should I address the feedback from an anonymous survey?

A reader writes:

My company did an employee survey. It really was anonymous (no names and anything that could be de-anonymizing was scrubbed from the results I can see) but my department is small enough that I have a good idea about who gave each rating, including who gave a tiny bit of negative feedback about me. I absolutely don’t want to be that manager who is like “Who did it?! You’re wrong!” but I did want to talk to that person as they were neutral on how much they felt they could disagree with me. It wasn’t even negative, just not the higher scores everyone else gave.

I’m not really sure I see any way to say “I disagree that you can’t disagree with me” because I fully understand how ridiculous that is. But I’ve always had pretty open, feedback-filled relationships with the members of my team and I just want to make sure everyone knows they really can bring things up to me and I’m always going to listen and consider. I won’t always agree, but we’ll always discuss it.

Is there a way I could bring this up? Or should I just let it go?

I answer this question — and three 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:

  • I don’t want coworkers to call my personal cell
  • Non-reciprocal networkers
  • Start date and losing a bonus at my current job

{ 196 comments… read them below }

  1. CommanderBanana*

    “I’m going to respond to the person I think answered this survey that they were told is anonymous to ask them why they only gave me a neutral instead of a good response to a question about whether they can disagree with me” is probably one of the fastest ways you can trash your team’s trust.

    I would also never, ever respond to another “anonymous” survey again if it meant my boss was going to come after me for not giving them as high of a rating as they thought they deserved.

    1. JMA*

      Perfectly said. The second someone came up to me personally to discuss feedback they guessed was mine would be the last time I perform any feedback surveys in that job.

    2. Heidi*

      For my workplace, they won’t release the results to managers if their teams are too small for anonymity. It’s not great that the feedback goes into a black hole, but it prevents situations like this, I guess.

      1. Nicosloanica*

        In those cases they should do a ranked 1-5 survey or something with no comments.

      2. Miette*

        I worked someplace where the survey company aggregated the responses so that managers (especially of small teams like the one I was on) could get the feedback without trying to ID who said what.

      3. Lea*

        Yeah ours get rolled up to groups of ten or so iirc but having looked at a lot of survey results it’s amazing what people will be put in free text!!!

        But I don’t see why op can’t just address the results of the survey generally as ‘per the survey results here are some things I’d like to improve on’ or whatever

      4. Always Tired*

        I work at a smaller company, and when we do feedback surveys, I sit down with all the responses not about me (those get siloed to someone else) and create a combined general feedback, to help further anonymize it. So in OPs case, rather than 4 feedbacks with one saying something about not being able to disagree, they’d get averaged scores on the number ranked, and the written feedback would be like, “you are really good at X, Y, and Z. The team feels they can trust you and that you are supportive, but don’t always feel comfortable disagreeing with you.” Which still isn’t perfect, but removes the voice from each feedback, making it harder to pinpoint who said what.

          1. Always Tired*

            It is! It also takes forever. The person in charge of doing mine decided to show me how much faster it would be with ChatGPT, and ended up having to summarize live because what it spit out made no sense. So for larger organizations, I could see not having the manpower to do it. but at a company of 40ish, with 3-5 feedbacks per person, it’s just a week or so of my life reading and rewriting 160-odd survey responses.

      5. GreenShoes*

        They did something similar at mine… but it really diluted the results. Instead of a black hole they rolled it up.

        Teams A, B, and C were reported up as Team Alphabet. So trying to get some worthwhile feedback was impossible. If several people responded that moral was low it was impossible for Team A manager to know if they had a problem on their team or if it was Team C. If several people loved their immediate manager… does Team B manager know they’re getting it right or Team C manager?

        I guess it helped provide data for high level things but wasn’t great for a more granular view or for acting on feedback.

        1. Your Former Password Resetter*

          Yeah, that’s really not how that’s supposed to work. The feedback should still be about the person receiving it…

      6. AngryOctopus*

        We have the same. The department boss sees it, so at least it doesn’t get black holed, but since we only have 3 total people in my group, my manager doesn’t get feedback from me/other person individually. The minimum for that is 5.

    3. Nicosloanica*

      I never do respond anymore, after one bad experience. Or I just make things excruciatingly neutral and useless – just the most anodyne comments ever (ironically OP is mad here about a neutral comment LOL). If I have a specific criticism I will raise it under my own name with full knowledge of the likely outcomes; it’s just not my job to risk my future to help senior people improve, knowing they can rarely handle the truth anyway (to be fair, most people can’t).

      1. CommanderBanana*

        Neither do I. I also no longer participate in stay interviews and the second HR says something is confidential, I assume that means it’s not.

        Maybe one day I’ll work somewhere with an HR department that isn’t staffed by incompetent gossipy loons, but that day has not yet come.

        1. Chauncy Gardener*

          Can we please breed some competent HR folks?
          I usually handle HR duties for my (small) companies and I just can’t imagine hiring a “professional” HR person. They add so little value IMHO

          1. CommanderBanana*

            I can’t decide who my favorite HR person was – the one who didn’t know what Glassdoor was and had never Googled the company in all her years of working there and couldn’t figure out why we couldn’t fill any open positions because we had years worth of abysmal Glassdoor reviews all saying the same thing? The one who held “confidential” stay interviews and then told everyone’s manager what people had said in them? So many to choose from!

          2. Rain*

            I feel like HR, much like Project Management, is a position that some people think is “easy” and can be “done by anyone”, so they don’t invest in hiring or training people who are competent in those skills.

            And honestly, I sometimes think a bad HR person or project manager can be worse than none at all.

            1. AngryOctopus*

              Or they give HR duties to someone who isn’t HR trained, then have that person suddenly be in charge of HR and hiring people in the department as a company grows, so you suddenly have a 100% non HR trained HR department, and everyone hates them because they don’t understand HR.

          3. Hroethvitnir*

            :( I’m perceiving a massive increase in consolidated HR depts here in Aotearoa – maybe more big international companies moving in? It might just be me moving industries.

            It burns my britches because in theory there are definitely advantages to that, in practice I have no faith.

        2. Anon for this*

          One of the things we’re trying to remind everyone where I work is that a union rep can (and maybe should) be present at stay interviews.

      2. Armchair Analyst*

        Yes I try to complain about things I know are unpopular anyway and that the higher-ups are aware of so that I don’t stick out

    4. WellRed*

      I have a coworker who felt badgered by her manager during a regular one on one because that manager wouldn’t move forward without knowing what coworker put on the ANONYMOUS survey they make us do annually. I encouraged her to report it. Sadly, this manager should not be managing humans. Happily, due to thus and other factors, coworker received a transfer to another team.

    5. Bast*

      We had “anonymous surveys” at an old job, and no one was honest because the few times someone gave less than stellar marks, we’d have a huge meeting where everyone got yelled at and they’d try to play detective to figure out whodunit. It would always end with, “if you feel this way about working here, this probably isn’t the place for you” with the implication being that if they found out it was you, you’d be fired. People stopped being honest and management never got any real feedback.

      1. Been There 2*

        I used to administer “anonymous” at oldtoxicjob… they were not anonymous, but the company owner told staff they were. I never participated in any of them.

          1. Georgia Carolyn Mason*

            Is a small-team upward review ever likely to work? We had a 360 review of my ultra-abusive boss at my oldtoxicjob, and she called and ripped me a new one for giving her a 2 out of 10. Problem is, I didn’t! (I gave her a stellar 5, because she was ok at the non-management part of her job.) When I finally convinced her it wasn’t me, she then started screaming at me again to find the person who had given her a 2. NOPE! I knew who it was, but pled ignorance, and looming deadlines that would make her look bad if I missed them, to get the hell off the phone.

        1. Bast*

          Yikes! People had suspicions at my old job, but I know the owner there would have had no hesitation about firing the person/people behind the not so great survey(s) if he knew without a doubt who had done it.

          I don’t really trust any surveys, because in the places where I am comfortable giving feedback I don’t need a survey to do so, and if I don’t feel comfortable giving feedback, I won’t trust that the survey is truly anonymous and won’t be used against me. If asked, I’d bring up minor inconveniences such as the bad parking situation or that maybe it was time for new office chairs, but never anything that outright criticized management and the way things were run.

          1. Project Maniac-ger*

            Great point. If company leadership is in the position where they need anonymous surveys completed by employees to manage their managers, there’s already problems afoot.

            I’m not saying that surveys are bad – they’re a good tool to find out info about things (that aren’t other people.) They should also be only one piece of data you look at before you make a decision, because they are better in context.

      2. not nice, don't care*

        I once overheard the person managing surveys at my workplace say “we’ll even turn off IP tracking this time”. Now I assume no anonymity but I still use the open comment boxes to roast malefactors if merited. I have a decent amount of political capital, and also would love badmin to call me out for an ‘anonymous’ survey response, so I could tank their approval ratings further.

    6. 653-CXK*

      Over the past four years, I’ve given “neutral” and “no comment” as my answers at my CurrentJob – mainly because I do not wish to participate in the surveys, but particularly because the last time I gave an honest survey, some of the upper management at ExJob were quite miffed that I would spell out what’s wrong with the company (namely, how management put production stats over mental health, and that the director was a toxic witch who had no business leading a parade, never mind a team).

      CurrentJob is not perfect, but I’m not putting them on blast for their shortcomings. Neutral and “no comment” means I prefer not to respond (and some of their open-ended questions were silly anyway).

    7. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      This one recalls the letter from the man stating that the survey about gender issues touched on some problems and his knee jerk reaction was to 1) assume it came from the lone woman in the group; 2) speak to the lone woman in the group about her concerns.
      It was so earnest that you just wanted to pat his head and say, “yeaaaaah….no.”
      But he, like OP wrote in for help, or rather confirmation that wanting to fix this by airing it out is wrong. So big ups to OP.

    8. Sally Forth*

      Exactly. I once had two managers call me into their office over what they considered an embarrassing comment on an anonymous survey. We were in a branch with dial phones (this was the 90s) and after a team visit to another branch we noticed they had high tech phones with hold buttons and speed dial. I said that would make our sales pen a lot more efficient.
      Head office sent the survey to my managers and asked them to identify the hand writing. I was mortified.

    9. JelloStapler*

      I want to discuss the fact that you cannot disagree with me… but complain that you can’t disagree with me.

      Instead OP- take a look at how you act and change it.

      1. Also-ADHD*

        This was my thought! I know there are other issues with surveys people have moved into here, but LW feels satirized or something here. They aren’t concerned about altering their behavior to be more openly disagreed with/make the person more comfortable, but rather with proving they can be disagreed with and the person who disagrees and feels there’s a barrier to disagreeing is wrong (and based on LW’s reaction to this neutral/slightly critical feedback, disagreeing with them does sound exhausting).

    10. Quill*

      Exactly. LW, the only thing you can do in response to a survey (if you want to keep using them OR if you want to still have a good working relationship with your subordinates) is attempt to change your own behavior.

    11. Choggy*

      When my manager first started, they asked (forced) the team to do a 360 survey, I think they were in the role for maybe a month. I made sure to keep my answers as neutral as possible. We never had another 360 survey again, and no other manager, in the history of the company, ever had a 360-survey done. It was just their way of trying to find out what we thought of them. I can’t speak for the rest of the team, but I did not, and still don’t, think much of them, but thankfully they are no longer my manager.

    12. Rudebeckia*

      Agreed. It’s interesting this is the question that’s got OP curious. If a manager wanted to “talk to me” to know why I’d ranked them neutral for this question about feeling free to disagree with them, I’d probably feel like I was being punished for not ranking them more highly, and feel less inclined to give honest feedback in the future.

    13. Meep*

      +1 I get criticism is hard. Even valid criticism, but the best thing for OP to do is calm down, read it again, and keep repeating the process until they can calmly and objectively view the criticism without being upset. Then see if it is something valid and worth addressing or not, and move on.

  2. Nicosloanica*

    Honestly I can tell OP is not-great because they should have actively shut down any thoughts of sleuthing out who said what, like blocked the thoughts out of their head or – if not possible – found a way to make it impossible to link comments with individuals (in similar circumstances I had a neutral third party review and relay to me what was said in their own words). Instead it’s clear that they both noticed who might have said what, dwelt on it, and then allowed their noticing to influence their thoughts and maybe actions.

    1. Managing While Female*

      I think this is a very unkind interpretation of the OP. They’re only human and feeling as if someone doesn’t like you hurts some people more than others. OP might have some people-pleaser tendencies, but that doesn’t make her a bad person. Plus, on a small team, you don’t need to necessarily commit too much brain-power to figuring out who said what.

      1. User Name*

        Agreed. People are allowed to be imperfect and occasionally insecure. It doesn’t make them awful human beings. When you work closely with a small team, “anonymizing” only goes so far, and most people notice and react to perceived negativity whether they want to or not.

        OP knew their reaction wasn’t ideal and sought out a third party opinion on how to handle it. That’s a good move – they’re trying to be conscientious and respond well. They can’t un-know what they read or what they’ve observed about their team, so they’re looking for the best path forward.

        1. Nicosloanica*

          I didn’t mean so suggest they’re an awful person writ large – I’m sure they’re very nice – but I’d also guess they’re not going to go to HR and explain they can’t handle anonymous feedback because they’re just too sensitive for it?

          1. Good Lord Ratty*

            Genuinely, what possible use would them going to HR and saying they’re sensitive be? For anyone? What on earth would be the point of that?

          2. Lydia*

            Uh, no. It is 100% normal to be stung just a little about negative feedback. And not getting feedback to assuage being sensitive to it is not really the way to go. Especially not going to HR and telling them they can’t get any feedback because it’s hard to take.

      2. Lea*

        It does sound like op is obsessing over this one comment a bit, truly they should know better than to address a specific person! Makes me think they might truly BE difficult to disagree with In a relentless cheerful way?

        At any rate they should maybe think about if this might be the case. It can still be frustrating even if someone is trying to be nice about it, sometimes even more so

      3. K8T*

        Yeah there’s 2 people in my department besides my boss – I truly don’t have complaints but if I did it would take 2 seconds to figure out who wrote what lol

      4. Whisp Will*

        Being a not-great manager doesn’t make you a bad person. Most people are not great managers! But they did let this fester to the point of writing a letter to AAM which indicates that they don’t have a great sense of how they should be dealing with this type of situation, and that means there’s definitely room for improvement.

        If giving that feedback is deemed unkind, then there is no point in asking for feedback in the first place. You are doing the same thing the OP did – taking neutral feedback and getting upset because you perceive it as negative. But that’s a you problem, not a problem with the feedback.

        1. not nice, don't care*

          Being a not-great manager does make you a bad person if your not-greatness causes other people harm. The old saw ‘people leave bad managers, not bad jobs’ is so very true because bad/not-great managers can really wreak havoc on employees at so many levels.

          If people want to manage humans, they need to be up to the work or don’t bother.

          1. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

            Not necessarily a bad person, but maybe a bad manager. I wish there wasn’t such a widespread attitude of “but of course everyone wants to be a manager!” and more support of non-managerial career growth.

        2. Managing While Female*

          “You are doing the same thing the OP did – taking neutral feedback and getting upset because you perceive it as negative. But that’s a you problem, not a problem with the feedback.”

          Excuse me? How am I doing this? I’m allowed to express my own opinion about the situation and not drag the letter writer.

      5. Ellis Bell*

        I think that’s exactly why it’s a good idea to try to distance/anonymise/cut out bias. Yes, we’re human and our foibles are natural and it absolutely doesn’t make you a bad person to have a vulnerable minute. But resting your bar there, doesn’t make you excel at management either. Agreed that getting outside perspective is a great move though.

      6. Stoli*

        Managers need to get a tougher shell if a neutral score on a survey rattles them to the extent they want to uncover and confront their report after a so-called anonymous survey. Or they should quit management. Better to self reflect on a negative or neutral score than behave like this.

      7. Allegra*

        Agreed, and I think it’s not creating an environment conducive to asking for help or advice when we say “OP’s not-great because they didn’t immediately stop themselves from even having this thought in the first place.” I feel like I see this stance in a lot of communities and and it feels very unhelpful, I think particularly for people that struggle with self-worth or are sensitive to rejection, to be like “you are immediately judged on your first thought whether or not you took action on it”. It’s so normal when you get feedback to be like “oh, I don’t think that reflects how I work and I want to correct that assumption”, but not know the best way of approaching that or have the tools to do so in a constructive way! OP reached out for advice because they didn’t know if that first thought was a good thought or not, and I think that matters more than not being able to stop themselves from thinking it at all.

      8. Stoli*

        A good manager reflects on scores not narrows down who said what and wants to “correct” them.

        1. Reluctant Mezzo*

          Which is why I lie like crazy on these ‘anonymous’ surveys, you know, the one I have to log into from my work computer, no matter who says it’s anonymous.

    2. Hyaline*

      I will say, too, OP seems to be approaching this not from an angle of “how do I prove I’m right” but “how can I fix this/help” which isn’t necessarily bad or wrong…but they’re coming it at from the wrong side. The OP seems to have missed the point of getting anonymous surveys about the manager’s performance. The point isn’t to identify why and how the employee feels the way they feel and then try to reassure or encourage them, but to take the survey responses and do some reflection and consider if there are ways THE MANAGER can improve. (In this case, neutral may really just mean “all is fine” and it’s really not necessary to dwell on it, but perhaps there are ways OP could improve receptiveness to being challenged or handle disagreement better, and should bring those improved strategies, attitudes, or plans into interactions with the entire team. Those are questions for the MANAGER to ponder, not to bring back around to the employee–this should be the OP’s problem alone.)

    3. LadyVet*

      Nah. It’s a bad situation all around.

      My employer recently launched an “anonymous survey” but we had to put which division and a lower level down that we work for, and someone’s been going around our office asking people if they took it yet to get our division’s numbers up.

  3. Ariaflame*

    Re the linkedin one, I really wouldn’t read much into people not responding on there in a timely manner. I go on there maybe once or twice a year, and usually to check on something vaguely work related trying to find something out. I might even look at messages while I’m there but honestly they just might not use it most of the time.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I was with OP being annoyed. And I still am. Geez oh man, just reply, “will do,” and move on. But reading Alison’s “take a breath and look at the whole situation” response:
      OP said, “let’s keep in touch.”
      Networker did not reply or suggest any open positions.
      But, OP did not reach out to ask about any positions.
      Networker reached out to ask about open positions.
      Neither person solicited candidates for positions.
      Worth a meet to confirm “no blood; no foul.”
      If OP is only giving info and getting nothing, that’s a different letter.

    2. Kyrielle*

      Yup. Even if they appear active! We get encouraged to go boost company posts or respond to people in our work Slack, some folks reshare and react to stuff, but only if it shows up in Slack first…otherwise they’re not doing anything. I would be surprised if they’re even looking at their notifications (goodness knows I seldom glance at mine, I just did and all but one in the first screen are “pay attention to this group we think you will be interested in” or “your coworkers are boosting the thing you were asked to boost”). I do check messages, but honestly those are 90% people-wanting-referrals or recruiters hoping I’m job seeking.

    3. MCMonkeybean*

      Yeah, I was surprised the response didn’t talk about how so, so, so many people just… don’t regularly read LinkedIn messages. Most people I know are only on LinkedIn while they are actively looking for a job–which this woman obviously wasn’t as she had just gotten one.

      I just logged into LinkedIn now out of curiosity and I’ve got 49 unread messages. Most of them are recruiter spam but a few look to be from people I would actually like to keep in touch with.

      OP definitely does not have to meet up with this person or offer them any help if they don’t want to! But they are taking a lack of response to a LinkedIn message way too personally.

      1. MCMonkeybean*

        It looks like I have not checked my LinkedIn messages since January 2021 lol

  4. Ingrid*

    Having one neutral and the rest positive is probably a good thing because then you do know that all participants are honest instead of afraid of giving a negative score.

    1. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

      No, you know that *one* participant is honest. The others may have been burned in the past by, say, a manager tracking down their “anonymous” feedback and explaining to them how it was wrong.

      1. Polly Hedron*

        Alas, you don’t even know that. That *one* participant might have upgraded their opinion from negative to neutral!

    2. Nonym*

      You really can’t know that.

      What we know is that we have a not-actually-anonymous survey where everyone gave the manager perfect scores, except for one employee who gave a neutral rating on whether they felt like they could disagree with the manager, and now the manager wants to talk to this person.

      Sure, it’s possible that they are the only one who feel this way, LW takes negative feedback wonderfully, and everyone was sincere.

      It’s also possible that others feel they can’t disagree with the LW but they anticipated this outcome and chose to give perfect untrue ratings as a result. In other words, they didn’t say anything because they don’t trust the LW to react well to less than stellar feedback/they don’t want LW to confront them about it.

      On a not-actually-anonymous survey, when getting almost unanimous perfect scores with only one less-than-stellar comment, instead of assuming it means everyone is sincere and you’re perfect, a better reaction would be to consider that maybe the one person is voicing a concern the others share but didn’t dare bring up (especially when the concern is your reaction to negative feedback) and treat it as a possible area of improvement.

  5. Gimme all you got*

    One thing I’d add to the first answer is that even if the review was negative rather than neutral, you still shouldn’t identify the person and discuss it with them. Take it to heart yes, but if you want to keep the illusion of anonymous feedback don’t tell anyone that you can identify them specifically.

    1. Kes*

      Yeah, I mean first of all you shouldn’t be responding individually to anonymous feedback even if you (think you) can tell who wrote it.
      Second of all, if someone responds neutrally or negatively to a question about whether they feel they can disagree with you, and your reaction is to go tell them they’re wrong… I mean, you’re kind of going to just prove them right instead.
      If you do want to encourage people to feel safe disagreeing with you, you need to listen to them and consider and reflect on what they’re saying rather than just immediately rejecting it. Even if overall you still end up disagreeing with them, showing them that you are considering what they’re saying (truly considering, not just pretending – people will see through that) is what will show them that you truly are open to other perspectives. Also, even if overall you end up still disagreeing with them there may still be nuggets of truth or insight to be gained (at the least, that you’ll have a better idea of what their perspective is)

      1. Rain*

        I once told my husband that I felt like he argued over every little thing … his response, predictablt, was “I do not!”

    2. Lauren19*

      Regardless of what the survey said, you owe your team a synopsis of the feedback and what that means going forward. People want to know that when they do surveys, people actually care about the results on the other end and use them to inform their planning.

      If I were you I’d hold a meeting with your whole team to go through ALL feedback. Talk about what is working well and how you can work together to make sure that it continues to work well. Talk about where there are opportunities for improvement, and name that your own listening (that’s what fear of disagreement really comes down to) is an are of improvement. Then own it, and create venues – meetings or suggestion box or whatever feels safe for this group – to share their thoughts. But the important part here is you can’t react. Instead you’re going to repeat back what you heard, how their experiences have led to their perspectives and what that means for their ability to be successful in their roles. You are not going to use the word ‘I’. You are not going to correct them. You are going to listen.

      Following that you can address each situation separately with FACTS. Bring data to support your coaching, and if there’s not data (even recognized best practices) then you need to question whether your perspective is opinion or expertise.

      This is not because you’re failing – all positive and one neutral response is really good. This is because you want to continue to grow and evolve as a leader and as a team. Good luck OP!

  6. Sandra*

    I don’t respond to work surveys because I don’t trust they’re truly anonymous. This only confirms that decision!

    1. Purple squirrel*

      This lack of trust is the bane of my existence. My work is centered around employee feedback. All three of my survey tools are anonymous; one uses unique links but is anonymized by our provider and I have no way of linking responses to an individual (and I have the maximum level of access to the data).

      However, there’s a pervasive belief that these surveys aren’t anonymous, thus we have crappy response rates.

      I can’t speak for other organizations but ours has a legal department which is adamant about data privacy (we’re global and have employees in countries covered by GDPR). A manager can certainly ask who submitted a survey, but the response will always be “nope, couldn’t do that even if we wanted to, and we don’t want to.”

      Oddly enough, when we do focus groups face-to-face, employees are happy to complain in great detail and colorful language about their managers, leadership, and corporate policies. We also have forums on our intranet where people post concerns, criticisms, and… er, interesting opinions, and like on FB your name/photo/profile are attached to all posts. And yet they’re concerned that a survey isn’t anonymous?

      1. Tinny*

        I’ve been through enough nonsense where we’ve been told it’s anonymous and it turned out to very much not be, that I will never trust any claim that a poll/survey/questionnaire is anonymous ever again. I’ll happily express my honest opinions in my own choice of spaces with my name attached when I choose, because that’s under my own control and I know and can judge the situation for myself. But I am DONE being lied to, manipulated by, and threatened with so-called anonymous surveys.

        I’m sure you are very honest, but I have been burned too many times to trust anyone saying that ever again! Just tell me you’ll put my name and position under my feedback, and I’ll decide how honest I can safely be.

      2. Observer*

        However, there’s a pervasive belief that these surveys aren’t anonymous, thus we have crappy response rates.

        Yes, there is this belief. And it is because as often as not, it is the truth.

        Sometimes the promise of anonymity is a lie. Sometimes it’s because of incompetence on the part of the company. And sometimes, as in the case of this LW, it’s because in a group that small, it’s just not possible to be completely anonymous with anything that’s more that a list of Y/N questions.

        If you want to improve response rates, you are going to have to do more than tell supervisors “No” when they ask for information, although that is a good start. You need to turn every request into a strike against that manager. You also absolutely need to make sure the managers do not try to figure out who answered what, do what this LW wanted to do, conduct “investigations” among their staff, or address it with their whole department. Also, think about how you handle the data from small departments – some of that data is just too identifiable, and maybe you should not share that information.

        In a perfect world, you would also try to influence the broader ecosystem, but I realize that that’s probably not very realistic.

      3. Uh huh*

        Unfortunately, so very many organizations don’t have *truly* anonymous surveys, even when they promise they do, so they ruined it for everyone. At the end of the day, the employee has to protect themself and their livelihood and if feedback suffers, so be it. But it’s surprising that employees at your org let their opinions be tied to their profile info.

        I worked for a government employer and we were assured that our responses would be anonymous and even a third party vendor administered the survey. This should have been “safe,” right? Nope. They had even said that the responses would be combined and wouldn’t point to a certain person. What they *didn’t* say was that the department chiefs would be receiving the responses for their employees. They had 5-20 direct reports. As my colleague said, she was a different ethnicity from everyone else in the department so it would have been very clear which answers were hers based on her answers to the demographic info. In my case, my gender and number of years there would have given away my responses. If the entire division’s reponses would have combined, it would have been fine, but breaking it out by department put people at risk.

        In fact, our department’s chief wasn’t happy with the results (and we were in turn not happy by his good ol’ boy, misogynist leadership) and they had a sensing session to find out why his employees weren’t happy. He attended so all that happened were that his sycophants did their boot licking and the rest of us who had real EEO/HR-actionable concerns sat there quietly as otherwise we’d have bulls-eyes on our foreheads.

      4. engie*

        Isn’t it understood that, as in this letter, the concern usually is not that the company breaks the law, but that of course the manager will know who filled in which answers, because the manager recognizes the writing style, or because the survey writer found it somehow essential to include questions like “what is your gender” or “what is your salary range” to the survey, making many people immediately uniquely identifiable when results are given on a team level?

        Also it is great that this works like this in your workplace, but that is not universally true. My company is open about this, states that surveys are confidential, not anonymous, and that personal data is not shared with managers but only available to a select few employees.

        “Oddly enough, when we do focus groups face-to-face, employees are happy to complain in great detail and colorful language about their managers, leadership, and corporate policies.”

        Qualitative data is also data, and often much more insightful. If you rely on feedback from employees I would expect you to be very happy that you found a way to get that, but it seems like you’re annoyed by it? It’s so odd to me that it is odd to you that people are more forthcoming in face-to-face conversations. But you probably work in a very particular industry, because I have never worked anywhere where a significant number of employees complain on FB about their employer with a photo attached. Those people exist, sure, but they’re usually such a tiny minority. If this is so common in your field, that’s probably really very specific to your field. I would not draw general conclusions about people’s behaviour from that.

      5. not nice, don't care*

        Folks know that face-to-face and online forums are not anonymous and choose to speak openly. Folks are told that anonymous surveys are anonymous, so the expectation is there to be broken, as it so often is.

      6. Mizzle*

        I’m happy to give feedback (both positive and negative) in all sorts of settings, but I dislike anonymous surveys. Asking me to trust that they’re fully anonymous feel iffy, but more importantly, it’s not a very useful way of giving feedback. If I’m taking the time to give my opinion, I want you to be able to ask questions in return, so I *want* to give my name.

      7. Artemesia*

        I know a consultant who did a big 360 for a company where people were promised anonymity through the third party consultant. He was then ordered by the management who employed him to disclose who had provided various sorts of negative feedback. He refused and fired the client (and pointed out the contract backed up protection of anonymity) but it did remind me that these things are never anonymous.

        1. stratospherica*

          Yeah, I’ve been put in charge of a very unpopular project that requires a lot of after-hours work from people who don’t really see a benefit from it in their own work. Feedback has been pretty roundly negative from them but I’ve always made sure it’s taken anonymously, but my grandboss keeps trying to get me to say who said what (and even if I can tell, I shrug my shoulders and say “sorry, anonymous survey, couldn’t tell you!”)

          Now she wants the next survey to be not anonymous, so I guess I’ll have to make that extra clear when sending it out.

      8. Kloe*

        I didn’t answer the last survey not because I thought it wasn’t anonymous (it stated in the text block at the beginning that it wasn’t truly anonymous). I didn’t answer it because it obvious didn’t want the truth. The text inviting us to the survey was making it quite clear that everything was happy and fun and the answers were similarly, expect of course for the question that tried to get you to blame your supervisor for all issues. Which, yeah, my manager is not giving me the means to be awesome at my job because upper management doesn’t give them tools do so, but sure my manager is the issue.

    2. Hamster Manager*

      Yup, never respond to those! Firstly, no workplace I’ve ever been in has made any changes ever based on those.

      Secondly, they seem like a trap, especially if you have anything to say that could come across as disgruntlement…you have no guarantee HR isn’t filing that away for a rainy day where they need to fire you.

  7. TechWorker*

    Personal cell usage definitely varies between companies – here it would be pretty well understood giving out personal phone numbers is really not ok and it would be reasonable to, if not ‘tell people off’ about it, make it clear it shouldn’t continue.

    1. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Laying Around*

      Yeah you would DEFINITELY be told off here for sharing a personal cell! We have work phones. Literally the only time I was contacted by my job on my personal # was to tell me our building was on fire!

    2. Caramel & Cheddar*

      Even within companies it can be so varied! A few colleagues have my number for social reasons, but my job isn’t one where you need to be able to contact me via cell so if people started giving it out, I’d be livid. But there are absolutely teams in my company where cell contacts are common and even expected in some situations.

      I would just err on the side of asking a colleague for permission before handing out their cell number, but not everyone thinks about this as a privacy issue like I do.

      1. Smithy*

        I’ve used my personal cell for work for the last few years to the point where I have it in my workplace signature. Which I think is fairly common on my team, to the point where it’s not even listed as “cell” but rather just phone number.

        With that being said, when it’s something you’ve done for so long – it can be desensitizing. I’ve ended up using my personal WhatsApp, cell phone number and even Facebook. Which means that first you get more accustomed to those interactions, but also that you figure out how to set your boundaries.

        When it’s new, something you don’t want and don’t need – I completely see how it reads as more intrusive and invasive. But I also think that because there are people such as myself/my team – it muddies the waters for setting standard workplace etiquette.

        1. Lizzay*

          See, it seem to me that that’s another example of workplaces pushing the costs of business onto their employees. Or, in your case, of employees taking that cost onto themselves! But I guess it depends on the industry…

          1. bamcheeks*

            I think this really varies between individuals. I’ve had a separate work phone before and I *hated* it. The mental burden of trying to keep two phones charged and remember to bring them both with me was way more annoying than people having my personal number.

        2. Rosacolleti*

          So when you change role, you’ll be ok fielding calls evermore for this current role? I hope you’re well and truly compensated for this.

      2. Wired Wolf*

        My job isn’t one where any coworkers would need to call me when I’m off-shift. One night I got called at home–I did not give anyone permission to do this ever–because the department printer wasn’t working…and then raked over the coals by a supervisor the next day because I didn’t pick up (the supervisor hung up before I saw who was calling). And then that supervisor got a strip torn off them by the manager–equipment not working is an immediate helpdesk call if nobody in the store at the time can fix it.

        Where I work, it’s technically a labor law violation to do something like that (even if someone only wanted me to “walk them through” some workaround, that’s considered working off the clock if we’re not in the building).

    3. Lea*

      I had a little script I used: rather than give out a coworkers number I would always take down the number of a person who called and they send it with a message to the other person.

      But if it was both of our boss or something I would probably hand over a #? It’s kind of tricky but the ‘this is actually my person please use my work cell (if it exists)’ is a handy thing to say too

      1. Lea*

        However I should say everybody at work has my number but since we have teams calls as an option nobody seems to use it inappropriately anymore

    4. Admin of Sys*

      Yeah, I was surprised to see the implication it’s fine in a lot of places. We’ve got a spreadsheet so the direct folks can find numbers in case of servers catching fire or whatever, but it’s absolutely not okay to hand those out beyond the group.

    5. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      Yes, I’m also in this camp (but live under GDPR so my dial is set in that zone already).

      “I’ll text him to let him know you’re trying to get in touch with him urgently,” is about as far as I’d go, and it would have to be (a) genuinely urgent and (b) a highly trustworthy or senior person.

      1. allathian*

        I’m also in the GDPR zone and work for the government. The prohibition against using personal devices for work stuff is total and absolute. If you get caught processing confidential data on personal devices you can get fired effective immediately, which rarely happens in government otherwise. Other work data will get you written up.

        I find that the hassle of two cell phones is worth knowing that I can forget about work when I log off and put my work phone in silent mode. My position doesn’t require me to be reachable outside of working hours. My manager has my personal phone number for dire emergencies, and she’d only text me to log on. I’ve exchanged phone numbers with my close coworker, but only because he’s a friend.

    6. M2RB*

      I wouldn’t “tell someone off” for giving out my cell phone number, but I wouldn’t trust them with any other personal information ever again (see additional context below). I give out my cell number to only my coworkers and boss now with the statement “Please don’t share my cell phone number; it’s my personal number only, and I don’t take work calls on it.” and I’ll download whatever phone system app my company uses to have my work calls routed to my cell to avoid having to use my personal number for anything. And then I don’t ever answer work-related calls on it, because I’m not in a job where I need to be immediately available like that. People can email me and I’ll get to it when I can. If a job needed me to be available by cell phone, they can provide and pay for that, and it won’t be the same as my personal cell number.

      Additional context: my dial is skewed due to a stalker-ish ex whose behavior caused me to delete or strongly lock down all social media (to the point I would tell friends not to post pictures of me on social media nor tag me in any social media posts), change my phone number, and move to a secured apartment building where the front desk had his name and photo so they could avoid inadvertently letting him into the building. It’s been about a decade and I am still wary of people giving out my number.

  8. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

    Most people already suspect that “anonymous” surveys aren’t. (If they come via a specific link and caution you not to forward the survey since the link is unique, then the third party who is collecting the survey can absolutely de-anonymize them, and the question is whether you trust the third party not to do so, and your leadership not to request it. If they don’t, the “statistical questions” about how long you’ve been with the company and what your role is and which office you are in are often enough to identify you anyway.)

    That said, we generally trust that people won’t make too much of an effort to do so – most people won’t actually go so far as to say anything negative about their direct management but may feel comfortable in offering very mild criticism. If you actually want honest feedback, then you absolutely must respect the fiction that the feedback is anonymous. Tracking down which team member did something other than offering a “safe” 5/5 rating for everything is the surest way to ensure nobody will ever dare to offer suggestions again.

    1. Lea*

      I had a friend who used to lie about the statistical questions for this reason!

      However I think most people give themselves away in free text saying stuff like ‘as job x in program y’ or whatever

      1. RussianInTexas*

        I have never ever, not once, wrote anything in the free text boxes, for this exact reason. Through a decade+ of employee surveys.

      2. not nice, don't care*

        My spouse’s employer refuses to allow employee input in some safety-related critical functions, so their work group uses the free text boxes to let loose, knowing badmin will be poring over the comments but powerless to go after ‘anonymous’ individuals.
        I mean entire paragraphs of commentary per box calling out all the ways managers are putting patrons and staff in actual physical harm. Deliciously hilarious to see the kerfluffle unfold as they try to contain the damage.

    2. bamcheeks*

      In the UK, if you’ve told people the survey won’t be de-anonymised and then you do, you’d be breaking GDPR. But that doesn’t mean that when 13 people said most things were fine and one person said everything was terrible, we didn’t know exactly who that person was.

      ALSO don’t be like the HR team at my job 12 years ago (pre-GDPR) who did a very confidential survey to female employees and used a surveymonkey account which literally dozens of people had access to. It was usually used for very anodyne feedback from customers and *loads* of us had access to it, but they’d used it to ask staff questions like, “if you plan to get pregnant in the next 3-5 years, do you trust your manager to handle this well?”

        1. bamcheeks*

          Yes, access to all the results and editing rights — survey monkey was pretty basic back then. But it was a log-in that was just passed around by anyone who was running a course and wanted to duplicate and run a quick “how did you find today’s sessions 1-5” type feedback. :-O

  9. Lisa*

    LW1, if you’re reacting this strongly to neutral feedback, you need to ponder whether you truly are open to people disagreeing with you and what reaction you have when they do.

    LW2, this is why only two people at work have my personal cell number. I trust them to only call me after hours in a true emergency.

    1. Lizzay*

      Ha, my old workplace required a way to get in touch with you “for emergencies”, so I had my personal cell & land line & personal emails in the system. The idea was that if there was an emergency (with them framing it as a 9-11 type thing), they would go down your list of phone numbers and emails and call and email repeatedly until you picked up or responded that you received the message. I removed all personal contacts the morning I got multiple emergency calls at SIX A.M. (I’m not a early bird) with a recorded message informing me that the office was closed due to the blizzard we were in the middle of and we should work from home. Somehow they were able to mark the call as an emergency, so it rang through (and with an incredibly terrifying BLARING siren ring!), even though I it was in DND/sleep mode. In what world is the office *not* opening an emergency?! When someone reached out saying ‘we don’t have your emergency contact’ I said they had lost the privilege of getting in touch with me.


      That is exactly what I thought with LW1. I’ve worked with plenty of people who ask for feedback, then try to refute it immediately or explain why I am wrong for that feedback. They’ve created a space where at least one of their direct reports doesn’t feel that it is safe to give feedback. Take that feedback and be better.

  10. Mango*

    Agree with the response. Our boss did a worse version of this last year – eg tried to get the person they thought gave negative feedback to admit it, asked me if I knew who it was etc – while framing it as – “I want to make things better! It’s not good if people are unhappy” but the takeaway was – our boss is quite sensitive and now no one gives them feedback. It would be better for everybody if they could take it in stride. I’m sure it’s hard to get surprising feedback, but it’s important not to address anything anonymous individually.

  11. shrambo*

    #1: Yikes. Hopefully this manager has enough self-awareness to reread what they’ve written and realize that maybe their defensiveness and the fact that they would even consider doing this is a giant clue as to why they might not get 10/10 on the “handles disagreement well” metric.

    1. OrdinaryJoe*

      Yep! I was new to a team and saw the director harass people and angrily defend themselves over some fairly neutral feedback about generic “leadership issues” — not even directed at them and I doubt actually was directed at them. That stuck with me every time I delt with that person. They said they were open to ideas and push back but their actions spoke much louder than their words.

  12. What_the_What*

    I would assume the neutral response was…exactly that. “I’ve not had a reason to disagree with this manager, so I’ve had neither a positive nor negative interaction WRT disagreement.” Done. Also, I know it’s hard, but STOP trying to assign responses to individuals. Just…stop.

  13. We're BtWBH*

    And this is why when responding to an “anonymous” survey I always say everything is rainbows and unicorns. Does anyone really believe that, in an environment where corporations routinely install keystroke loggers on employees’ computers, anything employees do or say is really anonymous?

  14. Richard Hershberger*

    One of the few “shouting at clouds” peeves I allow myself is how with surveys, anything short of squeals of ecstasy are taken as criticism. I refuse to do customer surveys until there is an option for “your employee competently completed a routine transaction.” This, if I were being honest, would be three out of five stars. But if I put down three stars the poor employee will be penalized. Nothing short of five stars is acceptable. This in turn means that the survey provides no way for me to express the thought that the employee really did something exceptional. The one time an employee at my credit union really did go above and beyond, I wrote an actual paper letter and mailed it to the main branch. But for day to day stuff, I decline to play the game.

    The moral being, perhaps the employee giving the neutral evaluation meant by this that the LW is fine. And perhaps the employees giving the positive evaluation meant the same thing. Without a well written rubric that everyone involves actually believes, there is no knowing.

    1. HonorBox*

      Strong second to this! I just bought something at a well-known big box department store. The cashier was courteous, handled the transaction without issue, and I was out the door. But in handing me the receipt, he directed me to the survey and requested five stars. While he didn’t curse at me or wipe his shoes with my new shirt he also didn’t sing me a song in Double Pig Latin while simultaneously tailoring the shirt for my exact size. I’d have given him a neutral rating, simply because he did his job kindly, and without error. That’s all I wanted from that experience.

      I’ve also written letters of praise when someone does do an exceptional job, and I’m always very happy to do that when presented the opportunity.

      1. llcallis*

        This is me. If I’m asked to rate with 10 being excellent, then 10 has to be extreme. Good, professional, and courteous would be an 8, and competent is a 5. A 5 is neutral. This person is complaining that competent is a problem. So many metrics are set to expect 10, but I rarely give 10. I give my honest opinion. If you want you want high metrics but not honesty, don’t ask me. Competent is neutral.

    2. periwinkle*

      Blame Fred Reichheld. He created and popularized the Net Promoter Score measure of customer loyalty. My company uses this metric so I know way more about NPS than I really want to. If you get a survey with that 0-10 or 1-10 rating system, it’s NPS.

      0-6 scores = Detractors, who will tell others that your service/product stinks
      7-8 = Passives, who are reasonably satisfied but not enthusiastic
      9-10 = Promoters, who think you’re fab and will recommend your service/product to all and sundry.

      NPS is the ratio of Promoters to Detractors (Promoters minus Detractors divided by the total number of survey respondents). It doesn’t matter if you give a 9 or 10 score since either way you’re a Promoter. It doesn’t matter if you give a terrible 0 or so-so 6, you’re a Detractor either way. If you give a 7 or 8 “eh, it’s fine” score, you don’t count.

      And that’s why you have auto service departments and restaurant servers begging you to give 10 scores. They get penalized for the 5s and 6s, and the 7s and 8s don’t help at all.

      I hate Net Promoter Score.

      1. metadata minion*

        Oh, that’s fascinating! I always just give the top score unless the employee was spectacularly terrible because I know they’re penalized for me not being ECSTATIC about the experience of being allowed to remove a bottle of shampoo from the Walgreens in exchange for money.

      2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Thank you. I bought my car and the guy told me/explained to me that I had to answer a certain way that indicated he was exemplary or he’d be rated a failure.
        I know, I know, it’s his job to sell, but no joke the options were 1 or 2.
        It was demented.

      3. Wired Wolf*

        My company uses NPS too, and we’re expected to have every customer fill out the surveys. At least in my department, customers will only fill out surveys if something goes horribly wrong, and any issues at store level they will work with the store directly to fix (and maybe mention in the survey if something got handled exceptionally well or poorly). I have access to surveys for my department across the whole company; people will use it to blast the company for issues that might be at the store level but are ultimately a management problem. Unfortunately us peons get penalized for even that (manager didn’t let a department order sufficient stock of a sale item? The shoppers need retraining!).

    3. Medium Sized Manager*

      I worked at Chili’s when they introduced the little kiosks that asked people to leave surveys, and I was dinged for not having enough five stars! I am not going to pester people into doing them (especially when I am more concerned about my tips), but I was a good employee. My manager would run over and give me five stars any time a group left without filling it out so it made the overall metrics look better. It was a huge pain in the butt.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        That certainly is one way to game the system. Indeed, don’t mention the survey and just routinely fill it in after the customers leave. I wouldn’t even feel bad about this. Ask for BS and you will get BS.

    4. Bast*

      I’ve heard this is particularly bad with services such as Uber, Lyft, Doordash, etc. You rate the person anything other than 5, and if they get enough of those, their average dips, the “good” jobs get taken away from them, and if they get too close to a 4 rather than a 5, they may not be allowed to drive anymore (I think that’s more of an Uber thing as opposed to food delivery). The should just change the ratings to either “Satisfactory” or “Unsatisfactory” since anything other than a 5 is taken negatively. Stop giving people middle options if the only two options are Good or Bad.

    5. Hroethvitnir*

      It’s awful. I will always give full marks and if given a text box will complain about using this system, haha.

      I did watch a video about restaurant reviews in Japan and how 5* is seen as *extremely good* to the point of rarity and 3* means decent/would return, and people self-police hard. I’m so socialised to see 3/5 as bad that it made me wince, sigh.

      1. Bay*

        I moved to Japan several years ago and can attest that it is very different, but also for me at least the adjustment was really quick. (It helps that the reviewers also take their roles super seriously and will detail all the reasons for their stars, like ‘3 stars– food is delicious, can get too loud on weekends, sometimes runs out of certain side dishes on Saturday evenings’ )

  15. HonorBox*

    Regarding the first letter, I think the best way to respond to the neutral comment is by responding with your actions. If someone feels they can’t disagree with you, invite it in a constructive way. Ask them to play devil’s advocate on something. If they seem to be on the fence about supporting something, ask for feedback. Give them a chance to see that you can have differences of opinion, and maybe change a decision based on their quality feedback. Don’t approach them now, especially because neutral isn’t negative. But show them over the course of time that you’re open to differences of opinion and disagreement if that’s what is best for the business. They’re more likely to feel heard, and you’re more likely to get more honest feedback in those anonymous surveys going forward.

  16. Anax*

    In addition to the excellent comments about the importance of feedback…

    A neutral score is what I would normally put for “I don’t know, it’s never come up”, if I don’t have another way to represent that (e.g., if the question is mandatory and has no ‘other’ option).

    If it were me, I would read that result as “I’ve never really had an important disagreement with OP”, not anything more dire. Or, heck, “OP is really competent so I’d be cautious about disagreeing with them because they likely know more than I do about this”, or “I’m just not comfortable disagreeing with authority figures in general”, or any number of other interpretations.

    That’s my big problem with these surveys – they just don’t capture nuance well, and almost any result has multiple possible interpretations.

    1. RagingADHD*

      It could also mean, “I don’t feel comfortable disagreeing with authority figures in general, but I know that’s not really about this manager.”

      There’s just no way to know, unless you are familiar enough with the person to interpret it through their lens – which is exactly what you aren’t supposed to know with an anonymous survey!

    2. DannyG*

      A “not applicable” box would be helpful. The local hospital has that option on their survey.

  17. FirstnamelastnameUK*

    Sometimes you really need a friend who can cut through the BS and tell you the whole unvarnished truth. Let me be that friend…

    Stop being so needy! You’re their boss. As you are able to rationalise, it is not even negative feedback its just a line or a number out of 10 which isnt completely positive, from one person, in one area, against many other positive responses. They might have answered the survey whilst in a bad mood, they might think it is a fairly positive answer. They might quite naturally have given you a lot of positive feedback and this particular survey question came after question where the employee gave you 6/10, and they thought ‘well LW isn’t quite as good at that’ 5/10.

    Reflect on the feedback, is it something you could do better? Remember you’re not meant to be great at everything, if so try a few things to take on different views better, but do it for everyone and do it in good heart ie how I can improve as a boss, rather than why are people saying I am bad.

    Do not under any circumstances, let an employee know that you’ve figured out they’ve said something you regard as negative about them in an anon survey. This would knacker any opportunity you have to get honest feedback in the future and cause resentment from your staff.

  18. Annony*

    I think the OPs response to neutral feedback might be exactly what caused that feedback in the first place. If disagreement leads OP to feel the need to explain why they are wrong instead of reflect on if they have a point, then they arguably can’t actually disagree. They might not be penalized for it, but they won’t be heard.

  19. kupo*

    I had a manager trying to figure out who was giving bad scores on an anonymous survey so he could get more information and fix the problem. I was one of the negative reviews. His reaction made everything worse, made me feel like I was expected to give happy reviews all the time and just made me more cynical and bitter. I left not long after that.

  20. Nancy*

    No, you cannot talk to the person who gave you neutral feedback in an anonymous survey, unless you want to make it so no one in your department ever fills out the survey again. It’s anonymous to avoid situations like this.

    Take it for what it is, feedback.

  21. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

    Re the cell phone one. I miss the days where generally giving out personal contact information was considered forbidden. I still will not do it. If someone asks me for my coworker’s cell phone # I always ask for their number instead and let them know I will pass the message along. At best, if it is urgent, I will text my coworkers myself and give them the option to call/text the original person. There are some people who have no boundaries.

    OP#1 I think the letter answers your own question. You clearly do struggle with disagreement if you are responding in this way. Take that to heart and pay attention to how you respond to everyone, not just the person you suspect of giving that feedback.

    There are several options here. 1) the person in question gave a neutral answer because they either personally struggle with disagreeing with their boss or have had no reason to disagree
    2) The person has noticed you struggle with disagreement, but don’t feel safe getting better than neutral
    3) The person is more naive about how “anonymous” anonymous surveys really are than the rest of your team and were the only one being honestish.

    1. HailRobonia*

      Ugh. Several years ago my husband was hospitalized with a very serious kidney infection. I was out for a couple weeks because of this. While driving to the hospital to visit him I got a call on my cell phone from an unknown number…I immediately was concerned, thinking the hospital was calling me with bad news.

      No, it was just a director at work calling me to ask about something at work (she wasn’t even my manager or on my team). If I knew then what I know now I would have immediately gone to HR to ask “how the f*ck did she get my personal cell phone number, and why the f*ck did she think it was a good idea to call me?”

  22. Anon Y Mous*

    We had a big anonymous survey once that was VERY negative towards management. The bosses decided that anonymous surveys are meaningless. If an employee can’t come talk to them about a problem, then there’s no problem. Very disheartening.

    1. juliebulie*

      They made us come up with “action plans” to address the problems. Problems that we had no way of fixing. No women in senior management? Bad health insurance? Building falling apart? How were we supposed to fix those?

  23. Pickle Pizza*

    “I want to tell my employee that I disagree with their feedback that they can’t disagree with me”

    What on earth…

  24. No Tribble At All*

    Bonus retention – I love Alison’s phrasing, but I’d be curious if anyone’s ever had that work successfully. I’d think the safer option would be to just say “I’m not available to start until X date” but companies sometimes take forever to get year-end bonuses out.

    1. get that bonus yo*

      I’ve used almost the exact same phrasing before. Once it allowed me to delay my start date. Once I got a sign on bonus equal to 85% of my expected bonus, plus had a higher bonus/starting pay structure. It works. In industries where bonuses are common around certain times of the year, it’s common to either budget for a sign on to replace the lost bonus or allow for a delayed start. As a hiring manager, who had to hire in Q1 this year, we planned for this and it worked!

  25. BellyButton*

    “they were neutral on how much they felt they could disagree with me. It wasn’t even negative, just not the higher scores everyone else gave.”

    Oh the irony and lack of self-awareness.

  26. Lark*

    Oh my goodness, this is why I always keep it anodyne on work surveys. You never know what kinds of disaggregation are possible.

    Of course, this undercuts the usefulness of the survey, but I figure that they don’t really want to know anyway.

    1. Stoli*

      Can you translate your first paragraph for me? I must not be in the know on the current lingo :)

      1. linger*

        anodyne: deliberately neutral and inoffensive.
        disaggregation: drilling down from supposedly anonymised overall “aggregate” figures to identify individual cases. (Not to be confused with “aggravating”, though it is, when someone tries to circumvent anonymity in a process depending on it.)

  27. HailRobonia*

    Is it ironic that the OP is upset about a neutral response about whether employees feel they can disagree with them? There is your evidence for a neutral score.

    If I were concerned, I would talk to the group about the general survey results and say “there were some who felt they were unable to express their disagreement with me fully. I am taking this feedback seriously and would like to improve on this. I am looking into ways to foster a better environment in which people feel they can communicate openly and honestly.”

    (I’ve worked for someone who could not be disagreed with… if you dared voice any disagreement or even concerns about their decision you were effectively their enemy and could kiss your job goodbye.)

  28. Msd*

    It’s funny that the OP has gone into a bit of a tailspin because they disagree with one of the ratings of “can people can disagree with them”? Seems like the rating is valid. OP might want to look at that.

  29. BikeWalkBarb*

    LW1, what do you do to foster a feedback culture among your team? Not only feedback when it stings so that feedback becomes a synonym for critique or criticism. I mean a routine practice of reflection on how something went and discussing it in a plus/delta format of what you’d keep/repeat, what you’d change. This should also include open self-reflection and sharing with a direct report in a 1/1: Here’s something I did as your supervisor that I don’t think I handled as well as I could have. Here’s my takeaway and what I’m committed to changing. Is there anything you’d add so I can do a better job? How would you have wanted me to handle that thing?

    If you model and practice sincere feedback, you’ll get it.

  30. Serious Pillowfight*

    I don’t understand OP’s interpretation of the neutral response. They seem to be saying they want their employee to believe they can’t ever disagree with OP and wish the response were stronger…like “Oh, gosh, NO, I would NEVER disagree with OP! They’re the boss and what they say goes without question!”

    But then they say “I just want to make sure everyone knows they really can bring things up to me and I’m always going to listen and consider. I won’t always agree, but we’ll always discuss it.”

    So…what’s the issue?

    There are so many possible ways to read this and OP seems to be jumping to the most hostile possibility…over a *neutral* response!

    1. Serious Pillowfight*

      Never mind, I read the letter for the fourth time and think I understand now. OP is concerned their employee feels at all that they aren’t allowed to disagree with them. (I misread “I disagree that you CAN’T disagree with me” as “I disagree that you CAN disagree with me.”)

      But still, why overthink a neutral response so much?

  31. Wilbur*

    I think it’s very common for companies to consider anything but good feedback as a poor score. I’ve seen this with net promotor scores (Anything below 9 is a bad score). My company considers neutral scores as an area to improve as well.

  32. HailRobonia*

    Surveys and ratings have become so biased these days. It’s like on a scale of 1-10, 10 is perfect, 9 not bad, 8 is so-so, and 7 is bottom-of the barrel. Anything below 7 is considered awful.

      1. Hroethvitnir*

        I feel like it was *less* of a thing, but that’s mostly vibes. Only backup I really have is that the awful demanding of staff/service reviews where less than perfect can lose bonuses etc is definitely newer. Like… less than a couple of decades? That’s newish to me.

  33. BikeWalkBarb*

    LW3, the non-reciprocal networker: You didn’t actually do anything that called for reciprocity. Someone who says they want to stay in touch is the equivalent of the friend who says “We should get coffee sometime!” without offering up dates, times and locations to start the scheduling process. This is doubly true on LinkedIn, which isn’t someone’s personal contact info space. I sometimes don’t see LI messages for a couple of months by which time it feels super stale.

    If you want to stay in touch *you* initiate. You could have followed up that initial message by later sharing an article of interest to both of you, suggesting coffee with scheduling specifics, asking if they’re going to a conference you’ll be at–you know, *staying in touch*. Saying you want to do that isn’t the same as actually doing it.

  34. Lizzay*

    Years ago at my old job, before I ranked a work cell phone, we had a team meeting and one of the (upper level) people asked if we could put together a list of everyone’s cell phones “just in case”. I thankfully had some capital to spend (even as a relatively junior level) and immediately said “Absolutely not” with the reasoning the company wasn’t paying my cell phone bill. Of course, the real reason is that as soon as a list like that is available, it’s a small step to just using it whenever, even if someone’s on vacation because “it’s just a quick question”. It’s one thing to put your cell phone “for emergencies” in your out of office message, but if it’s on a list just sitting there, it makes it a lot easier to jump that mental block of “out of office = DND”. Thankfully that shut the discussion down almost immediately!

    1. Lizzay*

      All this to say, yeah, probably shouldn’t have given out the cell phone without some serious caveats.

    2. Simona*

      We always share cell numbers when we go on our big trip. Not a single person would give out a personal number or use it inappropriately.

  35. Bitte Meddler*

    #4 — The job I recently left wanted me to start shortly before the company I worked for handed out their [substantial] annual bonus.

    I asked if they could add the bonus amount to my salary. My argument for adding it to my salary was that, since it was an annual bonus and the number was consistent year-over-year, it was part of my salary.

    And it worked out even better than the annual bonus at the prior company because COLA raises were based only on salary, not salary+bonus. So I was making more at Company B after one year than I would have been at Company A, given the same percentage COLA.

  36. Riot*

    I am having this problem in the opposite way. Someone on my team ranked a lot of the questions negatively on the survey, and when I said I couldn’t remember exactly how I ranked the “my manager is highly effective” question, she accused me of not taking the survey seriously and not thinking about my actions before taking them, thus giving bad consequences to people. And now I’m afraid to tell her anything even though I used to be completely (probably too) honest with her.
    And the lowest I would’ve rated is neutral, but I guess neutral means bad at my company. :(

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      So your manager straight up asked you for your answers. You said, “I don’t remember.” Instead of taking a hint, like “holy crap, I should not be asking this,” she turned it around and said you were a bad employee for not taking it seriously?
      Sorry I didn’t have fuel for your fire, you absolute loon.
      Oh, wait. I did.
      Nice to know you can’t win for losing with her.

  37. Random Bystander*

    Quite frankly, the survey letter writer’s reaction is one reason that I do not fill out the surveys at work (or when I have no choice about the matter, I do not answer any questions that are anything more than filling in a bubble).

  38. Crencestre*

    The best way to prove that you’re open to thoughtfully considering what people say when they disagree with you is to actually BE open to their disagreeing with you! Be open to what they say WITHOUT being defensive; defensiveness often comes across as not really listening to what the other person is saying because you’re totally focused on justifying yourself and are just waiting to jump in there and speak.

    The best thing about this approach is that you can implement it this very second. Take stock of how you respond to disagreement and ask yourself how YOU’D feel if YOUR supervisor reacted to YOUR disagreeing with them the way you react to others’ disagreement – and adjust your own behavior accordingly. This does NOT mean that you cave to every disagreement – it DOES mean that you react thoughtfully and respectfully to differences of opinion. Try it, OP – I think y0u’ll be delighted with the results!

  39. bethbess*

    I had a 360 review done where I got some freeform feedback saying that I can be difficult to disagree with which may cause people to shut up rather than voice their opinion. I didn’t know who provided the feedback and didn’t really care (the head of our related business unit later told me unprompted that the feedback was from him*). In a group setting I told my reports about the feedback and that I took it to heart. I told them that I try my best to come into things with an open mind, but that I will ask questions and may challenge them. They all told me they appreciated it and always felt like they could speak their mind around me. Maybe it was just lip service, but I hope not.

    *The funny thing is that he and I don’t disagree very often and we always both handle it calmly and professionally when we do. And he has certainly never shied from telling me his opinions haha.

  40. whatadeebee*

    If the cell phone isn’t paid for by the company, if the phone number isn’t listed as contact information in the company directory, then no one should be using that phone number for work purposes without explicit permission, and certainly not giving it out to third parties without consent!

  41. Stoli*

    Another overly sensitive manager who can’t tolerate the least bit of negative feedback while trying to pretend they can. So much for “anonymous” surveys.

  42. ijustworkhere*

    If you are trying to be transparent and learn from this experience, I think it would be helpful to share all the input you received (good and bad) with your entire team. and then explain that you are taking the suggestions about how you could improve in certain areas seriously and what your game plan is.

    Self reflection is really important. You can’t please everyone, but you should give all feedback honest and thoughtful consideration before you dismiss it.

    1. Artemesia*

      I found surveys a few weeks into the semester very useful in teaching. 3 general question — what is making learning easier, what is inhibiting your learning, other issues or observations. I would then share it with the class noting what changes I was making to address any issue they had. It was a good tool for making them feel attended to and most change were things I would be doing anyway — or allowed me to remind them of things already in the syllabus. I think it made things go better. Singling out a student would not have.

  43. StressedButOkay*

    No one enjoys seeing that they don’t get perfect/near perfect remarks – but no one is perfect. It’s human to wonder who wrote it (or even figure it out) but people already are suspicious that most of these aren’t truly anonymous. Approaching someone to talk about that feedback is one way of confirming that and making sure they never trust the process ever again.

  44. djx*

    Several people at my job have my phone number for emergencies, and sometimes even in non-emergency situations. For example, when travelling together and some coordination is needed.

    I explicitly tell people things like “Here’s my number for this evening only; do not use it beyond that. Use Teams to contact me at other times. If you want to reach me for work, use Teams or email. Teams is generally faster.”

    One person called me on my phone a couple times after giving it to them for a limited purpose. I expressed my annoyance clearly the first time, and more severely the second.

    It’s not perfect, but worked a bit.

    I feel it’s important to be blunt/clear. If phone use is common at your org, you have to say it won’t work for you and hold to that. Don’t give it out, and if you give it out for a particularly reason, say very clearly it’s not to be used beyond that reason.

  45. Ari*

    Someone at my US-based company told us that if we use our personal phones for business calls, emails, etc., then our personal phones can be subpoenaed and taken if our team was part of any kind of litigation. That may not be true in every state (or at all), but it was a good enough excuse that I never take business calls on my personal cell. I also can’t imagine sharing anyone else’s without their permission.

  46. Georgia Carolyn Mason*

    OP, good for you to recognize that you’re taking this too personally! It was a very small thing and not even a real negative. If you take it as an observation, and a suggestion for something you can improve (slightly!) with the whole team, and just do that without talking about the survey or sleuthing out individuals — you’ll build trust.

  47. Hazel Lilly*

    I once did an anonymous survey and my boss was truly awful. She would bully people, verbally abuse them, constantly change her mind and micro manage. She truly believed all of her staff loved her and that she was a great boss.

    She was a protected species because she did the Chief Marketing Executive’s strategy documents for him, where he would put his name on them and send them to the CEO. She was brilliant at that.

    I did the survey and absolutely lied by giving her neutral feedback. A few months later the survey results were communicated to the staff and she stated only 1 person in her team did the survey.

    Everyone knew it was me, as I was that goody two shoes type that drank the corporate Kool Aid.

    After that I now do surveys on the belief they are not anonymous.

  48. Gil Chesterton*

    All I can think of is the Frasier episode where one member of a large focus group says they don’t like Frasier, and he becomes determined to find out why – with hilariously disastrous results, of course…

  49. MCMonkeybean*

    Yes, definitely huge overreaction to a “neutral” response!

    I disagree with the last note on the phone number letter though, I think it’s definitely not okay to give out someone else’s cell phone number at work! Especially to people in different time zones. Depending on what exactly “told off” means I’m team LW for sure there.

    My immediate team has my cell because I have refused to download Teams onto my phone so I told my boss if something really urgent ever came up when I wasn’t online she could text me to see if I’m available to get on. In 4 years no one has ever used it. I did have to text her last week though to let her know the new VPN system was having issues so I wasn’t able to log in–so I literally could not contact her any other way as I couldn’t get onto email or Teams.

    I truly cannot imagine ever reaching out to a coworker on a personal cell phone number that they didn’t personally give to me unless it was an extremely serious emergency situation! That’s so rude!

  50. It's Me*

    I think #2 is the first time I’ve ever strongly disagreed with Alison. Giving out someone’s private information without their consent is a big deal! People outside of my reporting line don’t get to know where I live, and you don’t get to know how to reach me outside of approved work channels, particularly not through the small trackable device that goes with me literally everywhere, including family events, vacation, and the hospital.

  51. AnonymousNotAnonymous*

    And OP1 has just illustrated why I am not comfortable responding to so-called anonymous surveys. Because they aren’t. And people who see them always hold it against you.

  52. PrivacyRules*

    I am my company’s privacy officer and I would treat giving out a personal number without permission as a privacy violation. It should not happen.

    Unless a phone number is explicitly listed in someone’s email signature or Slack profile or somewhere else that person controls their contact info it is their private info. If they choose to post it, promote it, give consent for distribution, or otherwise clearly indicate they are okay with wider distribution then it’s okay to pass on to others.

    1. MCMonkeybean*

      I thought I was gonna be an outlier on that but I’m glad to see that seems to be a common opinion here in the comments

  53. T'Cael Zaanidor Kilyle*

    On the survey question, OP, I think you’re reading too much into a “neutral” response.

    I deal with a lot of surveys for work, and some people are just extremely literal when using Likert scales. If you have 10 direct reports and none of them have even THOUGHT about the topic of whether it’s safe to disagree with you, I can almost guarantee that while MOST of them will go “well, if I’ve never questioned it I guess that’s a good thing” and click “agree,” there will be at least one who says “I have absolutely no opinion about this question” and clicks “neutral” instead.

    If most of your team says they feel comfortable disagreeing with you and one of them says they feel neutral, it probably means that they’re ALL perfectly comfortable, and one of them just happens to be more literal-minded than the others when they’re answering a survey.

    1. the Viking Diva*

      Agree with this (as a frequent survey writer). And also – it is possible that person could not think of an occasion where they did disagree. I’d answer neutral in this situation, if not given an N/A option.

    2. MCMonkeybean*

      I often go into these surveys with a strong opinion on a handful of items. Sometimes I just don’t have the bandwidth to spend a ton of time thinking about all the questions so I go with “strongly disagree” or “strongly agree” for the items I particularly care about expressing an opinion on and then just hit “neutral” for everything I just don’t really care about.

  54. Rosacolleti*

    # 2 Handing out someone’s personal phone number at work is terrible and definitely should be called out. I’d be furious and have no hesitation blocking callers/texters after a simple response advising them not to use the personal number and redirecting them to the correct channels

  55. Simona*

    Waiting for employees to collect their bonus is so common. No company wants to pay out the bonus that could have been paid if they waited just a little bit longer. Many companies are already paying out for other hiring bonuses, retention bonuses, unvested stock and things like that.
    I’d definitely ask about waiting first.

  56. Rachel*

    I don’t trust them since my thankfully brief retail days where they made us do them on computers
    in the back and it would have been so easy to figure out who submitted them based off the schedule of the day. I lied my behind off on those because I’m not sure there’s a less-trustworthy company in existence.

    Current job, I keep it fairly bland but at least I trust them enough to mention actual issues.

  57. Cubefarmer*

    RE: personal cell LW, get a Google Voice number, if you have to take calls remotely. It can forward to your cellphone, and you can make calls from it, but it shields your personal number from your colleagues.

    I did this for several months while were in the middle of a botched phone transition during the pandemic. Once the new phone system was installed, however, we have a nifty app that lets us make and receive calls via our cellphones that look like they are coming from our work phones. I guess it also allows for a text-messaging like function, but none of us uses it. It also lets my colleagues basically buzz my extension as if I was in the office, and it comes through on my cellphone. All of us who work in the field absolutely love this ability.

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