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I am VP of Operations. We have an online anonymous suggestion box at our company for employees to suggest improvement. For the past few months we have been getting a lot of crap in it.

The comments:

  • The black help desk employee was referred to as a cotton picker.
  • The HR analyst was called a whore
  • Someone claiming to have urinated all over the office in corners (for the week we were in the office during reopening)
  • Lots of comments calling random women ugly
  • People referring to the lunches of Africans as "bung"

The images/videos:

  • We had someone suggest that the COO had been a pornstar and link to a violent porn video.
  • Had a video of a pig being killed
  • Lots of random nude images from Reddit
  • Violent fights

They tend to hide the links with link shorteners so we don't see immediately.

We are getting 1-3 of these every day and the HR women are getting outraged at it.

My thoughts to get this resolved are just to assign the one HR man to handle the suggestion box and quietly tell him to check it for crazy stuff to throw out but we only have one man in HR and this may not work long term.

Any ideas?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Commented May 24, 2021 at 15:05
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    Is the vile content coming from within the company? Or is the suggestion box open to the internet also?
    – fgysin
    Commented May 25, 2021 at 8:30

10 Answers 10

37

Asking a different member of the HR team to read unacceptable, abusive messages isn't a solution. Your edit suggests you manage the HR team - proposing a clearly sexist policy would put them in a very awkward position!

Rather than looking for ways to tolerate this behaviour, you should be seeking to eradicate it.

Your HR team should immediately send a company-wide mail stating that sending obscene or libellous material is unacceptable and explaining the potential consequences (e.g. dismissal, potential criminal charges, ...). The company's managers and supervisors need to firmly reinforce this with their teams. If the messages continue, HR should contact the police and close the online suggestion box, replacing that with paper or verbal suggestions. Suggestions will no longer be anonymous but this would be a clear consequence of anonymity being abused so it'd be hard for anyone to object about this.

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    How do you dismiss someone for anonymous content. Also, there's little criminal action going on here. If they're deepfaking employees' faces onto others, maybe, but this seems like opportunistic drive-by stuff. Police will show little interest based on the content being advertised as anonymous, and when they realise any alleged offender will have 'someone must have used my computer or my IP' as an excuse as the MPAA are aware.
    – mcalex
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 20:28
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    Sending out a company-wide email won't reach people that are external to the company. A warning should also be placed on the submission form.
    – zmike
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 2:54
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    @zmike If its non-employees doing it, what exactly do you expect to warn people about? You'll be fired from a job you don't have? Nobody who's going to do this is going to be scared off by a banner on a website. Commented May 22, 2021 at 6:25
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    I disagree that OP should send a company-wide email. That will only encourage the employees who are trolling. Trolls love to receive "feedback", because it means that their antics are "working". Sending a company-wide email would also hurt company moral, and create rumors. At the present, very few people are aware of this problem. OP should try to keep it that way. (But I agree that getting rid of anon suggestions is a good idea.)
    – sam
    Commented May 22, 2021 at 19:32
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    @mcalex The messages include racist slurs - the police would take action on this where I live. Distribution of porn may interest the authorities in other countries. Point taken however that laws will vary - I've edited to show that police interest is not guaranteed.
    – simonc
    Commented May 24, 2021 at 7:52
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My thoughts to get this resolved are just to assign the one HR man to handle the suggestion box and quietly tell him to check it for crazy stuff to throw out

Terrible idea. The scenarios you list are objectively offensive and obscene. Acknowledge , confront, and investigate the issue, instead of passing the buck to another coworker. These are not offensive because of one's gender, but offensive objectively. Assuming men are less offended is playing to a stereotype, and furthering an unnecessary distinction between male and female colleagues.

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  • While they are objectively offensive, they ARE also offensive because of one's gender. Men are less offended by misogynist content, women are less offended by misandrist content. There isn't an assumption of men being less objectively offended, just based on the content. It's not (illegally) sexist for rape and SARC counsellors to be women, nor is it racist for indigenous liaison staff to be first nations people. Due to the content a white male would be least offended - not unoffended.
    – mcalex
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 20:11
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    Maybe I was not clear. If you see my past answers focusing on sensitive topics such as race, harassment, gender etc, I always focus on whether on the problematic behavior would still have been an issue if the OP or the person complaining would have different personal characteristics. Almost always, yes. It does not matter that the behavior is targeted based on characteristics of the specific individual. You dont have to be a woman to find objectifying behavior towards women to be offensive, or be a minority yourself to stand up for a minority experiencing harassment / insensitivity
    – Anthony
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 23:01
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    Moreover, the OP assumes the male HR employee will be OK with the task simply for being a man, i.e: only women will take offense. Not so, as behavior objectifying men or women has no place in a professional work environment, no matter the gender of the wronged person. Dont make it about gender
    – Anthony
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 23:07
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    Anthony, you wouldn’t pick someone because of their gender, you would pick the one with the thickest skin.
    – gnasher729
    Commented May 26, 2021 at 17:55
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Have the suggestions track IP addresses and a unique ID. They can still be anonymous if you are not actively looking at it.

Then have someone who can’t see the message look at the generated IP addresses and cross reference against IDs you supply.

This will give you a rough guess of how many doing it or if it’s external.

Another option is to have it detect certain rude terms / links. Then when the user enters tell them that their submission has not been sent to HR but contains banned reference and their IP has been flagged to confirm the message is Ok.

Add a warning stating that any suggestions breaking code of conduct will lead to disciplinary action. It might be enough to stop messing.

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    Whenever I’ve received invitations to provide anonymous feedback, there has always been a warning that the company could identify me in some circumstances, but that they wouldn’t take those steps over constructive feedback, even if it was critical of the company.
    – ColleenV
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 10:16
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    The option to automatically detect and reject rude terms or links seems like a lot of work to me. I am sure the software engineers at the company of the OP have something better to do. Further it might only spur the creativity of the abusers to get past the filter. Commented May 20, 2021 at 12:03
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    I'll rephrase your first sentence: "write down the name of all users. They can still be anonymous if you don't look at what you've written down". Nope. They aren't. If you tell your employees that the suggestion box is anonymous, it really needs to be, and not just when the company feels like it.
    – jwsc
    Commented May 25, 2021 at 9:23
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You should hire and external company to manage the suggestion box, and aggregate suggestions.

In addition, suggestions should be traceable, the the external company should be able to provide that information to the HR team in the cases where the content is clearly not what the suggestion box is for.

The goal of the 3rd party is to ensure that real serious suggestions remain anonymous, but harmful (and illegal) content is properly flagged to HR so it can be investigated.

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    This is a very good idea. You can have a non-anonymous internal channel, but given that the anonymous channel has been badly abused (very likely by a small number of people, possibly just one) you can't have a fully anonymous one. If your company already has an Employee Assistance provider, see if they have a service by which they can communicate suggestions back to the company, with anonymity guaranteed and already screened.
    – CCTO
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 18:42
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I think the solution to this problem is quite simple and obvious. Don't use an anonymous suggestion box. Why should a suggestion box be anonymous anyway? If someone actually has a good suggestion it seems natural to me he/she wants to receive credit for it. Don't see a benefit for the suggestion box being anonymous, accept for pranksters like this.

So in short replace the anonymous suggestion box by a non-anonymous suggestion box.

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    anonymous suggestion boxes are standard for improvements that may be controversial, or the direct manager is opposed against. those improvements may still have merit for the whole company.
    – Benjamin
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 9:04
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    @Benjamin While there is benefit to anonymizing suggestions it is pretty clearly outweighed by abuse of the system. It sucks but I think you have a "this is why we can't have nice things" management problem. You are opening yourself up to liability by continuing to operate in this way and exposing your employees to abuse.
    – Myles
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 16:26
  • This is much better than just "find a man to look over the suggestions-- I'm sure he won't be impacted" Commented May 20, 2021 at 17:13
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    I was adressing the point "Why should it be anonymous anyway?". Generally, it should. In case of abuses like the OP experiences it's different of course
    – Benjamin
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 18:01
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Whoever is moderating the suggestion box should be instructed to not click any links. If they are still uncomfortable with what they are reading then either find someone who is comfortable with it or don't use the suggestion box. Gender shouldn't be a factor in your decision.

This sounds like either you have one or two bad eggs in your company spamming the suggestion box, or multiple people are writing these things and there is an issue with company culture that you should try to address.

If you want to get to the source, here is an idea if possible: close the current box and send every team a link to their own unique suggestion box. You will find out if it is all from one team or spread out, then go from there with a targeted investigation. Alternatively the abuse of the suggestion box will stop if they realise it is less anonymous than before.

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  • Yes. Why on earth do you need links in a suggestion box? Give 'em a text area that doesn't parse html. The effort of having to actually type nasty content will reduce the opportunistic trolls, leaving only those who are seriously motivated to trash the box. There's also an argument that it would be useful for management to have some awareness of seriously negatively-motivated employees which won't occur if other suggestions of killing the box or making it anonymous are followed.
    – mcalex
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 20:19
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If you don't want to close it down. Engage an expert to investigate the issue.

You need a professional to either find the culprits or proactively find a solution to stopping the behaviour. I've been involved in a lot of internal audits and it's only a matter of time and effort before the perpetrators are found or blocked. There are multiple strategies that would work.

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    Exactly. It's utterly bizarre to keep this going. And yes, of course obviously they can find out who the perp is, simply socially if not technically.
    – Fattie
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 12:30
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    @Fattie yes, it's usually not too difficult
    – Kilisi
    Commented May 20, 2021 at 12:32
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It's hard to tell exactly what's happening here but there is clearly a serious problem at your org and it's not that the suggestion box is filling up with vile / graphic content. It's that employees of your org feel that they want to send this type of content to the senior management team.

My father called this behaviour a "dirty protest" although not the official term which referred to prisoners I think the behaviour is similar. Another example of this is employees deliberately not flushing the toilet after a poo. Your employees are sending you vile crap as an act of non-compliance. I would look at the root cause here as to why they are sending this stuff to you rather than trying to "fix" then issue.

For the immediate future I would stop any of this going to any HR employees but not close the suggestions box. You need to figure out why people are this disgruntled.

If you are oblivious (I suspect you probably know why) then you can go back through previous announcements or any large changes in policy / working conditions directly before this started to work out what caused this issue.

If there is nothing specific I would says it's a cultural problem. You may have employees that seriously hate your company, some that are seriously racist / misogynist ...etc. It's hard to tell just from you post alone if this is the case though. If you can't find anything that would trigger someone and you feel this could just be a cultural problem with your workplace you should look into hiring practices / benefits / bias I can't give a full answer here on how to change the company culture such that you don't get a bunch of racists replies to your suggestion box.

With that said I think it the most likely scenario is that this is some act of revenge by disgruntled employee(s).

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    I agree with a lot of this, but I don't think your conclusion that some of the employees are seriously whatever-ist follows. If employees have this much anger and resentment built up, they're going to be looking for the most disgusting, vile content they can find to express it. What is more vile than racism, sexism, etc. without being something likely to trigger an investigation by law enforcement? The people send it because it's offensive, not because they believe it. It's a virtual flaming bag of poop on their doorstep.
    – ColleenV
    Commented May 24, 2021 at 19:26
  • @ColleenV Yes it could be either or I do think some people have whateverist opinions so that could be an option it's hard to be general. I'll add this to end.
    – Dave3of5
    Commented May 24, 2021 at 20:21
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Option 1

https://suggestionox.com/ (not to be confused with the current solution the OP's company is using)

Is it really anonymous?

Yes, by default we don't collect any identifiable information from those submitting to your box. We believe this is the best way to get truly candid feedback.

If the "default" is that they don't collect any identifiable information, that must mean that identifiable information can be collected if the feature is turned on.

Also, the fact that they have a product for reporting sexual harassment seems promising as well. While that product doesn't fit your particular use case, it does point that sexual harassment is a serious concern of theirs. If I were you, I would give them a call and ask them if their platform could help with your issue.

Option 2

https://www.allvoices.co/

All Voices looks good as well. They seem to verify phone numbers before they allow employees to provide feedback. They say this is to prevent spam and bots.

If the problem employee has to provide their phone number, I doubt that they'll continue with those types of messages.

Why do you collect phone numbers?

We do this so we can prevent bots and spam, to make sure that the data we’re capturing is as valid as possible. As soon as we receive your phone number, we encrypt it and assign your report a Report ID tied back to your phone number instead. We have an anonymous messaging portal that enables us to follow up with you after you submit the report, but you can opt out of communications at any time by replying STOP to any message you receive.

Unfortunately, they don't seem to post the prices on their site. This tells me that their service could be very expensive.

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    From the comments on the question, OP is already using freesuggestionbox.com
    – Seth R
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 3:48
  • @SethR, Thank you for the update. I've just amended my answer with 3rd party suggestion box platforms that may seem to be more reasonable when it comes to harassment. Commented May 21, 2021 at 5:29
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I think you went a bit too far with "Anonymity" of suggestions submitted

As far as i know majority of these services contain option to record submiter`s information, and it is available to the administrator of the service.

What you see is, possibly attempt to validate that submission is actually anonymous.

If this is not turned on yet - turn it on, and make stored identity information hidden. Allow reviewers of the suggestion to mark it as - useful, not useful and series of options for these spam suggestions.

Once a week review the source information to identify the poster and see if it is internal or external one.

After that it is management decision what action to take regarding this

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