Tips from a Culture Doctor on Anonymous Surveys

As I do my rounds of Silicon Alley startups as a Culture Doctor, helping CEO’s scale positive winning cultures, finding the right way to keep a pulse on team sentiment is a recurring question. CEOs, both first time as well as those with multiple rodeos to their name, share a pretty universal understanding that team positivity and alignment can easily tank without the right feedback loops. However, what those feedback loops should look like is not clear.  One focal point of particularly strong, and often polarized, views is anonymous employee surveys.

Open Door Policies

Some leaders will argue: “Why would we need an anonymous survey? I’m totally approachable and we have an open door policy.” Well, depending on factors like the size of the organization and the breadth of its strategic ambitions, as well as the EQ of the leader and the level of trust they’ve earned with the team, there can be cases where the “open door” is a sufficient forum for feedback.

Other leaders say, “We’re small and have that total open door policy. Shrouding an individual’s concerns in anonymity will only hobble our ability to take targeted action to solve specific problems!”


The first question I have for leaders who don’t like anonymity is the, quite possibly annoying, Dr. Phil line of, “How’s that working for ya?” If they shrug or don’t know how to frame an answer to that gem of folksy inquiry, I’ll ask if there are any observable signs of cultural debt in their organization. I’ll also ask if there have been challenges on tangible hard metrics like hitting revenue numbers or high performer resignations. If there’s no sign of issues with cultural debt, they’re hitting the numbers, and their stars are all happily staying put and excelling – I’ll tend to agree that doing an anonymous survey may not have to be a top priority. However, before moving on to talking about where to find the best pint of Guinness in Manhattan, I might channel the classic TV character Lieutenant Columbo with a, “Oh, just one more thing…how are things tracking on your existing anonymous survey?”

This question will typically elicit a very momentary quizzical look until these, invariably brilliant, leaders realize that I’m talking about Glassdoor, the anonymous employee experience survey that’s already up and running for every organization whether they like it or not.  As part of my preparation for the conversation, this Culture Doctor will of course (much like their job applicants, employees, and board), have had a look at their very public “chart” and any symptoms documented there by anonymous reviewers.  Rarely is everything on Glassdoor perfect.

Anonymous Employee Surveys: Own the Conversation

Most often, faced with the prospect of having the employee experience story of record being one that’s driven by a very small percentage of their team, in a forum that can have some inherent bias toward negativity, leaders will see the advantages of doing their own survey.  If they manage their own survey, they also enjoy having a lot of choices that Glassdoor doesn’t offer as they provide a forum that shows they care, so that people perhaps won’t need to find some other forum in which to vent. Here are a few more advantages of doing your own:

  • You can determine what questions are asked – perhaps focusing on areas you have the power to change.
  • You can curate the demographic selections (while still ensuring anonymity) for data cuts that will be meaningful to the various sections of your business, e.g. yielding actionable insights specifically for a CTO on the software engineer experience.
  • You can get statistically significant data on what your team’s biggest pain points are versus some small minority. Even some giant organizations have remarkably few Glassdoor reviews (e.g. Trump Organization) such that it may not be a reliable reflection of the sentiment of thousands. Internal surveys can often expect 80%+ engagement. That’s a bar that Glassdoor rarely, if ever, accomplishes among active employees.
  • You can showcase how you care deeply about the employee experience if you take visible action on the findings between survey #1 and survey #2. (Six months can be a good interval between surveys to allow time for tangible action based on the feedback.) Glassdoor is “always on” so it’s much harder to show phased progress against specific challenges that are the consensus-driven priorities at a moment in time.

To close, for those who still continue to struggle with why their people don’t just come talk to them, I’ll provide the following food for thought:

  • You may be more intimidating than you think! Founder titles and success, regardless of your own personal style, can be enough to put up an unintentional wall. Never thought you’d have such an aura, huh?
  • There may simply be too many people. Dunbar’s number gets a fair amount of airtime in Silicon Valley – it’s a threshold, c.150 people, according to the theory, beyond which it becomes impossible to have meaningful social connection with more humans. It’s hard to give radical candor without the foundation of trust. And there comes a time when, if you’re lucky enough to scale, when you simply won’t know everyone on your team well enough for them to feel safe giving you constructive feedback directly.
  • On a similar note to the prior point, if you’re lucky enough to scale, it’s close to inevitable that you’ll have a layer or two of managers between the Founder(s) and entry level individual contributors. Which means you’re now going to be playing the “telephone game” with upward feedback – if people are bold enough to even offer the feedback somewhere in the chain of command.
  • Some of your smart people might be introverted. But you still need to hear their views!

In this Culture Doctor’s opinion, it’s not a question of “if” when it comes to anonymous employee surveys, it’s always a question of when! And sooner is better than later.