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The OCR Glossary

Anonymity and Privacy

Craig R. Scott

Anonymity and privacy both involve some degree of information concealment. Such concealment or the failure to keep information anonymous or private can influence various assessments of reputation. Anonymity and privacy may be especially relevant in online settings, but they are linked to reputation in various offline settings as well. This entry defines anonymity and privacy and discusses how they relate to organizations’ reputations.


Anonymity is the absence of identity; to be anonymous means to be without a name. More accurately, it is the degree to which a message source is unknown—suggesting also that perceptions of anonymity by the different parties involved are quite relevant. In the United States, anonymity is seen as part of one’s basic right to free speech; however, there are also strong norms demanding accountability that serve to limit the role of anonymity. Any anonymous communication is complex because it is associated with both positive and negative outcomes. When it comes to issues focused specifically on reputation, anonymity may be used in ways that inappropriately damage one’s good reputation or allow one to appropriately question an undeserved reputation. Moreover, organizational members using anonymity may not be able to draw on their reputation for credibility—though the use of anonymity may very well be to protect one’s reputation from attack. Pseudonymous communicators, who have a consistent identity that is otherwise unlinked to a specific person, may be better able to establish a reputation than completely anonymous communicators.

There are several contexts where anonymous communication is linked to reputation. For example, a variety of customer feedback reputation mechanisms may be anonymous, and those ratings are very important in establishing the reputation of online businesses. Anonymous posts made through such review mechanisms or on various complaint sites can affect the reputations of both the poster and the target of the online comments. A competitor or a disgruntled employee, for example, may post negative comments online that could damage the reputation of the organization. However, such posts may also be tracked by IP (Internet Protocol) addresses and other identifying information. If the contributor of an anonymous comment is identified, then the reputation of that person and his or her organization may be damaged if the anonymous comment appears to be false or at least questionable. If individuals or companies feel that their reputations are unfairly damaged by inaccurate comments online (aka cybersmearing), they may even sue or threaten legal action for defamation. However, when posts are made anonymously, additional steps may be needed to identify the person making the comments.

Another area where anonymity links to reputation is in whistleblowing, where organizational members (current or former) report some alleged wrongdoing to third parties who have the power to address such claims. Whistleblowing poses great potential risk to corporate reputation because the allegations potentially reveal scandal or other problems to a broader public. In one of the few studies investigating anonymity and reputation together, James Hunton and Jacob Rose examined the reactions of audit committee members as they assessed a whistleblowing allegation. Notably, they found that even though anonymous channels may help members decide to report wrongdoing, they are less effective because they are viewed as less credible. Furthermore, when the whistleblowing allegation represented a potentially high reputation threat to the respondents, they rated anonymous allegations as even less credible and devoted fewer resources to address them.

Anonymity may also be used to hide entire organizations that wish to conceal their identity or the identity of their members. For these anonymous organizations, reputation may be harder to assess given the lack of information. Also, their hiddenness/secretiveness may be the basis for their reputation, they may enjoy stronger reputations in contexts where anonymity is valued, they may have a reputation that is harder to protect legally, and local reputation among other anonymous organizations may matter far more than any sort of public/general reputation.


In the U.S. legal system, libel, slander, or injury to one’s reputation all represent privacy violations. Thus, it is not surprising that privacy is an important issue when it comes to reputation as more information is recorded and distributed through the Internet, social media, and mobile phones.

As one point of intersection, organizations are increasingly expressing interest in what may be viewed as the private behaviors of current or potential members. For example, many organizations “cybervet” potential employees—accessing what was once viewed as private information to assess an applicant’s reputation (and protect the company’s reputation). Additionally, organizations have become increasingly concerned that an employee’s private behavior may tarnish a company’s reputation if such actions can be linked back to the organization; however, it can be difficult to convince arbiters/courts that private behaviors are linked to company reputation in most cases.

Perhaps of even greater concern, data privacy and data breaches represent an increasingly challenging reputational issue for many organizations. Organizations that are hacked or that otherwise fail to protect consumer privacy may acquire a negative reputation as a result. Over the next 20 years, data privacy is expected to become an issue that can make or break reputations. There are now corporate privacy rankings, and a growing number of organizations have chief privacy officers—both of which point to the importance of privacy issues when it comes to reputation. P. B. Hirsch suggests four key actions for most corporations related to reputation and privacy: (1) create a data privacy officer, (2) establish a data privacy bill of rights, (3) provide annual data privacy reporting, and (4) engage in broader conversations about data privacy.

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Hunton, J. E., & Rose, J. M. (2011). Effects of anonymous whistle-blowing and perceived reputation threats on investigations of whistle-blowing allegations by audit committee members. Journal of Management Studies, 48, 75–98.

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See Also

Corporate Identity; Transparency; Whistleblowing

See Also

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