top of page

Navigating Confidentiality and Anonymous Feedback as a Supervisor

Do your supervisors know what to do when someone says to them"please don't say anything, but...?" or when they receive anonymous feedback? 

It can be really tricky. If it's a safety issue, like child abuse where anonymous information is always accepted and looked into, it's clear what to do. Report it. 

However, when the information being provided is about a performance concern for someone you manage, it can be quite murky.  The delicate balance between confidentiality and accountability often leaves managers feeling torn and uncertain. 

In this post, we’ll explain: 

  • Differences between anonymous and ‘in confidence’ feedback

  • Why feedback provided anonymously or ‘in confidence’ is challenging

  • Recommendations for how to set expectations and what you can do as a manager 

Concerned manager listening to feedback

Two Types of Anonymous Feedback

There are two types of anonymous feedback that supervisors may receive: 

  1. Identity unknown to supervisor: This type of anonymous feedback often arrives via a suggestion box, anonymous survey, or even a note slipped under the door. The supervisor may have no clue from whom or where the information originated.

  2. Identity known to supervisor: In this instance, a person has approached the manager and shared feedback about the performance of another individual, but doesn’t want their name to be shared with that person. Their motivation for wanting to keep the information private could be any number of things - from shyness to concern for the relationship to fear of retaliation. 

Regardless of which type of anonymous feedback you’ve received, there’s a number of challenges that it raises for the manager. 

Anonymous Performance Feedback Can Put Managers in a Bind

There’s a number of reasons why feedback shared ‘in confidence’ or anonymously presents a challenge for a supervisor, including:

  • Lack of Context: Anonymous reports often lack crucial context or specific details, making it challenging for administrators to fully understand the situation and determine the appropriate course of action. Even when the identity of the person is known, it can be difficult to gather full context or investigate the concern effectively without their identity being revealed. 

  • Potential Bias: Administrators may struggle to discern whether anonymous reports stem from genuine concerns or personal biases, making it difficult to address the issue impartially and effectively.

  • Credibility Concerns: With anonymous feedback, the recipient of the feedback will often feel defensive and question the credibility and reliability of the information provided. Imagine your manager came to you as a teacher and said ‘so, we’ve received complaints that your classroom is too loud and the kids are not focused.’ Your first reactions will probably include wanting to know who said what and when? It’s hard not to get defensive without specific facts to keep the conversation grounded. 

  • Limited Investigation Options: Investigating anonymous reports without any identifying information can be like searching for a needle in a haystack, limiting the effectiveness of any efforts to gather evidence or verify the claims made.  

  • Impact on Organizational Culture: Handling anonymous reports poorly can erode trust, foster suspicion among staff, and damage morale, undermining efforts to create a positive and supportive work environment. People can feel like colleagues are ‘telling’ on them or trying to make them look bad.

What is a responsible supervisor to do? Do you try to observe the issue first-hand? That can be hard, or sometimes impossible to do. Do you share the feedback with the person and cite 'anonymous' information? This approach rarely goes well for the reasons mentioned above. And yet, if you do nothing the situation might get worse. If there is trouble down the road, the person who complained to you may say they told you and you did nothing about it, even though your hands were tied by the anonymous nature of the information.

What Managers Can Do To Set Expectations Around Anonymous Performance Feedback

At McGrath, we approach challenges like how to respond to anonymous feedback by first zooming out to think about what underlying principles might guide us. 

WHO do I want to be as a principled leader? Transparent, sincere and honest. Someone who is building a growth-centered culture where accountability and collaboration are celebrated.

Answering this question helps guide us in what actions we might take. Transparency in feedback processes promotes trust, accountability, learning, and collaboration, ultimately contributing to a positive and supportive work culture where individuals can thrive and succeed.

Step 1. Encourage Direct Feedback. Given that we want to lead with transparency, one of the first questions managers can ask to help build accountability on their team is “Have you shared your concern directly with (person)?” If they haven’t, managers can encourage the person to do so. Most professionals would much rather get feedback directly from someone, than hear getting it from their boss for the first time. The issue might be a simple misunderstanding that does not require escalation to the supervisor. This simple question sets an expectation that the team communicate transparently when possible, and builds a feedback muscle within the organization.

Step 2. Set Expectations. If the person remains unwilling to address their concern directly with the other person, the manager can:

Explain Limitations

If the person in unwilling to use their name the administrator should inform them that they will be unable to cite the information they have shared and it will likely impact their ability to observe the behavior and take appropriate corrective action.

Address Retaliation

The person who complains is often fearful of retaliation - take steps to assure them that your organization takes retaliation very seriously and what steps you will take to prevent retaliation.

Set ‘need to know’ Limitations

Administrators may also communicate to the provider of feedback that while their privacy will be respected to the best of the managers ability, confidentiality cannot be guaranteed. A person willing to be named empowers administrators to delve deeper, gather evidence, and address issues effectively. It's not about breaching trust; it's about fostering an environment where concerns are addressed transparently and with integrity. It also builds accountability within the team. People should be responsible for what they are saying about others.   

In conclusion, the path forward isn't always clear-cut or easy, but with the right guidance and approach, administrators can navigate the complexities of confidentiality while upholding accountability and fostering a culture of improvement. The bottom line rule is: either name the source when giving feedback or don't use the information.

Want to learn more about navigating challenging situations like these? Explore our SUCCEED with TRUE-SPEAK communication course and empower your administrators to lead with confidence and clarity.


bottom of page