Before you complain at work, read this.
Complaining anonymously rarely trumps doing it in person.
A scathing New York Times op-ed by an unnamed “senior official” in the Trump administration has spun everyone from the media to Donald Trump himself into a frenzy. The author delves into what he sees as Trump’s “amorality” and “impulsiveness,” alleges that many administration officials are working to thwart Trump’s agenda, and even rebukes Americans for “what we as a nation have allowed him [Trump] to do to us … we have sunk low with him.”
In its wake, hundreds of articles have popped up speculating as to the identity of the writer (all major Trump officials have denied writing it), and on Friday Trump demanded that Attorney General Jeff Sessions investigate the issue and try to uncover the writer’s identity. “Yeah, I would say Jeff should be investigating who the author of this piece was because I really believe it’s national security,” Trump said Friday. He has also called the piece “gutless” and the author “a coward.”
Some people agree with Trump and are demanding that the author come forward. Others believe that doing this anonymously was warranted, as the author could lose his job if he put his name on his grievances. And this debate brings up a question many of us have faced in the workplace, as well: Is it ever OK to complain about an issue at work anonymously?
The answer: Only rarely, experts say. “Anonymous complaints are a tool that only in rare cases prove to be the best way to move forward,” says Tomer Yogev, an executive coach for TandemSpring. For example, a case where the potential repercussions from complaining might be severe, like job loss; or when the subject matter is extremely sensitive — both might warrant an anonymous complaint. In most other cases, it’s best to deal with the conflict openly, calmly and immediately, experts say.
One big reason it’s best to put your face to your complaint: “The anonymity of a complaint may make you feel safer, but also significantly reduces the likelihood of it being acted upon,” Yogev says. Indeed, it’s easier for “management to dismiss it as cowardice,” explains success strategist Carlota Zimmerman. And even if your complaint is addressed, because you anonymously complained, you like won’t be partaking in the solution, which means the issue might be addressed in a way that’s unsatisfactory to you, says career coach Kerry Wekelo, author of “ Culture Infusion: 9 Principles to Create and Maintain a Thriving Organizational Culture.”
Still, “there are many work environments which are so toxic that anonymous complaints are the only weapons the staff has,” Zimmerman adds. If you’re in one of those situations, here’s how to complain anonymously — and effectively — on the job.
See if the company has a formal way to complain anonymously. Some companies allow anonymous feedback during the annual review process, says Wekelo. Others have ethics or related hotlines for complaints, says executive coach Lori Scherwin, the founder of Strategize That. “Use it if you want an issue investigated particularly when you only have peripheral view of the situation and don’t know the full scope of it. For instance, if you witness something that makes you uncomfortable, but you don’t have line of sight to the context or backdrop,” she says. If there is no formal way to complain anonymously, you can still do it — a typed up note slipped under the door or an email from an anonymous address can work too.
Beware of your “tells.” “Less is more,” says Wekelo. While you want to clearly and concisely lay out your issues and complaints, if you offer too many details you might accidentally reveal your identity. So get a trusted person to read your complaint to make sure you aren’t inadvertently outing yourself. Ideally you find someone who “can fully appreciate all of the context and nuance of the issue and provide measured and unbiased guidance on how best to proceed” says Yogev.
Offer a solution. “When complaining anonymously, like any complaint, it should ideally be tied with a suggestion for improvement on the issue,” says Yogev. Look for a solution that’s “beneficial to take to make things better for both you and the firm or organization at large,” says Scherwin. Adds Yogev: “There is a lot of evidence that when the offended party states upfront what they would like to have happen — be it sensitivity training, a firing, a move to another department, etc. — management is much more likely to (1) do anything at all about the complaint, and (2) fulfill the stated expectations of the complaint.”
Understand that your identity might be revealed. “In the event your anonymity gets busted, the hard truth is that you are really left with two primary options: either leave the organization because the repercussions for your complaint will be so severe, or to own your complaint fully and accept that you are now going to have to follow through on your complaint with your name directly tied to it, and likely acting as the lead on whatever actions you were originally hoping for,” says Yogev.
Know when it’s time to leave the company. “If you are really in a situation where you don’t feel like there is anyone you can trust in your organization to talk to and or you are nervous about retaliation – then you should probably be questioning why you are there to begin with,” says Scherwin.
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