Why you need an anonymous complaints process

Ruby Dark

May 26, 2023

Difficulties arise in any organisation. The important thing is how you deal with them. But if employees don’t feel safe voicing concerns, you’ll be hard-pressed to make things better. An anonymous complaints process removes a lot of the barriers that prevent people from speaking up. In fact, 74% of employees would be more inclined to give feedback about their company through a truly anonymous channel. Here’s how to build one.

Have you ever seen something at work and thought, ‘maybe I should tell someone about this…’ Did you feel confident about who to speak to? Did you know what would happen next? Maybe something held you back…

Many people have been in the same boat. There are two main reasons that make us feel like it’s safer to stay quiet when an issue arises:

  • the fear of retaliation (”Will I be isolated or miss out on opportunities if I say something?”)
  • the belief that speaking up is futile (”Nothing will change anyway so why risk saying anything?”)

Studies show that fears around retaliation are valid. According to an EEOC report, 68% of sexual harassment allegations included charges of employer retaliation. And employees who submit formal complaints report worse physical and emotional health than those who also experience harassment but don’t complain formally.

Sexual assault and harassment aren’t the only reasons to submit a complaint. Seemingly “minor” issues such as offensive jokes or inappropriate comments contribute to an exclusive environment. Employees should have a confidential avenue to raise and resolve these issues.

But just because people don’t want to come forward publicly doesn’t mean they should be silenced. You can protect employees’ needs for security with a completely anonymous, confidential avenue to submit complaints.

Why are anonymous complaints important?

If employees need to come forward publicly to submit a complaint, then they might feel that it’s safer to keep the issue to themselves. That means that dangerous patterns of exclusion or discrimination go unnoticed.

Up to 70% of women have been subject to sexual harassment at work during their careers, but the vast majority never submit complaints. The primary reason for low reporting is fear of retaliation.

Having the option to submit complaints without revealing any identifiable information makes it much easier to come forward. People can report issues while maintaining confidentiality. Then, you can focus on listening and acting on employee concerns.

The key is to show that speaking up has an impact. When complaints do arise, even if they’re anonymous, act on them swiftly and fairly (see below for a full guide on how to do this). When people feel safe speaking up, you’re better placed to resolve the issues at hand.

How to set up an anonymous complaints process

Any complaints process should be neutral, flexible and secure. For that reason, we recommend using an external tool to run anonymous complaints. People are more likely to trust in the process when complaints are handled outside of the company chain of command.

Employees should be able to disclose as much detail as they feel comfortable with and have some say over how the complaint is dealt with.

There are plenty of tools to run your anonymous complaints process end-to-end. We particularly recommend Vault platform because employees receive reports on the progress of their complaints. Once an employee’s complaint is in the system, Vault will send them a notification when their organisation has taken action to address the issue.

It’s also worth checking out Safecall, a whistleblowing hotline and online reporting system and Spot, an AI tool to anonymously report concerns online.

Questions to include in an anonymous complaints form

If you’d rather set up an internal process, you can create your own online form for employees to submit anonymous complaints.

Include the option for employees to record their contact info so that you can follow up when action has been taken. But crucially, it shouldn’t be a required part of the form. Here’s a template to use:

Submit an anonymous complaint

Thank you for taking the time to share your feedback with us. Your comments will help us deal with harmful behaviour and build a more inclusive environment for you and your colleagues. Please feel free to share as much detail as you’re comfortable with.

  1. What is the name and job title of the individual(s) that this complaint is regarding? If you feel comfortable sharing this information, it will help us investigate thoroughly and make sure the issue is dealt with.
  2. When and where did the incident take place? If you can share a specific date and time, please do so.
  3. Please provide a description of the incident in as much detail as possible:
  4. Were any witnesses present? If so, please name them.
  5. What is your preferred outcome or solution? Please go into as much detail as you feel comfortable.
  6. Would you like to raise a formal grievance? For information on what this process involves, refer to out complaints policy. [Add a link to your policy. If your complaints policy doesn’t cover grievances, you’ll want to update it.]

Introduce the process to employees

The more transparent the process, the more employees will trust it. Once you’ve set up your anonymous complaints process, introduce it to employees and invite questions.

Be precise about exactly who has access to submissions. Ideally, this should be a nominated member of the People Team so that they can monitor trends and follow up with appropriate action.

Leadership plays a central role in building a culture where employees feel safe to speak up. Here’s everything to cover when introducing your anonymous complaints process in an all-hands:

  1. Explain that the new process helps the team build a safe culture where people can easily and safely raise concerns.
  2. Reinforce the message that you want to hear about employees’ concerns and that real action will be taken.
  3. Show examples of complaints that people might have. Make sure to include examples of issues that people might worry are too insignificant to bring up, such as micro-aggressions. Even a passing comment can make people feel excluded, and is still worthy of a complaint.
  4. Explain the process: how do employees submit a complaint? What happens when an (anonymous) issue is logged? Who sees this information? What procedures can be triggered, such as the formal disciplinary procedure?
  5. Thank people for speaking up, including anonymously, as it helps the company deal with harmful behaviour and create a more inclusive environment.
  6. Invite questions

How to follow up on anonymous complaints

For people to trust in the process, they need to see evidence of accountability. When you receive an anonymous complaint, follow up with the complainant if they provided contact information. Or, if not, develop a plan of action to fix the issue at hand.

It could be:

  • triggering formal procedures (such as disciplinary action)
  • investigating further
  • monitoring for long-term trends
  • changing company policies
  • implementing training
  • speaking to those involved informally

Always remember to centre the needs of the complainant. The best complaint processes are flexible and encompass a range of options to resolve issues.

We highly recommend reading through this resource from QuakeLab to understand the mechanics of complaint processes and how to handle them ethically.

Monitoring trends in anonymous complaints

It’s not always easy to investigate anonymous complaints — you won’t always have enough information to move forward decisively. But always do your best to ‘close the loop’ and take action to respond.

the best way forward may be to track patterns over time. If similar trends appear in anonymous complaints, then it’s a good sign you need to make some changes. Here’s how it could play out:

How to act on anonymous complaints 1. You receive an anonymous complaint that someone received unfair, biased performance feedback from their manager in their latest performance review. 2. The complainant does not disclose their name, their contact info, their manager’s name, or their department. This makes it difficult to investigate further. 3. You announce to the team that you are aware of employees feeling that they’ve received biased feedback in performance reviews, and to resolve the issues, you’re setting up a review committee to check feedback for bias. 4. You tell employees that if anyone has experienced a similar issue, they should let the People Team know either in person or by filing an anonymous complaint. 5. Over the next month, you receive 3 more submissions from employees detailing unfair feedback across multiple departments in the company. 6. This suggests you need to revisit the performance review process and implement manager training on giving high-quality, unbiased feedback.

Building a speak-up culture

Regularly following up on complaints sets the norm that it’s safe to voice concerns. When people trust in the process, see that it has an impact and that they won’t face retaliation, they’ll be more confident to speak up.

Actioning feedback can improve employee voice and develop a speak-up culture. One study found that in organisations that followed up on feedback and developed plans to address concerns, employees spoke up 19% more frequently.

Over time, when employees feel more secure in speaking up, anonymous complaints might become redundant. In an ideal world, no one would need to hide their identity to submit a complaint because they trust that the company would handle the issue appropriately and confidentially.

Anonymous complaints are a key part of building a safe environment, but there’s so much more you can do. Make sure to provide regular opportunities for employees to share feedback. Actively seek out employees’ opinions on strategic decisions. When employees see that that feedback has an impact on the company, they’ll feel more empowered to use their voice.

Back it up

Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2019). Making Discrimination and Harassment Complaint Systems Better. What Works?

Detert, J. R., & Burris, E. R. (2016). Can your employees really speak freely. Harvard Business Review

Walsh, N. (2021). How to encourage employees to speak up when they see wrongdoing. Harvard Business Review.

Zheng, L. (2020). Do Your Employees Feel Safe Reporting Abuse and Discrimination. Harvard Business Review.