There's no shortage of advice for how executives should handle a reference request about a former employee.
But what happens when the tables are turned and staffers—current and former—are weighing in on you, their former boss, on social media and on career advice sites like Glassdoor, Indeed and Fairygodboss?
Unfortunately, finding out what current and former employees are saying about you online—and fighting back if that feedback is toxic—is ground that C-level leaders don't normally cover.
Executives likely have a good grip on what customers think about their company. But former employees? Not necessarily.
"We all know our brand is what our customers say about us when we are not in the room," said Kathleen Quinn Votaw, the CEO of TalenTrust, a recruitment firm in Conifer, Colo. "But what about your applicants and your employees? Focusing on your employment brand to your high-value candidates and employees will distinguish you and your company as an employer of choice."
As long as executives manage their brand and respond positively to any comments and reviews, they are on the right track. However, if they ignore the reviews out there and dismiss the commentary, that might cast an unflattering fog over their company. "As leaders, we cannot ignore input—positive or negative," Votaw said. "We must respect the point of view given and respond with grace and dignity."
Other management experts agree that executives can't afford to be unaware of comments being made by them on social media.
"Today, everyone from politicians to professional athletes build, bolster or blunder their careers on social media," said James Guilford, founder and managing partner of Nevada-based CoWorks Leadership Strategist, whose clients have included Google, Microsoft, Mastercard and Procter & Gamble. "We see examples daily in the headlines. Every executive is merely one tweet away from disgrace."
In addition to causing damage to a company's professional brand, negative reviews can cause damage to executives' careers.
"At its mildest, negative comments about an executive can deter much-needed talent from seeking employment with the organization," Guilford said. "These comments, when read by potential clients, can result in lost revenue and partnership opportunities."
But that's not all, he said. At worst, executives who receive negative feedback can become subject to scrutiny from their company's board of directors—and potentially even be fired.
Where to Start Your Search
Social media sites and Web-based company review sites are the main channels for discontented employees and ex-staffers. Accessing and tracing these sites is easier than ever.
"Simply setting alerts to get notices when you are tagged in social media posts, or when you show up on search engines, is a quick and easy step to get insights about comments being made," Guilford noted. "Some platforms allow you to take preventative action by deactivating the ability to comment on your posts. "
Keeping an eye on employee review sites like Glassdoor and Indeed is another great avenue for controlling online review narratives.
"Check these websites about once a week," said Glen Bhimani, CEO and founder of BPS Security, a security services firm in San Antonio. "That's what I do, and it has worked out pretty well."
Additionally, keeping close tabs on your company's own social media sites can help you monitor your reputation.
"You can also keep track by keeping a log of your interactions with employees and their responses, since a careful analysis of this information can help you figure out how your employees feel about you before it ever gets to the online review stage," Bhimani said.
If you notice or even suspect that your name and reputation are being slandered online, get professional help to level the playing field.
"If your name is being slurred, my biggest suggestion is to get a reputation manager—a person who seeks out articles, reviews and public statements about you in order to respond to it and take control of the narrative," Bhimani said. "A reputation agent will help you to understand the narrative being constructed around you and then help guide you. Getting a specialist can really help."
For those executives affected by a personal vendetta, there are some specific ways to turn the tide.
"One of the most useful ways to counter the attack is to utilize LinkedIn," said Charles Catania, principal of New York City-based Branding with Chuck, an executive branding services provider. "Ask past employees to write a LinkedIn recommendation-oriented post focused on your leadership style. This is particularly effective because LinkedIn recommendations are everything that Glassdoor isn't—fully attributable to people with names, faces and, most importantly, reputations."
The first rule of fighting back against toxic posts and reviews online is to not view it as a fight at all.
"First, don't get angry," Votaw said. "Engage positively and express your point of view. We've all seen way too much digital fighting over the past few years. By rising above the vitriol, you're showing the public and your peers your real brand."
It's also helpful to do some self-reflection and ask yourself if there's any legitimacy to a negative post or review.
"It's certainly possible for a former employee to point out an uncomfortable truth that you can use to learn and grow," Guilford said. "This is important because it becomes more damaging to deny comments that are later revealed to have validity."
Additionally, an executive can respond to these comments directly—without vengeance or rancor.
"We see this a lot on sites like Glassdoor, where leaders address negative posts head on," Guilford noted. "Offering an apology for the experience the employee felt they had—instead of issuing a blunt denial—conveys openness and emotional intelligence. Also, politely presenting opposing evidence, such as programs your organization has in place to address the very issue about which the employee is complaining, is also effective."
Lastly, when responding to the commenter, always avoid using inflammatory or argumentative language.
"Never add fuel to the fire by blaming, name-calling or criticizing the employee's performance," Guilford added. "Remember, your response conveys your level of emotional intelligence and will be a direct reflection on both you and the organization."
Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2004).