Should 360-Degree Feedback Be Anonymous?

Performance reviews come in various forms, and your organization should always be considering if there are better ways to evaluate employees. Especially since many leaders and HR professionals have come to realize that traditional annual reviews should be supplemented with more frequent performance assessments. After all, employees will make the right improvements if they’re given solid feedback on a consistent basis.

The 360-degree feedback process is a popular way to build on annual reviews. Employees not only receive feedback from their manager. They also get feedback from colleagues, direct reports, leadership team members and even customers and vendors. Instead of simply being told how they’re doing at their primary job responsibilities, employees get a wide-ranging assessment that covers everything that goes into being a great member of the organization.

As you might have suspected, the people who provide 360-degree feedback remain anonymous. Employees need candid, well-rounded feedback to improve, and people are more likely to be straightforward if they know their identity is protected.

But you can also argue that the secretive nature of anonymous feedback does more harm than good. Let’s explore both sides so you can make the right decision for your organization.

The case for anonymous 360-degree feedback

By default, 360-degree feedback is anonymous. There are a few good reasons for this, including:

Peers and direct reports provide honest feedback

Most managers don’t have an issue giving blunt feedback. It’s their job to lead the team and they need to give proper direction to get the most out of their people.

But on the flip side, an employee is never going to feel comfortable openly critiquing their boss or even a colleague they work closely with. And there’s no benefit in collecting 360-degree feedback if everyone sugarcoats their thoughts.

Keeps the focus on the feedback

If feedback wasn’t anonymous, employees could read too much into the source of a rating or comment. Like it or not, dynamics already exist in your workplace and feedback recipients would be free to make assumptions about a reviewer’s motivation (e.g. “that person never liked me” or “that person wants my job”).

Keeping feedback anonymous forces the recipient to focus on the substance of their assessment, rather than one specific person’s thoughts, which can lead to halo horns.

Maintains healthy working relationships in your organization

Additionally, non-anonymous feedback could lead to new problems in your workplace. Some people are sensitive and could take well-intentioned feedback personally, causing a healthy working relationship to quickly turn negative. For example, it would be especially harmful if a manager was irked by feedback from a direct report.

The case against anonymous 360-degree feedback

Many people believe 360-degree feedback needs to evolve and get rid of the anonymous format. There are a lot of thoughtful reasons for this idea, including:

People can be rude knowing their identity is protected

Unfortunately, it’s human nature. People are much more likely to be unkind when they can hide behind the cover of anonymity (think of how people behave on the internet or in traffic confrontations, for example).

When someone has to put their name on their feedback, they’ll be much more likely to think about how they shape their words.

People can pursue ulterior motives

Earlier we said non-anonymous feedback would allow employees to jump to conclusions about a reviewer’s motivations. Well, sometimes these conclusions are accurate.

Anonymous feedback allows people to pursue their own agenda in the workplace. For example, if someone had clashed with the person being reviewed in the past, they could take advantage of the anonymous feedback format to make the recipient look bad.

Goes against a transparent culture

Many organizations pride themselves in having an open, honest culture. They strive to share plans and developments with the staff so no one is ever caught off guard.

That means transparency should be expected from the staff too. But if employees find themselves receiving anonymous reviews, they could question if the organization actually practices the values it preaches.

Tips for effective 360-degree reviews

While anonymous 360-degree feedback has its downsides, there are different ways to minimize, and even completely eliminate its issues. Here are a few steps your organization can take to experience all the advantages of anonymous feedback and none of the ill effects:

  • Encourage professionalism – Before you collect feedback, take the time to remind reviewers about the professional standards your organization has for them.
  • Get details – The more context you require from reviewers, the more thought they’ll put into the feedback they provide. Using a rating scale, supported by comments is ideal.
  • Don’t make personnel decisions on 360-degree feedback alone – Decisions to give an employee a raise or promotion should be based primarily on their ability to accomplish job responsibilities, and less on the anonymous opinions of their colleagues.

Most importantly, human resources should always know the identities of the employees asked to provide 360-degree feedback. People will be kind and likely won’t try to pursue ulterior motives if they know their name is attached to their feedback in some capacity. Your organization will experience all the benefits of anonymous 360-degree feedback, while avoiding the disadvantages, if it takes this approach.