The Martin Agency has a burner phone staffers can call or text anonymous questions to

Agencies are obsessed with culture, which makes sense considering their biggest resource is their people. And feedback that goes both ways is a big part of an open culture. But solving for the problem of how to make sure employees can safely and anonymously provide feedback and ask honest questions can be a challenge.

The Martin Agency has a unique solution to the problem: A burner phone. It’s a spare phone procured from the IT department that has no directory and no way to save numbers. Employees can text or call in questions to the burner anonymously.

The agency’s chief operating officer, Beth Rilee-Kelley, said that the the agency did a town hall Q&A last summer and opened the floor to any employee who had a question for the executives. There were only two impromptu questions that came from the audience, which seemed a bit reticent to speak publicly. “We suspected that people don’t feel comfortable standing up and asking some questions,” so the idea of a burner phone came about from the agency’s CEO, Matt Williams.

The agency got a flood of questions — almost a hundred, according to Rilee-Kelley.

The burner phone
The burner phone

They included:

“Can we get a punching bag set up somewhere at the agency?”
“What’s happening with raises this year?”
“What is a good cultural fit for the agency in terms of a client?”

It’s a problem worth solving: Employees, especially younger ones, often have questions that they are too shy to shout out, or too embarrassed about. And employee feedback is valuable to agencies — which is why it takes what current and past-employees say on sites like Glassdoor so seriously.

Deep Focus, for its part, does anonymous surveys, while other places, like Vox, have a programmable Slackbot that anonymizes questions for the CEO. At mobile advertising company Kargo, executives do a Reddit-esque chat called “Power Hour,” after which people can send in questions either anonymously or using their names. “There’s no taboo, and people can ask anything. We want make them feel like they have enough ownership where they can have a material impact on the direction of the company by asking the right questions,” said founder and CEO Harry Kargman.

Which is precisely what motivated the Martin Agency, said Rilee-Kelley. “It’s OK to ask questions,” she said. “That’s what we have to tell people.”

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