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Being the type of person I am, little notes of encouragement are always a nice surprise whenever I find them.

So, I was wondering if it would be weird or inappropriate to leave anonymous notes or letters of encouragement around my workplace. Could you get in trouble for that sort of thing?

I know people generally discourage leaving passive-aggressive notes, but if it's not anything threatening or mean-spirited, is it still a bad thing to do? The note would be something small. Something like, "I really appreciate all the effort you put into your work" or "I hope you have an awesome day today!"

I initially thought of writing a whole letter and leaving it somewhere to bring a smile to someone's face when they find it, but I was worried that it would be really weird (or even get me fired), so I'm mostly asking about smaller notes.

Though, I am also a bit curious about whether you could get in trouble for leaving whole letters lying about too. It'd be so cool to have a pen-pal at work, but I'm pretty sure that would be a bad idea.


Alright, so the general consensus is that it is definitely weird. I can live, knowing that. Actually, I came into this, knowing full-well just how weird it was, but since I also know that social cues don’t always reach me, I thought it would be good to get confirmation on that. So, thank you to those of you who took this seriously. I really appreciated your responses, as they gave me a lot of insight and helped me understand some things that I wouldn’t have understood on my own otherwise.

I’ve never been the type to follow through with leaving notes about, anyway, so don’t worry—poor Janet wouldn’t have been scared out of her wits by me regardless.

I think I should be clear about some things, since the way I type can come across as confusing to some—I am in no way a supervisor.

Initially, I had written more generic examples for this post, because I didn’t want this to somehow reach my co-workers in an obvious fashion that would have let them in on what I was thinking, but the notes would’ve been more like personalized thank-you cards than anything. Something to show appreciation to everyone for just being a joy to work with, but I can see where it would be better to just say it outright and deal with the anxiety that comes with it as opposed to making some mystery out of it.

I am young. Perhaps not young enough to be called a child or even a teen, but this is my first job—Covid-19 kind of stopped me from getting out there earlier, and everyone I know expects me to just be perfect, so I can’t reach out and say that I’m having trouble. With no one scolding me or setting clear boundaries, it’s hard to understand what might be the wrong step to take. I can understand some things intrinsically, like knowing this would be weird, but it’s still important to hear it from someone else—someone who doesn’t know me or my situation, and therefore, has no bias toward me.

I’ve always had issues with self-confidence and social interaction, and the doubt that haunts me today is a result of having cynical parents and always receiving compliments from everyone. At a point, spoken compliments just began to feel disingenuous to me, as if everyone was just reciting words and nothing really meant anything anymore if there wasn’t clear thought put into it. Maybe that’s where it comes from, and maybe I should speak to a therapist about it, because it does interfere with my quality of life, but that’s my problem to figure out.

Regardless, you all have given me the answers I needed, as well as some that I didn’t know I needed, despite being less than pleasant to read. I appreciate that, and I’m going to go to work now without any anonymous notes of any kind. Thank you very much. I wish you all the best.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    Sep 22, 2021 at 16:35
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    You added a very insightful and thorough follow up. It seems the answers you found really helped you out, and I'm glad this community was able to provide this for you.
    – fgysin
    Sep 23, 2021 at 6:53

11 Answers 11

145

This seems to address a need you have - and not the recipient.

What you consider 'encouragement that can bring a smile to someones face', others could view as patronizing platitudes they find inappropriate in the workplace.

People are very different when it comes to the amount and depth of workplace socializing they prefer. Unless you very specifically target people who have the same need for note reading and writing, it could come across as unwanted attention or even somewhat creepy.

In addition - the 'anonymous' aspect could be problematic depending on your role in the workplace. If you are a team lead or manager, sprinkling anonymous praise over your team is likely to backfire if/when it turns out that you are the source - as that, at best, would be considered very unorthodox leadership.

The need you have would be better fulfilled in another more welcoming setting, such as a social club - sports, hobbies and the like.

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    Brilliant summary. If the OP is in a leadership position, they need to be forthright and open. If they're not, they shouldn't pretend to be. They are not in a position to monitor and judge others' work, and for people to find they've been watched and judged anonymously (yes, even favourably) will rightfully creep them out.
    – CCTO
    Sep 22, 2021 at 13:36
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    This answer triggers memories of my last job, where I felt that public gratitude had almost become a form of social currency, benefiting the giver more than the recipient in many cases. The week after 'gratitude mondays' were mandated I resigned (straw/camel). It's a pity, it was really great, until it went overboard. Sep 22, 2021 at 21:27
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    I'd find it weird and creepy if one of my co-workers did this. I'm not sure whether it would be enough to trigger me to start looking for a new job. It might be. Sep 23, 2021 at 1:41
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    @DawoodibnKareem That seems like an unsustainably low threshold for spurring a job search... Sep 23, 2021 at 14:41
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    Monday morning stand-up was extended to give everyone a 'chance' to tell everyone what they were grateful for, to kick the week off on a good note. Sounds harmless, but in terms of work hours it came directly after Epic Friday where you effectively got social credit for publically thanking someone for their 'feedback' (i.e. criticism). Again, some positive aspects to this (fostering candor), it's just that with some particular individuals feeling a pressure to be seen and heard, it got Weird™️. Sep 23, 2021 at 21:02
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While it's quite a nice thought.. I don't think it's a particularly good idea.

Anonymous notes - even if the content is ostensibly positive have the potential to backfire in unpredictable and horrible ways. Let's say you leave a note on Janet's desk saying:

I hope you have an awesome day today!

What you don't realise is that Janet has dealing with a stalker, a problem ex who is having trouble accepting that it's over. Janet promptly assumes that said note is from her stalker and that the stalker has somehow gained access to her workplace. Of course because this is something about her private life that she's not keen to advertise at work she doesn't speak up, so you can't correct her misapprehension. A "positive" note has now left Janet feeling unsafe at work and generally miserable. Ooops.

I realise that's an extreme example - and hopefully an unlikely one, but it should hopefully demonstrate that by making something anonymous you're creating all kinds of potential issues.

I am also a bit curious about whether you could get in trouble for leaving whole letters lying about too. It'd be so cool to have a pen-pal at work, but I'm pretty sure that would be a bad idea.

You're right, it's a bad idea. Firstly it's work, not kindergarden, you don't have "pen pals" at work. There's nothing wrong with having friends at work, there's nothing wrong with talking about non-work stuff with colleagues, but if you want to do that you pretty much need to put on your big-person pants and form relationships in the open, in more workplace acceptable ways. If you've got something nice or encouraging to say to someone then by all means say it - but do it like a grown up.

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    I appreciate your honesty and the hypothetical you posed. It helped me think of a situation I hadn’t considered beforehand. This is not to say that I don’t consider alternate scenarios at all, of course—actually, I do so all of the time—but that was one that hadn’t crossed my mind. Still, I know it’s not kindergarten, and contrary to my immaturity online, I do know how to hold myself back in real life. It’s easy to put thoughts on paper, but I’m more than capable of seeing how bad that would be on my own. While I appreciate your criticism, the condescending attitude was unnecessary. Thank you.
    – Popiko123
    Sep 22, 2021 at 13:18
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    I work for a large company. We had who did this type of activity. Eventually, HR made an announcement in the staff meetings saying: "Please stop doing this. You are offending people."
    – Scottie H
    Sep 22, 2021 at 15:00
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    "Firstly it's work, not kindergarden, you don't have "pen pals" at work" - plenty of adults have penpals, and I can imagine plenty of reasons other than immaturity why one might want to do things like those described in the question anonymously, like having anxiety, being on the autism spectrum or just generally having some level of awkwardness or discomfort with social interactions. There are plenty of places (online) where one can potentially find what OP is looking for. Work just isn't one of those places. But even if it is immaturity, it's not necessary the bad kind. Sep 22, 2021 at 15:01
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    I don't really think the "stalker" example is all that extreme, even; perhaps in the sense of "legal authorities have been involved". However, I'd wager that most people have at least one person in their personal/workplace past/present that would lead them to worry about the source/reasons for an anonymous letter like this, whether it makes them think their personal safety is in imminent danger or that they may have a secret admirer. Sep 22, 2021 at 21:06
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    I think even worse someone who is pessimistic might view the letter having some sort of ulterior motive behind it about their work performance lagging behind. So it might backfire in a way that causes more harm than good. It's probably better to just tell folks what they're doing well and what they need to improve on if you want a better workplace where everyone understands their goals and what sort of improvement they might need to work on.
    – Dan
    Sep 23, 2021 at 14:27
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Being the paranoid person I am, and having worked in more than a few places with HR and managers who would just be so sneaky as to do that, I'd suspect the notes were really telling me that I'm underperforming and should put in more hours and effort because I'm on the shortlist for the next round of layoffs.

That's the attitude people in a great many companies have towards their managers and HR in general btw, and you don't want to fuel more such anxiety by doing what you seem to think is a nice gesture.

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    Ah, so if there's a coworker I hate, then this is what I should do. ;-)
    – user20925
    Sep 22, 2021 at 21:03
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    I totally agree. If you have a pessimistic view of the world, you might see it as a sign that you're doing worse especially if you never hear any feedback otherwise. It's probably better the manager tells you face to face on what you're doing well and if you're lagging behind.
    – Dan
    Sep 23, 2021 at 14:29
  • I had a high school teacher who did this once. She had us all write something positive on a piece of paper about every single one of our classmates then we anonymously exchanged the papers. Several decades have passed since then but I still have those papers with the silly positive thoughts my classmates wrote about me. Occasionally while straightening things up I stumble across them and every time I do it makes my day. Those are cherished little things. You're right though. I'm not sure it would have the same effect in a competitive workplace environment.
    – Justa Guy
    Sep 24, 2021 at 5:05
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Inappropriate? Maybe not.

Ineffective? Mostly, yes.

There's a general saying:

Praise in public, criticize in private.

Thank generously, thank often - as you said, even a short note / mention of appreciation can help to motivate people a lot.

That said, while I understand your motive is good, making it public will not harm it, rather it'll bring in a positive vibe. Doing it anonymously may encourage one person, but making the appreciation public will motivate the entire team - they'll know that their work is being recognized and valued. The effect will be multifold.

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    Agreed. If the source of encouragement/praise/thanks is known, this gives context to it and so doing lends more weight to it. E.g. If a more senior colleague praises me for some work, I trust his judgement and feel encouraged that I am on the right track. A specific word of thanks builds the relationship between 2 people, not with some organization. If it's generic and anon, it's just a social nicety that will be forgotten soon as it will not influence how I approach my work or have another person(s) to improve my relationship with.
    – frIT
    Sep 22, 2021 at 14:45
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    Be careful with public praise. Some people get embarrassed and don't like it.
    – Kat
    Sep 22, 2021 at 16:53
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    @Kat: This exactly!
    – Vikki
    Sep 23, 2021 at 0:13
  • @Kat True that. There's probably hardly anything that's liked by everyone, however there's a majority thing. Also, in a workplace, understanding the diversity and using the appropriate communication style is a must, more so for a leadership / senior position. Sep 23, 2021 at 5:41
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    Also, be specific in your praise. "Gosh, you're just great" doesn't really mean much. "Bob, you did a fantastic job on the Big Corp proposal. We threw it at you at the last minute and you really pulled things together and put together a polished presentation. I really like the fact that you had several old proposals ready to hand to use as references and even though you told me Big Corp's was mostly copy/paste from the old ones, it didn't come across that way" not only tells Bob what he did so well, but gives other's a target to aim for, too.
    – FreeMan
    Sep 23, 2021 at 11:57
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Praise your co-workers respectfully; via face-to-face, email, or instant message:

Hey Coworker, I just wanted to sincerely thank you for helping me with that report the other day. My boss was really impressed by the work and I mentioned that you gave me some great pointers for creating the report.

A generic "I really appreciate all the effort you put into your work" note tells me you don't know what I do nor do you know what to appreciate. Worst of all it doesn't let me know who I am building rapport with.

If I wanted generic encouragement then I'll put up a "Just hang in there" poster.

If you're a supervisor then this is an utterly terrible way to supervise.

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    I think the first line is unhelpful (the OP has explained they have some kind of anxiety) issue but otherwise this is spot on Sep 22, 2021 at 16:08
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    @mattfreake Yeah, it was kind of unprofessional of me. I've approved the edit to remove the intro =)
    – MonkeyZeus
    Sep 22, 2021 at 16:24
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I did this once. (I did it anonymously, but everyone knew it was me.)

I left a custom handwritten sticky note at everyone's desk (about 20 people). Everyone thoroughly enjoyed it the next morning. Morale was great all day.

This was years ago, but someone actually mentioned it just last week. He even recalled what I wrote to him. So it seemed to have a lasting positive effect.

If you do it, I recommend you make sure to include everyone, and to remember that these notes are in public view.

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I was curious why you insist on being anonymous and found this comment (which was moved to chat).

I’m not sure if it’s a social anxiety thing or if it’s a confidence issue, but if I had it my way, I wouldn’t leave my mark or make myself known to anyone. In fact, I find myself wishing I could exist as a mere speck of light at times. I want to brighten others’ days, but the idea of making it known that I’m the one doing it makes me nauseous.

I can relate to that, and would encourage you to go ahead and leave a note, and sign your name. The risk you take — the vulnerability — is a huge gift, and the gift is more meaningful than the words themselves.

Give it to someone to whom you’re truly grateful. Be specific about what they did / continuously do and what affect it has on you. Give it to someone you know well, so it won’t be seen as an awkward substitute for normal conversation.

I’ve done this twice before that I can remember. One person was absolutely delighted. She told me she had been feeling discouraged lately and it was exactly what she needed. A few days later she returned the favor, and even though it felt a little obligatory, that note meant a lot to me. I kept it for years and read it again on rough days. Even now the memory gives me encouragement.

After that success, I tried it with another person. I don’t think he even acknowledged it. My guess is it didn’t mean much to him, and he had forgotten about it 10 minutes later. At worst, he might have thought it was a little weird, but it didn’t seem to have done any damage to our relationship. For me, it was still a small victory over social anxiety. I did something that would draw attention to myself in an unusual way and nothing bad happened.

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I think the answers most people given here is that the workplace may take the notes as something else. And that may be true but I think most people will consider it a bit unorthodox since it is so unusual but I think your personality trait and how you interact with your co/workers will be a top consideration in deciding if this anonymous note idea is a good thing. Despite your assumption that it will remain anonymous, eventually someone is going to find out it is you doing it.

With that said, I think it is important to know your relationship with everyone else and how everyone else's relationship is with you. If you are just a fellow co-worker on equal terms with everyone else, the notes may end up negative once your boss finds out. It might be a huge distraction in the office because the manager will be asked about it. Your co-workers will ask your manager if he left the notes and he/she will likely say no and would take time to investigate. It is unclear how your boss will take it once he/she finds out it is you doing it.

However, if you are a manager or team lead, the note idea might not be too bad depending on your relationship with everyone else. They may also consider your personality and past interactions while reading the note. So if your past relationship with them is very positive, and you're a very upbeat person who likes to congratulate folks and encourage them, then the note may be just icing on the cake so to speak where everyone will be like, "Yep that's Popiko alright!" with a smile.

If your relationship has mostly been typical and on par with a typical work environment, then that is when this is getting into a grey area. I think people will take it in various ways, and in extreme cases may view the note having some sort of ulterior motive behind it. Suppose you gave the note to someone who you had a minor disagreement with last week and that person takes it as some sort of attack? Or suppose you write a note to a opposite gender person who thinks you are interested in a romantic relationship and takes it to HR with that understanding?

As I said I think your prior relationship is going to be vital in deciding if this note is appropriate enough. If you are typically upbeat, extrovert person who likes to high five fellow workers and try to make everyone in a happy mood, then this anonymous note might be a good idea that goes along with your personality. But if you're an introvert and always wanted to complement people but never done so and think this note is your best bet, then you may want to hold off on it.

My thought is if you have to question it, then don't do it.

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We had someone attempt this in a similar vein at a place where I worked (we suspected it was the daughter of the company owner).

They sticky-taped images of animals like puppies and geese along with positive feel-good quotes around the office overnight. The overall reaction among the staff the next morning was not good ranging from "Huh" to "What the heck is this? Why would someone do this?". In general most of the staff saw it as patronizing and unwanted. Suffice to say, they were removed by midday never to be seen again.

To put things in perspective, this was a pretty good workplace at a medium sized technology company, and the staff morale was already very good to start with. While this might not directly answer your question, this is a an example of of what might happen. Doing something on the assumption that everyone is in the same mindset as yourself, even with the best of intentions and the most receptive of people still can backfire.

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This has potential, but not as you describe it.

First off, anonymous praise is only appropriate when you are afraid of retribution if your approval is known.

Secondly, a note from a random co-worker saying that their work was appreciated is probably going to be a bit weird -- an email or in person appreciation would be much more typical.

Finally, this can be done by managers or with managerial approval (non-anonymously) -- it would not seem too weird for a manager to give an actual paper note, and after the first one or two would simply be an accepted thing. Or a manger could encourage such notes as a form of peer recognition (recognition by both peers and superiors tends to increase employee retention), in which case any initial feeling of wonky behavior will be directed at the manager and not at the person writing the note. If you think this would be a good general idea, and you aren't a manager you can suggest it to your manager or higher.

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I am quite appalled with the many discouraging answers that suggest that you should not do this out of some fear of "backfire" or "inappropriateness". People forget that what they fear is what they do not understand, and that seems like kindness. I see this as more of a cultural issue rather than any actual deterministic objective conclusion. I'm sure it was weird to say the world was round when people understood the world was flat or someone thinks of others religion or traditions as weird when the same can be said of their own. No this is really about making what is weird not weird and getting people to stop being stuck in their own world and thinking only their own thoughts as right and shunning others.

I say do it. I also say make it a habit so it doesn't make it "weird". You could use the holidays as your advantage to make it less "weird" since that could help ease in those who are authority on "weird." I remember feeling delighted that someone left me card only to find out it was my superiors wishing me a Happy Holidays. Start it off a few weeks before Thanksgiving - I'm sure you'll do fine.

Break the mold. Its not weird. People just don't know what kindness looks like.

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  • I'm not surprised people are downvoting. Down vote away.
    – LeanMan
    Sep 24, 2021 at 21:46
  • Well, if you insist.
    – DranoMax
    Sep 24, 2021 at 23:27

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