How Anonymous Should CIOs Let Their Workers Be?

Should CIOs allow incognito employee questions?
Should CIOs allow incognito employee questions? Image Credit: Valis Iscari0t

As the person with the CIO job, the one thing that you would like from your employees is their honest feedback. You need this if you are going to be able to deliver on the importance of information technology. You don’t have any way of telling if you are doing your job correctly, you need them to tell you how things are going. However, there’s a very good chance that the people who work for you are scared of you. They think that if they speak up, they’ll get fired. In order to get around this problem, should you let them tell you what they think anonymously?

Should Employees Have To Identify Themselves?

CIOs need to understand that a practice many tech workers embrace as a workplace right is, at some companies, now at risk of being abandoned. For a long time, companies large and small have permitted anonymous questions during all-hands meetings, as a way to encourage free-flowing dialogue around sensitive issues. However after a divisive election, nationwide protests for racial justice and a global pandemic that drove much of the business world to remote work, many CIOs are questioning the practice. Some CIOs are considering getting rid of anonymous questions altogether. Others are going to the effort of screening or editing potentially offensive ones.

As tech companies embark on a new year it is more important than ever to make employees feel they are being heard and to gather honest bottom-up feedback for the person with the CIO position. But the best way to do that is still up for debate: is anonymity the most effective mechanism for employees to air grievances and get answers? Or does will it inhibit trust and transparency? Who will benefit when names are – or aren’t – attached to sensitive questions and who’s at risk of not speaking up at all? Some CIOs feel as though if someone asks an anonymous question, it doesn’t really feel like transparency. The question is are people afraid that if they ask it not-anonymously, it will lead to repercussions or punishments?

While most employees generally use their names when asking questions, CIOs are starting to notice more anonymous questions since everyone went remote. It might be because many employees are new. Most questions are constructive, but there always are outliers, including inquiries into specifics about other people’s compensation and someone complaining about having a bad relationship with their manager. Those types of questions are not things you solve in front of the whole company.

How CIOs Deal With Anonymous Questions

Once upon a time anonymous questions were a staple at Google and were generally productive. Making use of a popular internal tool, questions – with or without names – were visible to everybody in a meeting, be it a 20-person meetup or an all-hands gathering. Workers could submitted questions in advance, they weren’t curated and attendees could “upvote or downvote” any given one. CIOs need to realize that anonymous questions at work have a lot in common with anonymity on the rest of the internet. People who feel sort of afraid or anxious or underrepresented or unpopular, or have unpopular views, can use anonymity to express their perspective. However, what can happen is that these systems seem to inevitably degrade to the lowest common denominator of discourse.

Many people with the CIO job want to create an environment where people feel safe to speak up while using their names, and that context matters when trying to address people’s concerns. By not knowing who the person is, a CIO often lacks important context. During a team meeting, as one of the people who’s on stage answering, you want to give a satisfying answer. As an example, if someone poses a question about expenses, for example, it helps to know if they work in sales (where expenses are racked up) or in finance (where expenses are investigated).

There are no simple solutions for CIOs. If more companies do get rid of anonymous questions, underrepresented groups and newer employees are the ones who will suffer most. We need to realize that the people who don’t feel safe now won’t say anything. Instead of filtering out insensitive questions, which could end up reflecting bias from the CIO, CIOs can use them as an opportunity to state their values on a given issue, and whether they tolerate the tone or language being used.

What All Of This Means For You

In order to be an effective leaders, CIOs have to know what the people who work for them are thinking. This means that we need to have discussions with them. These discussions will only provide us with value if we can get our employees to ask us questions. Getting people to ask questions that have their names attached to them can cause people to hold back because they don’t want to look bad, Anonymous questions can solve this problem. However, those types of questions come with their own set of problems.

Allowing workers to submit anonymous questions is something that has been a staple at tech companies for a long time. However, things have started to change. The question that CIOs are trying to deal with is to find out if allowing anonymous questions inhibits trust and transparency. Since more and more employees started working remotely, more questions are being submitted anonymously. Google used to use anonymous questions, but they have done away with them. Underrepresented employees may lose out if anonymous questions go away. If a CIO does not know an employee’s context, they may not be able to provide them with a complete answer. CIOs could use anonymous questions to state their values on a given issue.

Allowing anonymous questions is a difficult question for a CIO to answer. In all honesty, it may depend on your workers. If they can behave themselves and use the anonymous questions as an opportunity to ask good questions, then it should be allowed. However, if by permitting anonymous questions a CIO opens up a door to inappropriate questions, then that door needs to be firmly shut. Dealing with anonymous questions is just one more part of the job of being the CIO.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Department Leadership Skills™

Question For You: If you have to terminate anonymous questions, do you think that you should tell people why?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

I’m pretty sure that we are all experienced at getting another job. Very few people rise up in a single company and become CIO. However, perhaps it has been a while since you last went through the process of finding another job. If the itch to move on has once again struck you, then you are going to have to realize that things have changed. The pandemic and time have all contributed to making some significant changes in how companies are going about recruiting people to fill CIO positions at their company.