of negative feedback about me. This long list is not something he thinks he needs to share with me. At this point I’m afraid to even open my mouth to say Hi to my coworkers. Needless to say, I’m looking for something new.

          1. JulieBulie*

            Hi Tiffany, I hope you found a new job.

            Since your boss was able to give two small examples, he should have been able to give you a few more (and bigger) given that he supposedly had a long list. My suspicion is that he had two, and only two, complaints – no list. He also obviously had a personal issue with you that he lacked the character and intelligence to deal with in a professional manner. (If it hadn’t been a personal issue, he would have been willing to work with you to address the problem.) I wouldn’t be surprised if he played similar mind games with some of your coworkers too.

    2. HRish Dude*

      A few years ago, our activities committee had a box for suggestions on events. When I opened the container, it was full of about 500 pieces of paper that said “Christmas Bonus”.

    3. INFJ*

      Wow, I just remembered the comment box like this at my last job. Not only did they ask for anonymous suggestions, but months later they posted all the suggestions in the break room WITH management’s written responses to the comments. *shudders* One of many sources of negativity at that place.

      1. Loz*

        Sounds like quite a good approach to me. Transparency of the items raised and how/whether to take action. What’s wrong?

        1. One of the Sarahs*

          Because it’s not at all anonymous if people can recognise your handwriting. At least type it up!

          1. Mallory Janis Ian*

            Note to self: if I ever have the opportunity to contribute to an anonymous HR comment box, I will submit only typed, and not handwritten, responses. Seriously, my handwriting is pretty distinctive.

            1. RKB*

              We had to fill out a survey about our managers in pen. About our managers. Who look at our writing everyday of our lives (we work for the city, we handwrite all of our deposits & memos & slips.) I just didn’t turn anything in.

      2. Whats In A Name*

        I actually like this idea; at least you know the suggestions were read and there is a reason behind not granting them (even if it is a sucky reason)

    4. Sketchee*

      Ours asks specifically what areas we’d like to train or cross train in. Asks for solutions instead of problems. One company I worked at had an idea site where we could submit and vote up ideas.

      1. Cat steals keyboard*

        We have staff forum reps who will listen to feedback and present it anonymously but with the knowledge that it came from a real person. Which works well.

    5. LBK*

      I think those are usually meant for high-level changes, not specific stuff like “Fergus sucks at his job, you should fire him.” And if there are more personal comments, those usually just get thrown out (speaking as someone who used to be on the committee that read our department’s anonymous suggestions).

    6. Shazbot*

      I worked in an office that had one of those…except the management would open the box and read the notes in front of everyone at meetings. And it was painfully clear that they had been written by the manager. Some of the notes were really not cool, either, on the order of “You are in the office, speak English.”

    7. Lily in NYC*

      We have a hidden camera above our suggestion box at work! Shady. I once got a note slipped under my apartment door with an AA brochure telling me they were worried about all the booze I put in the recycling bin on our floor (it’s open and visible). Thing is, I probably have one drink a month at most. It was the guy across the hall who had the drinking problem. I’m the only woman on the floor and the note writer assumed it was me because the guy drank sweet stuff like peach brandy. I still wonder who wrote it.

        1. ANONYLICE*


          Well well Amy, I bet you didn’t know we all hate how loudly you chew!!! We can ALL hear you from our cubbies and we are sick of it. PUDDING from here on out!

          1. AnotherAlison*

            Oh god, not pudding. I’ve listened to George scraping his spoon against the container for 3 years, and I’ve had enough!

          2. Electric Hedgehog*

            I once was complained about because one of my coworkers thought I chewed apples too loud… I do, but it’s not like I can help it.

  4. Daisygrrl*

    Story time!

    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 lw 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.

    I went to my supervisor to make sure they knew I hadn’t written the note (she confirmed there was speculation to that effect because I had openly raised a couple of the issues mentioned in the letter). I don’t think I was believed (and I hadn’t written the note!) because later when I asked to be assigned to a different project the director told me no, despite having allowed reassignment requests from anyone else who asked. Joke was on them. I had a new job within two weeks and they had to hire a consultant to work on the project at 3x the cost to the organization.

    TL;DR: Someone wrote an anonymous note at my old work, Director took it poorly and secretly blamed me, I experienced retaliation even though I hadn’t written the note.

    1. some1*

      This is what I mentioned below, and I agree. There’s way too much potential for the wrong person to get blamed when you do this anonymously.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      I got blamed for an anonymous note that went above my boss’s head! Everyone should have known it wasn’t me – even though I made the same complaints, I did them directly to the boss :D

      I speak truth to power.

      It’s stunted my career. :)

      I’m more diplomatic now.

      1. Gaia*

        I’m coaching someone on how to be more diplomatic. It has made me realize how undiplomatic I can be at times. Win/win, I guess?

  5. Catalin*

    Can we have an article about how to be a grown-up in the office? I mean, this is a good start, but some of the behavior I read here makes me wonder if adulting is a wide-spread practice.

    1. Catalin*

      Please note, “adulting”, not adultery: that question was answered with the quack-quack sex club.

          1. Trout 'Waver*

            I’m pretty sure anything with a link gets auto-moderated. But they usually go through in a minute or two.

          1. Catalin*

            There’s an update that’s even more outrageous. Let’s just say HR was run by a “Quack” ;-)

    1. Papyrus*

      Especially since one of my favorite sites “Passive Aggressive Notes” doesn’t seem to be around anymore.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yes! I really miss its internet presence, almost as much as I miss Regretsy.

      2. Greg*

        My favorite part of that site was the section on passive-aggressive names for wi-fi networks, like, “Stop stealing my wi-fi” and “I can hear you having sex”.

    2. ReluctantBizOwner*

      Mine is kind of anonymous…

      Someone on night shift kept taking my pens. As in, every morning I would get to work, and 3 pens and two markers would be gone. I’d grab more from the supply closet, work, come in the next day, gone. They had access to the same closet I did, so I was baffled. Also frustrated, cause what the…? Anyway, I chew on my pens. I leave bite marks. It’s obvious. So even more baffling. Finally I left a note on my pen holder: “FYI: I chew on my pens!” A coworker translated it into Spanish for me. (Diverse workplace!) Surely they wouldn’t take them now! Problem solved!

      …nope. My pens still disappear, and the note is still there. I don’t get it.

  6. Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys*

    As an HR professional I have received my fair share of anonymous complaints and there is virtually nothing I can or will do with the information. Every OSHA complaint or anonymous ethics line complaint I have ever investigated led to no credible findings (bad management yes, illegal activity, no). One sexual harassment complaint I dealt with, the ethics line representative called me to say the person was trying to rescind the complaint because she had just been mad at the supervisor. She could scare a manager into thinking he was about to lose his job, but I couldn’t address the fact she made a false complaint. I hate anonymous notes so thank you for this post AAM!

    1. Happy Cynic*

      I can only imagine the nightmare of crazy HR staff has to put up with, regarding these scenarios. It’s times like this I remember HR’s job isn’t always a piece of cake!

    2. Emmie*

      I’ve investigated the anon hotline complaints before, and they are sometimes helpful. I need enough specificity to discover the root of the problem like dates, times, people involved, document sources, etc . . . I could occasionally narrow down who the anon reporter might be (and would not retaliate in any way against them or explain who that person is to anyone outside of those of us conducting the investigation), or they out themselves in the investigation (this is helpful.) For those individuals scared to report something, I appreciated learning about the issue through our anon reporting hotline and having a chance to investigate it.

      1. Jane*

        Yes, I’ve also had to investigate fraud and sexual harassment as part of a job and I appreciated anonymous tips and even rumors which I took as suggestions of where to look, not as evidence. I treat them similarly to some ethics complaints from individuals who ID themselves to me but face risks of retaliation or violence if their complaint were publicized: I will protect their identity and search for substantiating evidence to corroborate it so I can present the case based on my evidence and leave their contribution anonymous or out of it entirely.

        1. Jane*

          People have constitutional rights against improper searches in the US which prohibits use of certain anonymous informers or rumors from counting as ‘probable cause’ for investigation, but we don’t have to work by the same standard when talking about a finance or procurement team we manage, for example.

          1. Loose Seal*

            I thought that was protection from improper search from law enforcement. Not that a company couldn’t search through what they own. I’ve even heard stories of employees personal bags being checked after clocking out, especially in warehouse jobs, to make sure they weren’t taking home product.

            Or am I misunderstanding your comment? (I wouldn’t be surprised; I’m pretty m dictated today.)

          2. Gaia*

            IANAL but I would be really surprised if those laws apply to your workplace or work product or work equipment. My employer takes a laissez-faire approach to network monitoring so I know they don’t pay attention to the amount of time I spend on AAM. But I also know they could, at any moment, review all my actions on their network, search my desk etc and there is nothing I could do about it.

              1. Jane*

                Thanks for the clarification, that was the point I was trying to make: employers and managers can act on rumors and suspicion (and anon complaints) even when law enforcement may not.

        2. Emmie*

          Great points! I found he said / she said (to use the common term) investigations to be the most challenging like those in verbal only sexual harassment, or verbal only my manager told me to do ethical / illegal activities. But, I think that’s pretty common!

      2. Green*

        Yes! If you are not comfortable making a complaint with your name attached, in highly regulated industries (or most multinational companies), using the ethics hotline anonymously is STRONGLY encouraged. We investigate those issues all the time, and it’s often the only way we find out about issues that could cost the company millions. (For example, bribery allegations in foreign countries, unsafe conditions, conflict of interest, etc.)

  7. Emi.*

    Does this also apply to formal reporting systems? My workplace’s system for reporting safety concerns (there’s a lot of engineering here) has the option to make your report anonymous. Would that make it less credible?

    1. SpaceySteph*

      I think it still does, yes. Old job had a system for reporting certain things that had an option to put your name or not. The manager told me that he wished some of the inputs weren’t anonymous because sometimes he would need more info or want to talk to the person to clear stuff up but couldn’t and so the thing had to go unaddressed or could only be addressed partially because of that lack of feedback loop.
      I’d say especially where formal safety concerns are involved, you would hopefully be willing to sign your name to it. Some orgs (mine included) even give out awards to people for reporting these things!

    2. Kyrielle*

      Almost certainly not if it is objectively confirmable. If it isn’t? Yeah.

      “Fergus regularly tells his direct reports to ignore safety rule X” will probably result in Fergus’s direct reports being questioned.

      “The Y machine has triggered a safety alert N times in the last week but after a spot check, Fergus has put it back in service each time. Doesn’t (number smaller than N) require a general check?” – someone will probably check with the logs, Fergus, and/or whoever else works with the Y machine.

      “Kerosene is being stored next to the radiator again.” – easy to check, someone will go over and look at the radiator area and what’s near it.

      But “Fergus isn’t taking the safety regs seriously”? They might talk to Fergus’s manager or people who work with him, but without more detail, how will they confirm? Unless it’s really, really obvious when they go to look.

      1. Kyrielle*

        (Also? Someone put Fergus back in safety training. I had a failure to come up with other names there. Poor Fergus!)

    3. BananaPants*

      Not if it’s something that can be confirmed by EH&S in a spot check or by asking others on the work crew about safety practices.

      My employer has an ombudsman program that can be used to report issues confidentially outside of your management chain. I’ve never used it, but it has the option to either be anonymous even to the ombudsman or to be known to the ombudsman (so they can report back to you) – either way you’re supposedly anonymous to management.

  8. some1*

    “the recipient has to wonder which of their coworkers left the note, which can cause awkwardness in their relationships with everyone, and that’s unfair and even cruel.”

    Or the recipient decides that it must have been Jane who left the anonymous note so Jane gets confronted (& how do you prove you didn’t send an anonymous note?) but it was really Wakeen.

      1. JessaB*

        Yeh many people have very distinct writing styles and voices. It’s often very easy to tell who wrote what.

  9. Poster Child*

    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 6 of the New York Times). 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. The note was typed and left on my chair when I came in on a Monday morning and it had my (very uncommon) name on it. I could not think of anything I had done to deserve that cruelty. My parents thought it was jealousy to which I argued that I didn’t have anything much to be jealous of! I was liked and respected (I thought) by management but I had not been promoted or won any awards and am basically average looking with nothing special happening in my life. So I finally let it go as someone else’s problem. But it made me feel awful and look at everyone around me suspiciously. (This was many years ago and I no longer work there.)

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      That is awful, and I’m so sorry you had this experience. People can sometimes get really petty/cruel once they’ve created their own secret narrative for why something that irks them is happening :(

  10. Amy G. Golly*

    Ok, so no more anonymous notes – but can still I cut and paste the complaint from letters in a magazine?

    1. Catalin*

      Only if you do it while working next to a juicer. That way, you can claim Freedom of the Press

      I’m sorry, I’ll leave now.

      1. twig*

        You just made me laugh out loud at my desk. (good word play will do that)

        I (virtually) award you a (virtual) cash prize! Don’t (virtually) spend it all in one place!

  11. NoLongerMsCleo*

    Thank you. My department received several anonymous notes over several months last year ranging from specific instances all the way to the absurd. It’s hard to address “so and so’s team is too loud” or “I hear them gossiping about people all the time.” I really have no problem addressing issues, but specifics not just general complaints really go a long way to finding a solution.
    I had an anonymous note written about me once (it was a very troubled department that has since turned around and is a really great place to be now) and slipped under the door of the person 4 levels above me. My boss and his boss knew there was so merit to the claims, but their bosses didn’t. I was really angry and worried that they would associate my name to that note forever. I ended up getting a promotion pretty quickly after that but it still kills me to know that could possibly be in the back of their minds.

  12. Juli G.*

    This has been such a nicely balanced week. We had two posts that inspired lots of stories of terrible HR but then Allison did all of us competent HR people two solids this week with today’s post and her request that you not involve HR in a butt crack matter.

  13. vanBOOM*

    I once found an anonymous note that had been folded and slipped under my door.

    The outside read “FYI….”, and I was super anxious to open it because I thought for sure it was going to say “You’re a bitch” or something to that effect.

    You know what it said?

    “Winter is coming.”

    My co-worker owned up to it and was simply reminding me that the most recent season of GoT was starting that weekend. :)

  14. DCompliance*

    There is nothing more unhelpful than a vague, anonymous letter. “A manager was mean to me.” Great. I will get started investigating. We only have 5,000 employees. Should I go alphabetically by name or department? (eye roll)

  15. Data Lady*

    I have people in my life who work in non-unionized, rigidly hierarchical blue-collar environments, and they’re pro-anonymous notes especially when dealing with problems with a superior. They’ve sent them because they don’t have a lot of personal leverage with management or HR, or they’re people who don’t have particularly great job prospects and are particularly scared about the risk of retaliation. I kind of wonder if the case against anonymous notes has a bit of white-collar bias to it, to be honest. For professionals, managing up is a standard part of the job and putting your name on a complaint is really just an extension of that.

    1. paul*

      Yep. My brother’s submitted anonymous complaints about the company he works for to the relevant regulatory body a few times (he’s leaving soon anyway).

      If they knew he did he’d be fired and possibly blackballed in the immediate area, but they were violating safety and other regulations, and would have been more than willing to leave employees hanging in the wind over it.

      1. Observer*

        I don’t think that that’s what is being addressed here. Anonymous complaints to a hotline designed for that, in a context where it’s understood that being named is a risk are one thing. But, anonymous notes and complaints to internal HR, a manager or a co-worker are another story.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Yeah—anonymous complaints related to issues that fall within a regulatory agency’s scope usually fall under what we think of as whistleblowing programs… And those are often anonymous or sealed.

    2. SarahTheEntwife*

      Do the notes tend to result in anything getting changed? I absolutely understand why someone wouldn’t feel able to express their concerns non-anonymously, but in that sort of situation I’d think HR would be even less likely to constructively follow up on an anonymous tip.

        1. SarahTheEntwife*

          That makes sense; thanks! And I guess if it’s reporting specific regulations or standards not being followed, it’s easier for an outside party to effectively investigate than if it’s a more vague “manager is being a hardass” sort of things, even if the manager is genuinely being unreasonable.

      1. paul*

        Well, I don’t want to go into too many details, but the company my brother works for lost a state contract and got fined pretty hefty amounts (or they seemed big to me, I’m not intimately familiar with his industry).

      2. doreen*

        It’s probably going to depend a lot on the contents of the complaint – and it’s not really specific to workplace complaints. It applies to anything someone might report to any entity that would start an investigation. For example, I used to work for CPS. We’d constantly get somewhat vague and anonymous reports saying for example, that a mother routinely left a one-year old home alone. We’d investigate, but if we went a few times and didn’t find any indication that the kid was home alone that would be the end of it. If the report wasn’t anonymous, we could call the person who made the report and possibly get more details – for example, the mother left the child home alone from 2:45 to 3:15 every day while she picked an older child up from school ( in which case we could time things to see the mother return with the older child , knock on the door and hopefully find out if the child had been home alone). But the issue is not always whether the report is anonymous or not – if that level of detail had been in an anonymous report, it would have been handled the same way.

    3. Chriama*

      Agreed. I think that rather than banning them outright we should explain how and when to make a good anonymous complaint. For example, include as much objective evidence is possible to make it easy to investigate, make sure you have a specific outcome in mind and make that clear in your request, and give it to the person who has the best chance of correcting it (e.g. an ethics hotline rather than under the door of the CEO). Also reserve them for serious issues only (legal or safety violations, theft, physical or sexual harassment) and not interpersonal conflicts or dissatisfaction with workplace policies or management decisions.

  16. Trout 'Waver*

    As an anonymous internet commenter, I feel somewhat attacked by this post.

    Just kidding, of course. But it did put a smile on my face.

  17. Jeanne*

    I got one once. Something about being too loud in one conversation. I was pretty sure who wrote it. He was a newer coworker who was pissed I had corrected something in his work. I made sure to check his work even more.

  18. Forrest Rhodes*

    Long story, only slightly OT, and with apologies if appropriate.
    Some years ago I was part of a loosely knit group of people who met once a month for conversation about a subject that would be chosen by that month’s host. We were a widely varied bunch—rich, not-so-rich, old, young, single, married, gay, straight, entrepreneurs, corporate types, grad students, househusbands/housewives, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Turks, Sikhs, Greeks, etc.—it was always interesting just to see what flavor the group would have each month. We were all subscribers of a monthly magazine called Utne Reader, which itself covers a wide range of topics; and from month to month, the subjects we discussed were equally varied. It was always a great evening.

    The group didn’t have a lot of rules, and most of them were just common sense: no yelling, no name-calling, no ad hominem insults, take turns speaking and hosting, everyone who wants to say something gets a chance to do so without being interrupted or shouted down, things like that. Another rule was that we wouldn’t solicit each other as customers for our kids’ fundraisers: a daughter’s Girl Scout cookies, a son’s school candy bars, etc.

    One month, the mailed announcement of the next gathering’s date, time, location, and topic was accompanied by a small card from one of the “regulars,” whom I’ll call Lydia. The handwritten card said that Lydia’s high-school-senior daughter had been selected to attend a six-week academic program at the university in (I think) Cuzco, Peru, next summer, a great honor because only a dozen kids were chosen from all over the U.S.

    Lydia said that she’d wanted to let us all know of this really neat thing that her kid had earned, and also to say that if anyone wanted to help defray the costs of the kid’s air fare, Lydia would not be insulted. (Note that Lydia was not one of our more-bucks-up members; she was a single mom working full-time as a nurse’s aide to raise two kids.)

    I was very happy for Lydia’s daughter; and though I didn’t exactly have a lot of discretionary income myself at the time, I sent her $25 with a note saying how excited I was for her daughter and that I hoped it would be a wonderful adventure for the girl.

    Several days later, in my mailbox was a plain white envelope with my name and address typed on the front, no return address. In the envelope was a single sheet of plain white paper with a typewritten message saying that one of the basic rules of our discussion group was that we wouldn’t hit each other up for money; that Lydia’s note was an egregious and greedy breaching of the rules; and that the writer(s) of this message felt that members of the group should behave ethically and follow the rules. The writer(s) added that they were sending this same message to every member of the group because they felt they were speaking on behalf of everyone in the group. There was no signature.

    I immediately telephoned Lydia and found her in tears; she’d received one of the poison-pen notes too. I told her that yes, okay, the rules said “don’t sell your kids’ stuff at the meetings” but no, I didn’t want my check back (and if I’d been able to send more, I would have). I told her that I thought her one-time situation was entirely different from the ones addressed in our rules, I was happy to help a little, and I had absolutely no problem with the note that Lydia had sent.

    There are two follow-ups to this story:

    First, Lydia never returned to the discussion group. Her daughter did get to Cuzco that next summer, and (besides an earlier thank-you note for my check) she sent me a lovely Peruvian postcard which I still have.

    Second, within a few months after the anonymous letter, the group’s attendance had dwindled to the point that there just weren’t enough of us to keep it going.

    Several months after the group died, I bumped into Jack at my local grocery store; he and his wife, Jill, along with their best-friend-couple Dick and Jane, had been among the regular group attendees. After we chatted a bit, he said he really missed the group’s friendship and discussions.

    “Yeah, me too,” I said. “And I place the group’s dissolving right at the feet of whoever sent us all that crappy, cowardly anonymous note. That was a sh*tty thing to do—instead of just bringing it up at the next meeting, like, ‘hey, we said we weren’t gonna do this kind of thing.’ Given that we’d all known each other for some time, it was kind of a CS move. Jeez, how did whoever wrote that thing THINK we would react?!”

    Jack thought for a minute, then said, “Yeah, I guess the girls didn’t think of that.”

    Okay, I could be wrong, but to this day I’m convinced that it was Jill and Jane, and possibly their husbands, who sent the anonymous note; and that because they couldn’t stand up and present their objections rationally, like adults are supposed to do, they managed to generate enough suspicion between people who’d been friends (we all couldn’t help looking at each other a bit sideways, thinking, “It wasn’t me … was it you?”) that it killed off a low-key, pleasant event that was fun for a whole bunch of people.

    This all happened in the late 1980s, and obviously, it still ticks me off. I hate, loathe, and abominate these kinds of anonymous notes.

    1. Chriama*

      The anonymous note thing was totally uncool. But I think Lydia was in the wrong. The group had established ground rules, she knew them and implicitly agreed to them by continuing to attend the meetings. Unless there was some sort of precedent of taking up collections for special circumstances, she violated the social contract first. The letter was a highly inappropriate response, but the point was valid.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        Yeah, I agree. Although the note was not the way to handle it, Lydia still broke the rules. I don’t think the fact that it was a one-time situation makes any difference at all. That’s an opening to a slippery slope for people with “once in a lifetime opportunities” to ask for money for their trip to trek Kilimanjaro or whatever. I worked my ass of as a kid to be able to go on class trips and the like – the thought of asking other people to pony up is appalling to me.

  19. Chickaletta*

    I had no idea anonymous notes were a thing at work.

    Reason #346 I’m glad to be a freelancer.

    1. the gold digger*

      I was the subject of anonymous complaints about me to my boss at my old job. One of the complaints was that I identified myself improperly when I was calling customers.

      1. The company had just changed names (like one week before I started) from Teapots Inc to WeLoveChocolate!
      2. I was brand new to the company.

      Hence, if I identified myself as “Goldie Digger from WeLoveChocolate!”, nobody was going to know who I was. Which is why I said I was Goldie Digger from Teapots Inc.

  20. BadPlanning*

    I was the target of a “Your mom doesn’t work here, clean up your mess” note.

    I work at a large worksite with a onsite cafeteria. When you get food, you can select a real plate or a disposable styrofoam container. Often, I could get a real plate and take it to my desk. Then I’d drop the plate/silverware off in the plastic bin in our area’s common area. The dishes disappeared. Eventually the plastic bin disappeared, but dishware left in the same area still disappeared. My dishes and others.

    One day someone left said angry note about leaving mess and cleaning up after yourself. I emailed the person in charge of our food services, thinking I’d print out the reply of “Yes, we pick up dishes” but was surprised to find out there was no official dish pick up. Apparently someone would bring the dishes, but it wasn’t anyone’s official job (or not anymore) at least — so either a cleaning person or the person restocking the vending machines would bring them back. So then I felt bad. I wrote an update the angry note to say that dish pick up used to be a service, but wasn’t anymore.

    Then I started bringing my dishes back to the cafeteria with whatever dishes were left in said spot.

    I have since moved to another area so it is not a thing for me anymore.

    I guess the angry anonymous note sort of worked.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      Someone put a “your mom doesn’t work here” note on our microwave. It would rile me up daily because I always thought Why the hell should your mom clean up after you either?

    2. Bruce H.*

      Someone posted an anonymous “your mother doesn’t work here” note in the break room at one place I worked. I was tempted to reply with “No, but Barbara (one of the support staff) looks quite a lot like my mother, so that’s close enough.” I can’t remember whether or not I did it. Probably not.

    3. twig*

      I was once the lowly admin who got to wash the dishes that others didn’t bother to.

      I wanted to put up a sign that said:
      “your mother doesn’t work here, but if she did, she’d tell you to clean up after yourself”

      My mom wouldn’t clean up after us — she’d make sure that we cleaned up after ourselves…

    4. Jane D'oh!*

      I actually did work with my mother for a few months, when I was temping. There was a “your mother doesn’t work here” sign posted in the kitchenette and someone scrawled “except for Jane” on it. We all had a good laugh.

  21. not so super-visor*

    This!! 100%!!
    We had an issue a few months back were someone slipped an anonymous note in the suggestion box that just said “the company needs to treat both salaried and non-salaried employees the same.” The president went absolutely ballistic on all of the managers and supervisors stating that we were clearly not doing our jobs if employees felt that they couldn’t come to us with this type of complaint. The problem is that we don’t even know if the slight that Anonymous was complaining about was real or perceived. I get these types of complaints quite a bit, and usually they’re about sales people being able to make their own schedules or the mechanics being able to wear sweatshirts in the garage (we can’t at the corporate office). I have to constantly remind people that it’s a difference in job roles.
    As a result, the suggestion box has now been taken away.

    1. Chriama*

      There seems to be lots of overreactions in that one. The president flipping out at you was uncalled for. Removing the suggestion box was also uncalled for. Why not just let staff know that without enough details you can’t act on anonymous suggestions? Or even mentioning the note and asking people to anonymously put suggestions about how to make people feel like they’re being treated equally?

  22. Doug Judy*

    A coworker was using her parents handicap parking tag to park in one of the very few handicap spots for employees. She had no medical reason to park there and people who did have temporary disabilities that needed those spots weren’t able to because HR thought it was her tag. After about a year of her flaunting the fact it wasn’t her tag, and us in the department telling her that was illegal someone must have had enough and sent an anonymous note to HR. They were able to verify that no she did not have a hadnicap parking pass and told her she no longer was allowed to park there. I don’t blame whomever from sending the note that way. This lady was as vindicative as they come.

    A few months later I was shopping on the weekend and saw her parked in the handicap spot a the grocery store.

  23. RD*

    One exception here. There was a very nice anonymous note put in our breakroom thanking whoever gets in first for always making 3 pots of coffee, even though it probably isn’t their job.

    Based on writing style I’m pretty sure our controller wrote it, but since it’s anonymous I don’t know 100%.

    1. Jean*

      This is nice to read on a cold, dark, and windy afternoon in week #5 of (my current round of) being unemployed (and feeling sorry for myself)!

  24. Sunshine Brite*

    I did send an anonymous note once compiled with another coworker. We felt we were too new to make waves in the highly political office yet, didn’t want to get the supervisor in trouble for not acknowledging bias towards a client population we serve (particularly since at least 3-4 other supervisors had expressed that same bias in our short time there), but knew we had to say something. We sent it to our supervisor’s manager and in a few months we had some additional diversity training – not sure if it was connected though – we definitely could use even more of it as a whole. Plus, there has been much less discussion about this certain ethnic population and the previous concerns raised that ended up becoming stereotypes.

  25. Office Plant*

    I think there’s a place for anonymous notes. They’re a valid option when you have important info to communicate but can’t put your name on it because you’d be retaliated against. Like if you witness harassment, discrimination, theft, or something like that. Especially if it’s a higher up who would fire you or smear your name in the industry if they found out. Definitely depends on the workplace and the exact situation, though.

  26. Anon-Sometimes*

    The only time I can support anonymity is in employee surveys and in something my company does. We utilize a 3rd party anonymous “suggestion & question” box system. It allows you to to a third party website and without entering any personal information you can submit feedback, a question or a suggestion. These then get posted on our company intranet with a response from the CEO or another member of the executive team (depending on which subject it relates to). This allows for fairly blunt feedback that otherwise might not be heard.

    Also, while I was skeptical that questions would be censored, we recently saw a really unflattering question about our CEO and he put it out there…and the 7 follow up responses that were received and his response to each.

    1. Elise*

      We have something like that here. For the larger organization, it’s an anonymous Q&A blog that is sometimes benign stuff that I don’t know why people were afraid to ask and sometimes petty comments about people coming back from lunch 2 minutes late. My dept has one that is really supposed to be suggestions and ideas, but ends up being passive aggressive complaints most of the time. They do post and respond to them all. Once or twice, it has been something related to my work as administrator for our internal and external websites, and I had to respond publicly to the whole organization about a broken link someone could have emailed me about personally. I always respond promptly so I hate the anonymous nature of these comments because they make it seem like I wouldn’t respond without them.

  27. ilikeaskamanager*

    This post brings up a larger issue, which is the fact that many of us have never had a good role model on how to have civil and productive disagreements. I took a great class that helped me a lot when it comes to having difficult conversations.
    1. focus on the behavior, not the person, not their motives.
    2. don’t assume you know why somebody is doing something. (I.e they are coming in late because they are lazy). Because then you get stuck in a moral judgment scenario, not a problem solving scenario. Ask questions and remain curious before you decide you “know” something.
    3. You don’t have to get to mutual agreement that behavior X is a problem/wrong/shouldn’t happen, etc . Then you are stuck in the problem. What you have to get to is an agreement about a mutual solution.
    4. It is possible to have a solution to a problem without either party having to admit they are wrong. They just have to agree that they will do X instead of Y.
    5. It is even possible to resolve an issue and still think the other person was being ridiculous/overreacting, whatever. As long as you have a solution that both parties agree to, you can feel however you want to about it, as long as you honor the agreement.
    6. And remember that somewhere there is somebody who is having a problem with you. Yes, you. How do you want them to approach you about it? Try that.

  28. Jill*

    I’d like to argue in favor of the opposite end of this spectrum – that is, Managers doing the anonymous reprimand. My boss, in our last staff meeting, made a big mention of reminding us very sternly that gym shoes are NOT proper office attire for our professional office and went on an on. Well, that sent up a panic among many of us who often come in from lunch with gym shoes on after a lunchtime walk, and others of us who have worn gym shoes due to temporary foot related medical issues.

    I went in to her privately to explain and that’s when she said there’s ONE staff person who routinely wears gym shoes color coordinated to her outfits. So, yea, send about 10 of us into a panic that the boss is upset with our footwear – when it’s really only one employee that needed a reprimand.

    1. Joseph*

      I don’t think that’s a point in favor of anonymity. The “anonymous” that AAM is opposing is referring to the concept of leaving an unnamed note/complaint – which is different from the concept of a private reprimand.
      Your boss mishandled this situation by making it seem like a group-wide problem, but the answer is not to leave an anonymous note. The solution is simply that your manager should privately explain to the staff member in question the need for work-professional footwear. Your manager’s position gives her the authority to handle this directly – no need to hide behind anonymity when part of her job is to enforce professionalism and quality in her staff.

    2. AMPG*

      I try to stick to the rule that something is only worth addressing in an all-staff email or staff meeting if several people are affected/perpetrators/have approached me about it. Otherwise it’s a one-on-one discussion.

    3. Anne (with an "e")*

      I completely agree. My principal used to do this sort of thing in faculty meetings. He would throw half the staff into panic mode when, in fact, he really only had a problem with one teacher’s behavior. The thing is, the conscientious employees are going to overreact to blanket statements like this. At the same time the ones who are breaking the rules probably didn’t even notice or care care about the announcement.

  29. AMPG*

    My family has had a very weird anonymous note situation going on for a couple of years now. We all (a couple dozen, give or take) gather at Christmas, and the adults all draw Secret Santa names beforehand, so we’re only responsible for one gift. The limit is $25-30, and anyone can opt out beforehand. Twice now my aunt (who organizes the drawing and often hosts the gathering) has received anonymous letters complaining about how both the drawing and the general festivities are run. The notes are hand-written, but nobody recognizes the writing, and they contain details that clearly show the person has attended the gatherings. Nobody will own up to writing the letters, and there aren’t really even ways to address the complaints (for example, both letters have said we need to stop the gift exchange because nobody likes it, but a lot of us do really like it, and anyone who doesn’t can already opt out with no consequences). We’re a pretty close family, so it’s extremely weird that somebody seems to think they can’t bring these things up openly.

  30. PsssstYou'reNasty*

    On the other hand …

    I’m the office manager in an office of five men and 2 women, including myself. I’m older than the other female and have had a hysterectomy so I do not have periods. We are in a very old office and the men and women share a single bathroom. The other female is less than hygienic and I have been forced on three, 3, THREE occasions to have to tell her to go clean her mess in the bathroom. Once there was a used napkin on the floor next to the garbage can. Most recently there was a huge splatter of …. ick … on the toilet seat itself. The men are the one’s who find this and report back to me and I have to tell her to go clean it up. You’d think the embarrassment after the first time would have been enough for her to “clean up her act,” but nooooo, she’s forced me into that situation again and again.

    I would love nothing more than to anonymously put a note on her desk rather than have that embarrassing, gag-inducing talk.

  31. Andy Lee*

    Totally wrong. My boss was stealing and she would threaten anyone who ever went over her head, her boss also would threaten it.

    I sent anonymous letter to the board and copied myself. After about five years she was caught and I then went to the new board president, and showed him that, not only did my boss, her boss and the board membership know they failed to simply count the drawer and that would’ve revealed everything.

    The new guy said, he would fire me for not telling, I then copied the email he sent me to the entire membership and he was out as well as the ongoing investigation would’ve resulted in a lawsuit by me and I decided to walk away with a good sum of money and they lost their non-profit status, for three months while they reorganized.

    I’m sure they all thought it was my fault, but clearly by not acting on an anonomous tip, you are only setting yourself up later, when it comes to light and it’s shown you could’ve stopped it but failed to.

  32. XXX*

    I left an anonymous note once and don’t see a problem with it. I was working next to a sales floor and 2 or 3 of the sales reps would, quite frequently, made loud joke FART noises during the day as a running joke. It was disruptive and annoying, since I am often on the phone with clients. I left an anonymous notes in the Sales Boss’s office and he addressed it in their daily meeting. It stopped. And I didnt have to have THAT conversation. Don’t really see anything wrong with that.

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