page contents

The Power of Anonymity: Why it is Necessary to the Health of Company Culture

 In my seventeen years as a priest, counselor and consultant there is one ingredient that, in my opinion, has held true throughout our history concerning the human condition and that is the necessity of a person to feel safe.  If there is no real feeling of safety, from the home, school, work you name it, real solutions when problems arise have very little hope of being truly resolved.  This is so for the obvious reasons, the TRUTH of whatever that particular problem/situation has not been fully revealed so to try and remedy what you don’t know is impossible.

Jack Welch in his book on turning GE into an entirely new and profitable company stressed this fact.  He used over and over again the word “candor” as the necessary tool for positive changes to happen.  He made it very clear that his door was always open and that there was no one person’s opinion on something that was any less important than another.  Also, and even more importantly, he assured all his employees that their honest opinions and ideas would never be met with consequences.  In fact, if GE were to survive, he had to access this “data” held in the minds of all his employees and “mine” them for new and better solutions to turn the company around.  He had no false sense of grandeur that he was going to do it on his own.

It is in this light that we must face the disease of addiction in the workplace head on.  Companies that know they have an issue with substance use, abuse, and the disease of addiction need to know that in a culture of fear, there leaves little chance for the person suffering, either directly or indirectly, to come forward on their own.  For many companies and their employee’s, it ends with negative consequences.  People get fired, injured on the job, healthcare costs increase and liability issues abound, just to name a few.

I spent many years in active addiction in a variety of companies and the last thing I was ever going to do was ask for help, not because I did not think I needed it, but for much deeper reasons. 

There was the obvious reason of not wanting to lose my job, the security of a paycheck and all the other reasons that most people understand.  What many people who are not educated on the disease of addiction do not understand, however, is the exact reason I kept my mouth shut.  I did not know how to stop drinking and I had no idea that if I asked for help it was even available and safe to do so.  More than this, however, was how I was going to be perceived by my employer and fellow employees.  I was so filled with guilt and shame about my drinking, I would have rather just quit.  I had no understanding or memory of any company policy that said I could come forward with complete anonymity and be offered help with my disease of addiction.  In fact, I did not even know it was a disease and that my brain chemistry had been forever changed.  I was uninformed and hopeless.  Moreover, I did not believe that my employer had any idea of how to handle the situation, but resigned myself to the belief that if I was found out I would be fired.  What did my company even really know about the disease of addiction and what were their policies regarding it?

This is the reality of millions of people in the workforce today, and it raises a myriad of questions for employers, but let’s stick to the main point of this blog.  Feeling safe and knowing I can remain anonymous and get help are the bedrock of how the pandemic we are in begins to be remedied.  I have yet to meet a person in recovery, from every walk of life there is, that has not experienced these fears on their road to their own recovery.

In closing I would like to illustrate this point by relating experiences I have been grateful enough to share in when I volunteer to speak and educate high school students on the disease of addiction.

I was brought in to speak to health classes at a local high school.  The students were engaged and survey’s reported that the presentations were well-received.  The real gift, however, came after the classes had ended.  Almost every period I would have at least one student ask if they could speak with me privately, and it was in those conversations that I was able to offer solutions and let them know I would be happy to help them anonymously.

I want to be clear that at the end of these conversations with students, I went through the usual, prudent response.  I asked them who else knew, if they have discussed their parents, family members, teachers, counselors, coaches or any other faculty about their problem.  The response was made clear from all of them , “I don’t want them to know because I am afraid of the consequences I would face”.  I said I understood and assured them that what was said to me was going to be held in the strictest confidence, (as long as there was no harm to self or others).

This is the human condition, not only for high school students, but across the board.  If people do not feel safe in revealing information about their issues with drug and or alcohol misuse, or the effects on employees if a co-worker is struggling with Substance Use Disorder, crucial information will never come to light.  Anonymity, being made very clear in a company’s policy is a start, but it needs to be taken further.  There is too much at risk for information to remain unnecessarily in the dark.