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I recently took over managing an organization in a mid-size company. From what people have told me, the organization felt really intimidated asking questions to my predecessor. To fix this, I've started a campaign to really push for an encourage questions and open communication. I've dedicated 30 minutes for every town hall for Q&A, and I've given people the option of submitting questions anonymously and told them I would address every one. I've told people that communication is an essential part of a healthy workplace, and they should always feel comfortable asking questions, giving suggestions, expressing concerns, etc.

Well, my first town hall went fairly bad. There were a few real questions submitted (like "how concerned should we be with the poor quarterly earnings report?"), but there were also a slew of inappropriate questions. Some of them were "what is your mother's maiden name?", "what is the name of your childhood pet?", and "what was your high school mascot's name?". When I finally got to "how many teeth do you have?", I had enough and abruptly ended the meeting.

Because these questions were submitted anonymously, I don't know who exactly wrote them. What are strategies I can take to continue to push for open communication, but convince people to take things seriously and professionally?

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    The questions about your mother's maiden name, the pet name, and the school mascot sound like something an identity thief would like to know. If you did in fact answer those questions, check your bank accounts for unexpected activity and your credit report for loans that you do not recognize.
    – mustaccio
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 13:42
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    @mustaccio, they were most likely asked by pranksters, as examples of questions which a person shouldn't answer.
    – Steve
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 13:58
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    First you say "I've given people the option of submitting questions anonymously and told them I would address every one." and then "When I finally got to "how many teeth do you have?", I had enough and abruptly ended the meeting." Does that mean that you asked them to submit the questions before the meeting, but you didn't actually look at the question before the meeting and you discovered the questions live in front of them during the meeting? Didn't you prepare for the meeting? The whole point of submitting questions in advance is that you can prepare your answer instead of improvising!
    – Stef
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 20:03
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    @Stef having been in several of these style of meetings the questions can be (and pretty much exclusively are) submitted during the meeting. Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 22:48
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    @Stef the question doesn't even mention "in advance" . "in advance" <> "anonymously". If the meeting is a hybrid meeting with lots of people on Microsoft Teams it is perfectly possible for it to be configured to allow anonymous questions for example Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 9:08

11 Answers 11

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What are strategies I can take to continue to push for open communication, but convince people to take things seriously and professionally?

  1. First strategy: Filter out bad questions and only answer good questions

    Before the meeting, you can scan the questions first, and quietly throw away the silly questions, and only answer the appropriate and meaningful questions.

    You also can let your department secretary or someone else scan the questions for you. Then, before the meeting, they will hand you a list of meaningful questions.

  2. Second strategy: Only allow live questions

    You only let people ask live questions in the meeting. You no longer accept anonymous questions.

  3. Third strategy: Hybrid : Allow both live and anonymous questions

    You can do hybrid or both, which means you answer some live questions, and you also let someone scan the list of anonymous questions so that you can answer some meaningful questions.


The bottom line is that you should be in control of what questions you want to answer. This way you can appropriately shape the content of the meeting so that you can send out the positive, impactful, and meaningful messages to your workers.

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    The second strategy is terrible... It would go against the whole purpose of letting people who aren't comfortable (for fear of reprisals) asking questions non-anonymously. The first strategy also runs the risk of filtering out good, but difficult questions. Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 18:07
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    @Kevin - The OP literally says "I've started a campaign to really push for an encourage questions and open communication"... If they want to be open, they need to be open. Your answer contradicts that direct stated purpose. Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 22:59
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    @ScottishTapWater: This is not my answer, and OP's question clearly reflects the fact that they do not intend to answer literally all possible questions that might be asked. Regardless, I would think that a flat refusal to answer a question would be more transparent than a corpspeak non-response.
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 23:18
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    In my company, for bigger meetings members of the employee representation organs will pre-screen anonymous questions, and (I guess) filter out those which are just irrelevant or insulting. (People can still directly post questions non-anonymously.) Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 23:40
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    @ScottishTapWater Being open doesn't mean that if somebody submits "Do you enjoying getting pegged by your wife?" as a question you should address it. It's OBVIOUS that there is a set of questions which are reasonable, useful and addressable in a company event, and others that are completely unrelated and provide no useful information
    – GACy20
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 8:27
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I'd really like to take a contrary position to nearly every other answer here.

Firstly, the questions about your mother's maiden name etc are suspicious enough to warrant checking you aren't letting randomers into your meetings and potentially a company-wide password reset for good measure.

Secondly, and more importantly, who cares about a few silly questions? Just have a laugh about them, we spend a massive proportion of our lives in the workplace, what's wrong with a bit of levity? Not everything has to be 100% serious 100% of the time.

If you've got the time, maybe give some humourous answers to the obviously ridiculous ones, and some honest ones where people are just trying to get to know you better. If you haven't got the time, just tell everyone that you're running short on time, so you're going to have to focus on the business related ones.

Any action you take to filter or de-anonymise the Q&A process would fundamentally undermine the goal you're trying to achieve and having a laugh with your employees makes you seem more personable and approachable which is definitely a good thing.

All I'll add to that is if it gets to the point whereby you're mostly just getting stupid questions and nothing of substance through at all, then it might be time to send out an email being like "Haha very funny everyone, but let's not forget how useful this time could be".

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    actually best answer. I was going to answer that such questions can be answered in a funny way. If op shows that he is not much bothered, then people will stop playing silly. Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 21:28
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    @Mouke The first three questions that the question mentions were asked are all common security questions for resetting an online account password. While they were likely being asked by an employee for laughs (poking fun at the claim that OP will "address every question,") actually answering them would be a security risk (if you use the honest answers to those question for your online account security questions, which is usually a bad idea.)
    – reirab
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 10:21
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    This. The best townhalls I've been are like this. Any silly questions get a chuckle and maybe a silly answer, whereas the serious ones get a longer, detailed response and end up occupying the bulk of the meeting. Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 10:40
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    yeah, absolutely, and they can be grouped together: a good response is "and, the next questions I have are "what is my mother's maiden name, what is the name of my childhood pet, and what is my high school mascot's name" - I see we have a budding identity thief amongst us." "And the next question: "how many teeth do you have?" - I'd said there are no bad questions, and I'm pleased someone proved me wrong. But, seriously, can we try and submit genuine questions? We have limited time each week, and I'd like to address as many real issues as possible"
    – lupe
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 11:53
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    This is, for me, the best answer. "Addressing" a question doesn't mean just answering it outright. It means being open and honest about the answer. "I won't be answering that for personal reasons" is a perfectly acceptable answer. Have some fun with it. Make it goofy and disarming. Being stodgy and offended is the fast track to repeating the previous lack of trust. Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 17:21
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Here's how I'd expect to handle it from an Employee perspective:

I'd expect to see a follow-up email - something reasonably light in tone - but along the lines of 'I appreciate the enthusiasm that some people demonstrated with asking questions during the town hall, but I think we need a little more focus in the Q&A'

I'm personally a fan of a little bit of levity in meetings - some more light hearted questions have been:

"When are we going to get company branded Swag?"
and (to a new manager born in NZ, but working in Aus):

"All Blacks or the Wallabies?" - to which the Manager in question laughed it off and pleaded the 5th.

The questions you were asked though are definitely suspicious in terms of them sounding like Password reset questions and inappropriate.

I'd add something like: "For the next Town Hall, I still want to keep the communication open and anonymous - I feel this is best for people who want to ask difficult questions and I want everyone to know that I won't shy away from the hard answers. In light of that - if you want to ask a question, I'd like you to keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Is the question related to the Business?
  • Is the question about something that is hindering my ability to do my job?
  • If the question is about me personally, is it something related to how I do my job?
  • Is the question about something that is affecting you at work?

These are the sorts of questions that I need to hear from you so that I can help remove roadblocks and issues for you so that you can do your job to the best of your ability and without unnecessary headaches."

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    Sound bite version: the phrase "clearly communicated expectations" solves at least 90% of problems. Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 20:17
  • In light of the stated purpose of OP to be open to questions this is much better than Job_septembers answer which essentially recommends to only answer questions management likes to answer.
    – quarague
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 8:18
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When I finally got to "how many teeth do you have?"...

Surely it would have made sense to have reviewed the anonymous submissions first?

The best solution would probably to have announced them as a block, and then asked those responsible to be more professional next time.

As a fallback, simply ignoring questions that are obviously ridiculous, would not have detracted much from the principle that you would accept and answer anonymous submissions.

You could also have turned the situation to your advantage, since this round of questioning (if it is not followed up by recriminations) is possibly the strongest signal both that the questions are anonymous, and that people can ask anything.

The best way to recover in the next round, would be to prepare to show a certain weary humour about it all (if you can't control the annunciation of the questions) and simply make some kind of flippant remark (e.g. "next!") and move to the next question.

Or if you can control the annunciation, then compile the least useful (and potentially most funny) questions for a final remark about what you don't want to see.

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Have a dedicated person run and moderate these meetings.

"Colleagues, welcome to our ask-me-anything meeting with <your-name-and-title>. <Your-name>'ll start with a short talk about where we're standing, and meanwhile you're more than welcome to send your questions to this chat. There's an option to ask anonymously, too. We'll try to cover as many questions as possible in this session, with remaining questions addressed in the follow-up email."

And then once you've done with your presentation, it's the host who monitors the stream of questions, picks the question and reads it out loud to you. And you only answer those questions picked by the host (answering every decent question later in an email, as promised, of course).

With this approach, you don't even have to read that chat. It's the host who scrolls through the chat, filters out duplicate questions and not-really-questions, and makes the meeting more focused overall.

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Managing a Q&A session is a teachable skill. Much like running a meeting you need to get people to come to the point quickly, and you need to be prepared to say "that's (off topic or out of scope) for this meeting but I'll be glad to (discuss it later, refer it to the appropriate person, find the answers and get back to you,...)". Or even "I don't know but I'll be glad to (etcetera)".

There are lots of resources that address presentation skills, and most of them get at least into the basics of Q&A management.

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I'm not sure why it hasn't been considered but - did you stop to think why people might be submitting these questions? The idea that someone would be fishing so publicly for personal details to hack you is somewhat absurd to me.

What's far more plausible is that people don't feel like there's anything to get out of these sessions and they're putting down questions like some tax return form or something. We all get the "your opinion matters" mantra for every single company survey I have to go through, but I don't actually see something tangible change at the end.

If people believe that their questions and feedback will lead to tangible changes then perhaps you'll get more meaningful questions because people will engage with the process. It seems like your predecessor has put you on a back foot here, but showing that you have some robust process to address questions with more than words might make people engage properly with the process.

If the company doesn't seem to take questions seriously, why should the employees ask serious questions?


As Owen Reynolds points out in the comments, there's the case of "poor Quartley earnings". Here's a scenario:

The employees fear for their own job security but perceive the wage gap between them and your level of management to be too large. They might go but management is paid a lot and are safe (and, with your predecessor in place, took decisions against their wisdom). Given that the theme of all the ridiculous questions are around your identifying info for financials, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch that they're making a statement here.

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  • The OP's answer to the "poor quarterly earnings" Q is probably revealing here. My experience has been the Town Hall answer is "don't worry", while the real answer is "substantial cost savings, details being kept secret until the next shareholders' meeting". Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 19:42
  • Even worse @OwenReynolds it could be an open, yet "joking", statement of "I'll take your salary, then" that could be being shared amongst staff. For sure it seems like there's some real friction here that needs to be addressed
    – roganjosh
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 19:46
  • Excellent response. I'm guessing the organization is large enough that there are middle managers between the OP and frontline employees. Perhaps people submitted extra, silly questions because they were being pushed by middle managers to fill a quota? This could especially be the case if morale were low and people skeptical that management will implement any meaningful change. Or if they are swamped with corporate communications and surveys that seem irrelevant. Or maybe one annoyed employee submitted thirty.
    – Adam Burke
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 3:20
  • I would add that though I appreciated them sometimes, I usually found town halls a very heavyweight and unwieldy format as an employee. They are more popular at American multinationals, it seems, and sometimes it felt like every senior manager above a certain level felt they needed to do one every quarter. I would start getting a bit sarcastic under those circumstances.
    – Adam Burke
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 3:33
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If you read a question, followed by an answer, then I would for example read”how many teeth do you have” and answer “very funny”. Maybe “very funny. No, actually not.”

A question like that is stupid, unfunny, and unprofessional. I would want the audience to know what kind of question people ask, with no further reaction.

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Allow the questions to be voted on by everybody.

Various platforms support this and it would let other employee's signal out the important questions.

If 50 employee's want to know how many teeth you have over every other question, take that for the signal it is.

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    To say the same thing as @Joe in slightly more words, that only works if the majority of the employees feel that "getting answers from you to important business questions" is more important than "making fun of you and your silly town hall." (And it might actually take a significant supermajority due to vote splitting.) As a newcomer trying to institute a new collaborative practice while dealing with both change resistance, general cynicism towards management initiatives and what appears to be significant hostility inherited from your predecessor, I wouldn't count on having that. Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 14:03
  • The goal of OP was to communicate that they are open to any question. If the employees feel it's better to know the manager's mother maiden name than "Are we going to get a pay increase next year?" it's still positive to answer the "silly" answer.
    – Ángel
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 14:52
  • @Ángel nobody cared about OP's mother's maiden name. It was a joke. And very likely one without ANY malicious intentions.
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 17:28
  • I think the comments must have misunderstood? Questions are submitted anonymously, colleagues vote anonymously and the questions are answered in order within a time window of 30 minutes or something. I've seen and done this at different companies and it's worked great.
    – Tom
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 12:01
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    @Hobbamok: maybe I wasn't clear. If they prefer that the OP answers a joke question than a serious one, that's still positive showing that OP is really willing to answer all kind of questions.
    – Ángel
    Commented Jan 3, 2023 at 22:43
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How you handle those questions will help set the tone for future meetings. Hiding from those questions or blocking them could just cause the same people to submit those or similar questions for the next meeting.

To fix this, I've started a campaign to really push for an encourage questions and open communication.

This is a good plan and can do a lot for your relationships in the future, this model can build trust between you and your organization.

I would suggest handling those questions in a light hearted way and moving on. It's OK to have fun with questions like that, it can show that you are human (something employees don't always believe of their managers) and create a friendlier, more collegial environment.

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  • I think the OP may have lost their opportunity by allowing the company joker to win the first round of questions.
    – Simon B
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 15:46
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I love your approach but would not have said that I would answer all, rather all business related questions. Perhaps you can use last presentation as an argument for reason to not answer all questions next time, if you like.

When you mentioned inappropriate questions I never imaged what you got.

By the way these questions, as I am sure you recognize, are common security identification questions for some online services; normally for Password reset.

They could be trolling. They could also be nefariously attempting to make public, data which could allow identity theft.

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  • LOL, I know I know. There are some nuggets out there that do not work like the rest of us. We only dismiss the absurd until it happens. In this case I defn think troll, because the presenter said they would answer anything. Anything work related. Work related. Business related LOL happy holidays.
    – Chris
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 14:35
  • Hey OP never actually said the questions were answered, only that they were asked.
    – Chris
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 19:12
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    These questions were not trolling. They were just a joke that flew over OPs head. Trolling requires the INTENT of causing distress/annoyance. Lighting up the mood in an otherwise boring meeting is not that. Of course, that's just my interpretation but OP and your interpretations are horrifyingly hostile and directly assume malevolence
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 17:22
  • I run through what I would ask if I wanted to joke. I concluded i would only ask one question, and it would be something off the shelf like "do you think UFO's are real?". I would not ask 4 or more questions and they would not be the type of questions asked. I cannot help but view it like this. Do the experiment yourself: what joke questions would you put to your CEO (assume it is not you) in a public forum?
    – Chris
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 21:11
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    When I read someone had asked "what is your mother's maiden name?" I genuinely LOL-ed. If I'd wanted to ask a joke question, and I'd thought of it, I would totally have asked those questions Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 21:53

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