Are Anonymous Reviews Destructive?

Amazon’s system allowing workers to privately comment on one another reportedly led to sabotage attempts

By Dana Wilkie Mar 31, 2016
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The 360-degree feedback review has evolved, especially among big corporations, as a way to encourage candid, well-rounded assessments of workers and to experiment with a more objective—even “scientific”—approach to managing performance.

Typically, such reviews ask colleagues, direct reports, managers and even customers to evaluate an employee. And typically, anonymity tends to be baked into the process to encourage participants to be frank.

But such reviews have their downsides, organizations have discovered, not the least of which is that they can allow ill-intentioned employees to anonymously slam colleagues they may not like, may want to harm professionally or may feel competitive with. 

“I think the poster child for such a toxic culture has most recently been Amazon,” said Anna Carroll, an independent consultant to executives and author of The Feedback Imperative: How to Give Everyday Feedback to Speed Up Your Team’s Success (River Grove Books, 2014). “I think Amazon’s emphasis on results at the expense of people led to the lack of integrity that resulted from this use of feedback.”

Amazon was harshly criticized following a recent New York Times article that described, among other things, the online retail giant’s “Anytime Feedback Tool,” which allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to managers. Bosses know who sends the comments, but the subjects of the remarks don’t.

Employees told the newspaper that the tool is frequently used to sabotage others and has created  “a river of intrigue and scheming.”

“They described making quiet pacts with colleagues to bury the same person at once, or to praise one another lavishly,” The Times wrote. “Many others … described feeling sabotaged by negative comments from unidentified colleagues with whom they could not argue. In some cases, the criticism was copied directly into their performance reviews.”

The Pros of 360-Degree Feedback Reviews

Having peers and underlings—as well as supervisors—comment on an employee’s work can provide a broad view of performance and take some of the subjectivity out of a single supervisor’s evaluation.

“Rather than just receiving one top-down opinion of your performance, 360s give employees the opportunity to get feedback from their manager, peers and reports,” said Steffen Maier, a co-founder of Impraise, which sells Web-based and mobile workplace performance products. “This provides different perspectives from people who work with you in different capacities. Getting feedback from peers allows you to better assess how well you work with others and how effective your communication skills are. Receiving feedback from reports provides greater insights into your leadership skills.”

Said Carroll: “Feedback from one person was, and still is, seen as too subjective. It gives executives and HR leaders great comfort and confidence to apply an approach that collects far more data from more sources. The notion that multiple raters are observing [a colleague] from their own unique perspective is seen to be more scientific, data-driven and accurate.”

Such reviews, Maier said, also mitigate “the potential for bias based on gender, ethnicity, age, et cetera. If someone receives an outstandingly positive or negative review, the authenticity can be checked by seeing how each person reviewed the employee in question.”

The 360-degree reviews are typically anonymous, and there’s a reason for that, Maier said. 

“Anonymous feedback became so popular precisely because it is difficult for most people to give others candid feedback,” said Maier, whose company offers a non-anonymous feedback option. “Some people become concerned that the recipient will take their comments as criticism. This causes them to be more guarded with their wording and either pass up the chance to give useful advice, or heavily dilute their feedback. Multiply this by 1,000 when it’s your boss.”

360-Degree Downsides

But the anonymous nature of the 360-degree feedback review can lead to the sort of social maneuvering and “intrigue and scheming” that The Times reported at Amazon.

“We are aware of the fact that harassment and bullying can happen, even in positive work environments,” Maier said. “When this happens, companies need a way to identify and address the situation immediately.”

Impraise’s feedback products, he said, have a feature that allows users to flag inappropriate feedback. When feedback is flagged, HR managers are notified immediately so they can investigate. So far, Maier said, less than 2 percent of the feedback that clients have submitted using his company’s products has been flagged as inappropriate.

Some HR experts say anonymity should rarely—if ever—be used when assessing performance.

Sandra van Heeswijk is HR manager at Tam Tam, a digital agency that offers companies e-business and digital marketing products. She said that managers in particular can grow defensive—and use their power to become retributive—if they dislike what they read. She described how one manager, whose workers had rated his performance in an anonymous 360-degree review, arranged meetings with each review participant so he could ascertain “which feedback came from whom.”

“Our ultimate goal instead is to build a transparent and safe working environment where it is normal to give one another feedback,” she said. “In order to do that, 360 feedback can't be anonymous.”

Carroll agreed. 

“Anonymous reviews, in most instances, send the message to employees that all feedback-givers need to be protected and that it is dangerous to speak openly to your co-workers on an ongoing basis. Anonymous feedback can undermine the transparent, open and trusting culture people want to create today.”

Amazon’s practice of “stack ranking” may have contributed to the misuse of the anonymous feedback system, Maier said. Stack ranking refers to the practice of evaluating workers in part by comparing them to others at the organization, rather than by measuring them strictly against performance goals. Under this system, sometimes called “rank and yank,” the “losers” leave or are fired in the periodic culling of staff—“purposeful Darwinism,” one former Amazon HR director told The Times.

“Systems like stack ranking create a competitive rather than collaborative edge to the work environment,” said Maier, who noted that none of his clients use stack ranking. “As employees are pitted against each other during their review process, they are more likely to feel they have to defend their position in the company by not helping, or worse, sabotaging others. The reason why Amazon’s Anytime Feedback Tool didn’t work was … because the environment in which it was introduced encouraged people to form alliances to secure their jobs.”

Alternatively, Carroll said, if regular, open feedback is encouraged among employees at all levels, “it becomes a ‘no big deal’ event.”

“The fact that Amazon was an outlier in their misuse of anonymity, and others have handled [anonymous] feedback in a more honorable manner, does not take away from my view that anonymity in feedback is harmful,” Carroll said. “I have worked with great leaders who made a commitment to feedback, give and receive it themselves, and see the results. Interestingly, people love it. They develop closer relationships, and they can go home on Friday trusting that their boss and others have kept them updated on their performance. They know where they stand, what they can improve and that others are open to their feedback, too.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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