In my academic world, we are subject to accreditation visits every five to ten years, depending on what types of accreditation the institution holds.

I have served on the accreditation teams for numerous business schools over the past 15 years. Something unusual happened on my first accreditation visit to another school that has stayed with me.

There were four members of our team. We arrived on a Sunday and had dinner with the leaders of the business school. The next morning I awoke to an envelope under my door. I opened the envelope and quickly realized it was critical of some parts of the business school. I skipped to the bottom of the letter. Unsurprisingly, it was unsigned.

I made my way to breakfast with my three colleagues, who were much more experienced team members. I mentioned to the team chair that I had received this envelope, and it turned out each of us had received the same unsigned letter. I asked what to do with it. His response?

Ignore it. And the other two folks agreed.

What?

They proceeded to explain to me that anonymous messages would not be considered. If the person had actually signed the letter, we would have felt compelled to discuss it with the school’s leadership team, but as it wasn’t, we would not pursue the attack.

I only had something like that happen on an accreditation visit one other time. The anonymous message came through a made-up email account and was untraceable. In that situation, the concern expressed was about an online program, so I contacted the accreditation organization and asked for advice. I was asked whether we were evaluating that program as a matter of course, and we were. So the message, while not formally being considered, would be addressed anyway.

While I haven’t considered anonymous messages in these situations, universities actually request anonymous feedback in two areas. We ask students to give feedback about each of their courses at the end of every academic term. In addition, faculty and staff are given the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback on administrators on a regular basis.

I totally understand the need for student anonymity, but at least one university at one point in time was doing something different with administrative evaluations.

Understanding that an administrator had to sign his name to a subordinate’s performance evaluation, the decision was made that, in order to be considered, a faculty or staff member evaluating an administrator would have to sign her name. I loved this!

In talking with someone who worked there under this model, I was told the feedback was much more thoughtful and constructive versus being more vitriolic. People who had to sign their name thought about what they said and how it might be helpful instead of just dumping their unhappiness.

Have you used anonymous letters or emails in your workplace? I have a friend who had a very long letter written to my friend’s boss about my friend. I love how the boss handled it. He took the letter to my friend’s unit and essentially told them he was ignoring it, but did refute some of the allegations that were easily proven false. I’m guessing that no one will write anonymous letters in that unit again.

What’s your stance on this? Do you address the claims in unsigned letters? If you do, you are giving power to them. If you don’t, people in the organization will realize that it’s a waste of their time to compose such documents. I recommend not giving those writing anonymous letters that kind of power.

And I wish more institutions would adopt the model of the university that requires evaluations be signed to be included. We might actually get more constructive input.

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Lynne Richardson is a business professor at the University of Mary Washington.

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