How Anonymity and Visibility Affordances Influence Employees’ Decisions About Voicing Workplace Concerns

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Chang M. Mao and David C. DeAndrea of Ohio State University. They recently published an article in Management Communication Quarterly entitled “How Anonymity and Visibility Affordances Influence Employees’ Decisions About Voicing Workplace Concerns,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they reflect on the motivation and impact of this research:]

What motivated you to pursue this research?

We are very interested in studying the extent to which the prevalence of communication technology in organizational settings encourages or discourages employees from voicing their concerns at work. Some evidence suggests that technology increases employee participation whereas other research suggests that technological surveillance dampens employee participation. We designed an experiment to examine how features of communication technology affect the degree to which employees view channels to voice concerns as safe and efficacious. We first obtained some interesting findings from a college student sample (study 1). Then we replicated our findings with a more diverse population (Study 2).

Were there any specific external events—political, social, or economic—that influenced your decision to pursue this research?

In 2017, thousands of people disclosed their workplace sexual harassment on publically available social media under the #MeToo movement. The proliferation of the movement emphasizes the importance of our research. We discussed how important it is for management to establish safe and efficacious communication platforms for employees to voice their concerns within the boundaries of an organization. The #MeToo movement reveals the existing problematic status of many organizations; employees feel unsafe or ineffective in pointing out the malpractices of their organizations. As a consequence, people may seek out other ways to express themselves, such as posting on publically available social media, which may result in a lose-lose situation; the individual would face greater personal risk and the organization would lose the opportunity to correct problems and may have to manage a more deleterious public image crisis.

Were there any surprising findings?

We found significant support for the opposite of two of our hypotheses. We hypothesized that the more anonymous or the more public a communication platform was perceived to be, the less effective the platform would be. But, the data suggested the opposite: the less anonymous and less public a platform was perceived to be, the more effective the platform was. Considering that all safety hypotheses were supported, whereas efficacy hypotheses were not, we have speculated that employees evaluate safety before efficacy when they decide whether to voice their concerns or not. That is, when employees feel as though a voicing channel is unsafe, they do not envision using the channel and thus do not begin to consider whether voicing their concerns will lead to desired changes. Thus we would remind practitioners to pay close attention to employees’ safety concerns when management wishes to encourage participatory decision-making at work.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

In this study, we adopted a perceived affordance lens to understand the effects of communication technology. In contrast to the inherent technology affordance perspective, the perceived affordance perspective emphasizes how people subjectively evaluate the qualities of communication technologies. We argue that what matters most is employees’ subjective evaluation of the communication platforms, such as the degree to which they perceive them be anonymous and the degree to which they believe their messages are private. We hope to emphasize the voluntaristic perspective of communication technology and its impact on organizational behaviors.

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