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Anonymous Digital Entities

We Are Tempted to Be Less Considerate When Everyone Is Anonymous and There Are No Apparent Repercussions.

The golden rule says, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Most of us follow this advice with familiar others like family, friends and coworkers. If for no other reason, it keeps us from making enemies. However, when the other is anonymous, it is more tempting to do unto others as you would like.

Consider a typical road-rage encounter. One driver cuts off another driver. Maybe traffic is backed up in the far-right lane approaching an interstate off ramp. Someone drives along in the faster left lane, then as the exit ramp gets near, cuts in front of another driver who has been patiently creeping along in line for five minutes.

Of course, in a worst-case scenario, the driver in the pickup truck shoots the driver of the BMW. But more likely, the driver who is cut off blows the horn and makes an offensive hand gesture. Moments later the two cars are miles apart, and the drivers never see one another again.

Now imagine something like this happening without the anonymity provided by the automobile and the highway. One shopper has been waiting in line at the grocery store and another shopper ignores the line and cuts in just as the first shopper is about to get to the register. This almost never happens because the shopper who cuts in can’t speed away into anonymity. People in line are likely to get confrontational and the cashier may refuse to cooperate with the offender.

We are tempted to be less considerate when everyone is anonymous and there are no apparent repercussions.


Anonymity has led to some unkind practices in business. A colleague of mine applied for a corporate job outside Minneapolis. The company flew him in for interviews three times. They introduced him to future coworkers and even drove him around neighborhoods where he might buy a house. Then he never heard from them again – not even a text saying they hired someone else or that the search had been cancelled.

Another colleague had a similar experience applying for a dean position at a college. One minute she was being recruited, and the next they stopped responding to emails and taking her phone calls.

I was puzzled the first time I heard a story like this, but I hear these stories regularly now. Why? Because the job search is like the expressway. The company gets hundreds, maybe thousands, of applications through web-based search engines. It flies candidates in and out for interviews, and once the committee decides to hire someone, they just stop communicating with the other candidates. Once they stop flying the candidates in, they know they will likely never see them again. The candidates become ADEs – anonymous digital entities.

Internal Job Candidates

Compare this to how most companies handle internal job candidates who will continue to be coworkers even if they are not hired for the new job. Notification, words of gratitude and appreciation and positive feedback are required because the job candidate can’t be launched into anonymity.

We cut people off even more cruelly when we terminate them. An adjunct faculty member in my department was fired through email: “We will no longer need your services … have a great summer.” The department head hit enter, and presto, the colleague with 10 years on the job became an anonymous digital entity.

It is harder to fire someone who has an office down the hall, so the employee is called to the supervisor’s office, told the bad news, and a security guard is waiting outside the door with a box. The employee is walked to his office, fills the box with personal items, turns in keys and is ushered to the door where he becomes another anonymous digital entity.

Do we really need to humiliate our coworkers like this? How hard is it to say, “I am sorry things didn’t work out, please call if you need anything”?

Treating people like anonymous digital entities makes us hypocrites. Cutting off job applicants makes everything that was said during the recruiting phase of the process a lie. And marching coworkers out the door with their family photos in a box makes us liars every time we say to one another, “How are you?” or “Have a great weekend,” because we all know we are friends only as long as we have company email addresses and keys to the door.

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..