10 March 2021

How do you think about anonymous forums for employees to talk to CEO?

I have been going thru one more of those situations where something I deeply believed in has been brought to question. Would be interested how you would think about this – regardless of which side of the table you are in.

It has been nearly a 14 years practice of mine to create an anonymous platform where I take questions from employees and answer them. The process is that employees write out the questions in an anonymous chat platform. I get to read out the questions and answer them in a conference call as the questions are being typed out.

We even fashionably call it “Wireside Chat”. My belief has been that by doing this, I was sending strong signals to the company that we want to create an environment where people could speak their mind even if that meant they were uncomfortable doing so publicly.

In the very first company I did this, I have to admit the questions took me by surprise. Anybody listening in would think we had a bunch of inconsiderate folks working in the team. In fact, one of questions I still remember is “Why does ABC (one of my direct reports) have a job?”. Questions were incredibly personal and seemingly pointless.

While I did my best to answer those questions, I realized how much of a culture and chemistry issue I had inherited in my new job. In any case, three years later, the questions had become almost always very business and market oriented. It almost felt silly to use an anonymous platform for those questions.

In subsequent jobs, my starting points were a little better but I kept up with the practice.

Recently, in a CEO forum, a peer CEO made, what I thought was, an excellent comment: “We will not have any anonymous platforms. If you feel uncomfortable with your manager or his/her manager, come and talk to me. I will give time to any employee if they want my time”.

After a 20 minute discussion, I understood how she was thinking. From her point of view, she does not want to give employees a curtain to hide behind. She even mentioned how this is equivalent to internet trolling. As long as she has kept her door open, she feels she has done the right thing. Beyond that, the employee needs to come out and speak his/her mind from a position of conviction. Of course, confidentiality of the conversation is totally assumed.

She reported that this has led her to have very enriching give and take (which I could not do in my Wireside chats – it was “ask a question, get an answer”) and also gave her a chance to mentor some employees.

I totally see merit in her argument.

But I also am worried that not everybody might have the comfort level to talk to the CEO. And that anonymity – at least to begin with – matters.

I am confused.

What do you think I should do?

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Posted March 10, 2021 by Rajib Roy in category "Reflections

16 COMMENTS :

  1. By Leecox on

    Talking to CEOs can be intimidating for many and for every ‘troll’ that uses the cloak of anonymity to hurl invectives and useless comments, there are probably some people that genuinely are more composed and less self-conscious without the spot light.

    Having had the opportunity to work and interact with several CEOs, I will say though that you are one of the most accessible and approachable one I have met. Therefore both approaches should work for you.

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  2. By Drsevans on

    Being able to speak truth to power ,I believe, is an essential skill for anyone, but the climate and culture must have trust the information will be in confidence and is truly wanted. Unfortunately, I’ve participated in “tell the CEO how it’s going” opportunities and then after respectfully giving feedback, that was actually not what the CEO wanted to hear and there were repercussions.

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  3. By Hubbard on

    My father was the COO of a Fortune 100 company. Among his top concerns is the filtering of information. Many companies, large and medium, have a “killed the messenger” culture and that results in filtered information. As the CEO, your job is to solve all the problems no one else could solve! Culture is truly set at the top.
    Rajib, you are truly a great leader! and a person I am honored to call friend!

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    1. By Rajib Roy (Post author) on

      Thank you! Your dad was right in the sense “managed information” is often a real issue.

      Reply
  4. By Xyz on

    I regret that i did not have the chance to communicate with my CEO , anonymous or not , though i very much wanted to, eight years back , when i was forcefully terminated , for no fault of mine. I never got a reply from the CEO’s desk to my several emails and finally i had to take legal help, with the matter in the courts now.

    If my company had such a forum, why would i seek legal help ? The matter could have been solved inhouse.

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    1. By Rajib Roy (Post author) on

      Sounds like it was a tough situation. Hopefully things are working out to mutual agreement…

      Reply
  5. By Sterling on

    Your CEO friend’s perspective of “no curtain to hide behind” can be a slippery slope to no private channels. Anonymous comms are critical for people feeling oppressed / persecuted to realize they aren’t alone, especially if they are more introverted and not comfortable speaking truth to authority. The Away story (https://www.theverge.com/2019/12/5/20995453/away-luggage-ceo-steph-korey-toxic-work-environment-travel-inclusion) should be a cautionary tale about enforced openness gone awry.

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  6. By Scott Crawford on

    Hi Rajib, did you come up with Wireside yourself? Would be shocked if not ;).

    I believe much of the approach lies with the personality of the CEO. I am certain that you and I can think of a CEO where the majority of employees would not go near the CEO for any discussion.

    For a CEO with an open mind, heart and soul, I do not think the anonymous approach would be needed. I would also extend that open door policy to all managers and executives. When I joined IBM years ago, they had a similar policy and it was baked into the culture. As a newly minted employee, I felt I could walk down the hall to my manager and three more levels up.

    My hunch is the only thing keeping your folks from approaching you would be bad jokes ;).

    Take care ny friend!

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    1. By Rajib Roy (Post author) on

      Scott, on that bad humor part… guilty as charged!!!
      I think your point about the personality of the CEO makes a lot of sense to me. It would feel unnatural and not authentic otherwise…

      Reply
  7. By TK Kumaran on

    Great topic. I was also amazed about the Away story. I support Sterling’s comment on the Anonymous Channel. It is a necessary channel for those employees who have to express persecution or harassment. The bottom line of open communication is as Drsevans mentioned Trust. Does the company’s core values and match its actions ?
    Action is not a one time “good response” but what response can be expected at any time for any event? What is baked into the culture? How honest are Executive Leadership in answering difficult questions or employee grievances? I think there will be less personal invective comments in anonymous channels as trust and collaboration becomes the cornerstone of relationship with Executives.

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  8. By Isio on

    Rajib –

    I am a big fan of the anonymous chat forums especially in town hall formats. I’ve even gone old school with a comment box where people can drop handwritten or printed feedback (back when we were all in offices). I’ve found I get a lot more participation and there is a good portion of the employee population who would not give feedback if they had to be in the “spotlight”.

    With that said – you can do both. Having an open door and always be willing to have drop in’s allows for that two way dialogue. During COVID my favorite communication method was virtual coffees with a small group (5-7) monthly. It allowed for open conversations and people would openly feed off each other.

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