Anonymous professional reviews don’t work because people lie. Or they are biased. Or they are jerks. Or they have no idea what they are talking about. Or, did I mention lying?

I was having a brief Twitter chat with Todd Defren of Shift Communications the other day about a new social media site called Unvarnished. He later wrote a great blog post about the site, Human Kind is Unready for Unvarnished, which I commented on. I was already flustered thinking about the potential ramifications of anonymous professional reviews (as you can tell by my post) but as the idea zig-zagged around my head over the weekend, I feel less comfortable with it now than when I first heard about it.

Here’s why: there are two sides to every story.

Just to entertain myself, I did a little mental time travel to see if I could figure out who would post things about me anonymously. (Frankly, I doubt anyone would, because really, who cares about little ol’ me?) But just for the fun of it, let’s toss out some situations and the likely accompanying Unvarnished review. After you read this, let me know if you still think anonymous reviews will work in anyone’s favor.

[By the way, three of these are real and one is made up. I’ve changed the details so that I don’t unintentionally varnish the reputations of others.]

Scenario #1:

After the appropriate waiting period, I met with my manager in his office to tell him that I am expecting my first child. He looks up from his desk and says, “Could you just have an abortion so I don’t have to go through the hassle of hiring someone else.” Shocked, I silently left his office, packed up my desk – never to step foot in that office again. He was placed on admin leave. I chatted with HR and an attorney. Things got signed. I still think he’s the biggest jerk ever.

Unvarnished review: Jules quit before our largest fundraising event without notice.

Scenario #2:

A male senior co-worker walked into my office and started telling a dirty joke, after I had told him I don’t like it. I informed him that his behavior was inappropriate and that I would go to HR if it happened again. Later, he makes a pass at me, which I refuse and I go to HR. Third time (since HR is one lady who apparently had no spine and clearly could not reign him in) he does it again, only this time, I copy the entire executive team on my complaint. As I suspected, he stopped speaking to me after that. The other women in the office thought I was a hero.

Unvarnished review: Jules is not a team player and does not understand how to follow the chain of command within an organization.

Scenario #3:

I was hired into a great organization, where everyone was glad I was there and we all work together as a team, except one lady who made it clear from day one that she did not want me there. Finally, after a few days she blew her top and told me off. I ran crying to my boss who took it to HR (not my idea). She was written up and had to be “counseled” by HR. A few days later, I missed something on a big project (probably due to the stress of her constant attacks, but maybe I just missed it.) Of course, she pointed it out via email to everyone in our office, including the receptionist. Every other aspect of my work there was exemplary. My boss didn’t even care: he said it was still a B+ project. She hated me even more after that.

Unvarnished review: Jules lacks the ability to complete projects and her work is sub-par.

Scenario #4:

The SVP (aka the company bully) at XYZ Corp. made everyone use instant messaging instead of email so she could berate, harass and humiliate them without anyone having a record of it (because, for some reason, they were too scared to print them out and show them to anyone). I started with the company and shortly thereafter her poisonous bow & arrow were pointed my direction. Having been warned of the pending IM attacks, I simply disabled that function on my laptop and claimed technical difficulties. She was furious and kept sending IT up to fix my computer. Every time they set it up, I disabled it. My boss said I didn’t have to use it, so I called her on it and added nicely that if she needed to contact me (since I didn’t work for her and wasn’t in her dept.) then email or voice mail would suffice. Not surprisingly, I was the only person in the office that was not subjected to her attacks because she knew emails could be forwarded or retrieved.

Unvarnished review: Jules damaged company property, refused to follow directions from a senior executive, and limited the means by which the team could communicate with her.

Now, I know that I am a negative Nelly, but am I the only one that thinks anonymity breeds malice or should we all be forced to face the music without the knowledge of who is saying bad things about us? Because if you think the reviews are going to be nice,  you’re wrong.

Although… I do see an upside to this type of social media: there is the potential for PR pros to get a lot more crisis management work because the dirt is going to be flying as soon as this thing goes live.

Will it be worth the ruined reputations? If so, we can call it the Mean Girls Social Media Stimulus Package.

12 thoughts on “The Bad, the Ugly & the Unvarnished: Why Anonymous Professional Reviews Don’t Work

  1. Another cool post. It’s rein, incidentally (scenario #2, the spineless HR lady).

    Wow. Company XYZ sounds suspiciously like a place I used to work, one of America’s largest companies so I’m keeping my mouth shut about its identity, but the dynamic sounds exactly the same sans the technological subterfuge.

    I agree a tool like this anonymous survey instrument could be great for gathering data and developing techniques to improve internal and external communications, company-wide practices and other company procedures, but a show of hands might reveal the tiny likelihood of the information actually becoming useful. Paradoxically, anonymity guarantees a higher user response rate while also skewing the data hard toward vitriol without remedy, thereby rendering it almost completely useless.

    I love how you used the word varnish in the sentence preceding the scenarios. Unintentionally varnish. Classic.

    1. Technological subterfuge! I love it.

      “…anonymity guarantees a higher user response rate while also skewing the data hard toward vitriol without remedy, thereby rendering it almost completely useless”…that’s what I meant to say. Thank you for clarifying.

      Glad you are here!
      ~ Jules

  2. Hi Jules,

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on this.

    In our opinion, Unvarnished actually creates huge value in all of your hypotheticals.

    Case #1: On Unvarnished, profile owners can respond to reviews, right there, on the page, to thank, clarify, or refute. In this case you could certainly add context to that review. Second, your other colleagues, seeing that this review is not accurate, can down-moderate it, to demonstrate that it is not the case. Third, your other colleagues can add their own reviews for you (which you may request) to overwhelm the voice of that reviewer.

    The horror story that you’re describing above already happens offline and can already happen online, without guaranteeing you a voice. Unvarnished fixes that.

    Case #2: In a post-Unvarnished world this despicable guy would have already have had plenty of incentive to change, in that all of his bad behavior would be showing up *on his own Unvarnished profile* we ahead of your run-in with him. You articulate in your hypothetical that there are many women in the office unhappy with his behavior, and yet HR does nothing about it. However, with Unvarnished, all those people have a voice, not blocked behind a spineless HR person.

    Wouldn’t you be glad for a forum in which to provide candid feedback to encourage behavior change where traditional channels are not working?

    Like in case #1, your own response, plus the reviews of all those colleagues for whom you were the flag bearer, prove you out. That is, if things even actually got to that juncture, because Mister Pervy would already be being censured from the get go. (Morever, perhaps HR lady now has something to stand on, because all those cowed colleagues now feel liberated from fear of reprisal, and surface their own bad experiences with him.)

    Case #3: See case #2 above regarding the power of community review to discourage bad behavior of the sort you describe by the grumpy lady. See also comment above regarding the ability to respond to reviews to provide context and also for other colleagues that you feel have a more accurate take on your professional performance, to review you.

    Case #4: This is an *awesome* use case for Unvarnished, because you would have known SVP XYZ is a bully, and may not have taken the job, because his Unvarnished profile would have told you this. Right now, you walk blindly into that buzz saw, because the information in people’s minds does not float. As such, you find yourself in the hypothetical above.

    All of your examples above pre-suppose a non-democratic review system that does not give the reviewee a voice.

    That’s not how Unvarnished works. It democratizes review of professional performance, both up and down the org chart, ensures that people can share their voice (you, too, Jules), and ensures that people can get information to help them make better decisions. It simply provides a forum wherein information that is already available, but in a disjointed, inaccessible, offline fashion, can is more readily available.

    You can read more here:

    1. Peter ~ I am so glad you posted! That is the very coolest part of social media and you have earned your engagement badge from me for sure.

      That being said, I still don’t think it will be fair and balanced.

      The reason being, that it takes more effort to be fair and balanced and most people are not going to take the time to post enough nice things to balance the mean things. In the cases above, most were confidential, so I would have automatically outed myself when posting anything specific, so my hands would have been tied. Plus, I probably would’t do that. It’s putting the burden of honesty on the innocent and letting the mean run rampant. And lastly, most social media savvy employers would frown upon it either way and I like to follow the rules.

      You still have time to convince me. I haven’t used the site, so it could be that I am varnishing Unvarnished because I am only seeing one side of the story and not being fair. See how vicious social media can be?!?

      Again, thank you so much for being here!

      PS. One of those guys was older than dirt when it happened, so the chances of my being tagged by him are quite slim. The others were probably your first 3 sign ups on the beta test!

      1. Hey Jules,

        We actually don’t see that happening right now. The content on the site is actually balanced and really quite amazingly professional and productive. Email me if I can get you on the site so you can see what this look like in practice, rather than the hypothetical.

        (Oh, and I realized that I didn’t sign my original post. Sorry.)

        Pete Kazanjy
        co-founder, Unvarnished

  3. Nice to meet you Peter, co-founder of Unvarnished. (I am glad you are not from the Unvarnished PR dept.) I like your approach and I want to give you the chance to change my mind.

    Please understand that I don’t approve of anonymous anything except maybe voting. It goes against all of what I have learned in life & PR, plus I am not sure that making these assumptions in beta necessarily means this professional utopia will continue once it is open for those to roam free range.

    That being said, I would be happy to check out the site and I promise that if you change my mind, I will spend as much time/space/energy singing your praises as I have questioning the site. Also, can I get a couple of professionals ahead of the line too, just so I can get some feedback from people who don’t already love you. Oh, and I get to bug you with questions about how it works.

    If it’s a deal, sign me up:
    Glad you are here!

  4. I agree with your take on this, Jules. These scenarios could do real harm, and the ability to rebut the claims or get others to come to your aid doesn’t change the fact that invalid information about you is now out there.

    Full disclosure for what follows: as the founder of, I am biased and have a commercial interest in telling people about our approach, which we believe to be superior. OK, now that the lawyers are satisfied… 🙂

    Regarding anonymity: I think there is a place for it, as it encourages candor, but it must be put in the proper context. The key considerations are motivation of the reviewer, and visibility and control of the information. Here’s a handy analogy: think of the difference between a comment card and writing on a bathroom wall. Both are anonymous. One is desired and useful, the other unwanted and typically malicious.

    Our approach at addresses these issues. First, anonymity is optional, and we encourage people to “sign” their reviews. Secondly, interaction on our site is typically a result of a “pull” rather than a “push”. This means that our users feel that they are in sufficient control over the incoming and outgoing feedback stream, to feel comfortable asking for feedback without fear of being publicly humiliated. Finally, we do not publish anything from unverified users. And if someone has registered and submits an anonymous review, we don’t publish it unless you (the reviewee) say it’s OK.

    Thanks for letting me put in my 2 cents.

    Jonathan Clay
    Founder & President,

    1. Hi Jonathan and thanks for being here.

      I like your full disclosure. In fact, I like full disclosure with everything, including professional reviews. Love your comment card and bathroom wall analogy, too.

      Now, one thing that I would note is that the Unvarnished users (at least in beta) are similar to what you are describing as pull vs. push. As I understand it, people can only get reviewed by their Facebook friends, so there is a certain amount of safety in that (i.e. sufficient control). So, I like that your company has to get my permission to publish something that is unverified, but it seems that approach would slant the reviews. Better than anonymous blasting, but then how reliable are reviews approved of by the reviewed? Is it like asking actors to approve film reviews by the critics before they are printed? If so, do the reviews mean as much? Hmmmmmmm…

      Oh no, I feel another blog post coming on! I am sure I’ll have more questions once I let this simmer a bit.

      Again, thanks so much for being here. It’s great that you are engaged and participating.

      Take care,

  5. You raise a valid point, Jules. I’m the first to admit that lets people present themselves in the best light, just like on LinkedIn and Monster. But I would contend that any solution will be slanted in one direction or the other – either toward the individual, or toward the recruiter.

    It basically comes down to a simple question: does (or can) the profile contain information that the person doesn’t want there? With our site, the answer is no, because users privately moderate all incoming reviews and then choose to make them public, keep private, or delete unwanted/spammy content. This is not the case with Unvarnished. It’s a fundamental difference, and it’s why we have completely different business models. We aren’t trying to become the database of “real” reputations, and our position is that such a site will always contain bias, there is no way to completely prevent abuse, and even one case of career sabotage is too many. We are about helping people manage feedback and career development. The time you spend on is ultimately focused on improving your own work.

    So, the next question may be, “OK, so how is what you offer different than testimonials on other sites?” Briefly:
    – Our templates let people demonstrate their performance in detail, so it’s perfect for cases where a specific skill set is desired.
    – We offer anonymity, which as I mentioned earlier, can be useful in our opinion.
    – We let people review themselves, showing that they have an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. As transparency becomes more of a theme, self awareness and demonstrable improvement over time will be seen as a plus by employers.
    – Public profiles are only one component of our overall career management solution. The vast majority of the activity on Coworkers is private. Some people prefer to live their lives out in the open, and we let them do that if they so choose, but we don’t force it on anyone.

    Looking forward to your next post, Jules!


  6. Great explanations. Again, thank you so much for being here. I was thinking the site was similar to Linkedin, but I understand now all of the different tools your site offers.

Let's Talk!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s