Ben Lamarche, general manager of Lock Search Group's offices across Canada and in Boston, once found out that one of his 35 employees was badmouthing the company on an anonymous internal platform. Instead of immediately reacting and responding to the criticism, Lamarche delicately approached the situation with empathy and reflection.
"We initiated a companywide conversation, providing a safe space for open dialogue, exploring concerns and collaboratively seeking solutions," he said. "It was a moment of collective growth, reinforcing our belief in transparent communication."
Employees badmouthing employers isn't new, but it's likely become more widespread as the number of forums for such feedback grows. Whether via an anonymous post like the one on Lock Search Group's internal network or on a site such as Glassdoor, which has 55 million unique monthly visitors and allows current and former employees to leave anonymous reviews about employers, feedback is ubiquitous. Social media is also full of employees talking negatively about their bosses and colleagues, either anonymously or openly.
But no matter where the derision takes place, one thing is certain: Employers have to respond appropriately and do what they can to prevent such badmouthing in the future. Here's some guidance on where to start.
Hold a One-on-One Meeting
Paul Falcone, a bestselling author who has served in a range of senior-level HR roles, once found out that a member of his team was criticizing him. He dealt with it by meeting with the person in private to verify the accuracy of what was said and to hear their side of the story.
Falcone said he reminded the employee "that respect and trust require openness and transparency" and that "future concerns or frustrations about me or the organization should be shared with me first so that we can discuss them together." This remedied the issue.
Kraig Kleeman, CEO and founder of staffing and recruiting company The New Workforce in Chicago, also discovered that one of his employees was belittling him. He became suspicious when he noticed vague social media posts by the person that seemed to be directed toward him and included unwarranted criticism.
"To confirm my suspicions, individuals who were firsthand witnesses to this person's negative comments contacted me so I could prepare myself and take action, if necessary," said Kleeman, who oversees 221 employees.
While Kleeman was concerned, he didn't take any rash steps. Instead, he asked a manager to conduct an informal meeting with the employee and listen to their feedback to determine what was going on.
"Recognizing that employees who engage in negative discussions often exaggerate issues is essential," he said. "Recognizing that there may be legitimate wrongs that are fueling exaggerated criticism is also possible. I train my managers to listen empathetically, respond thoughtfully, maintain a friendly and nonconfrontational tone, and attempt to parse truth."
Professionally Handle Negative Glassdoor Reviews
Sometimes, current and former employees leave negative reviews on Glassdoor. It's up to HR to respond in a professional way that reflects a positive company culture.
"Craft a polite and professional response to the review," Kleeman said. "Avoid becoming defensive or confrontational. Acknowledge the feedback and express your commitment to addressing any concerns. Present a balanced perspective by mentioning the positive aspects of your company as well. This shows that you value feedback and are open to improvement."
At Offices.net in Dallas, HR lead and Chief Marketing Officer Teresha Aird said she strives to respond to Glassdoor reviews with transparency and professionalism, and she urges other HR professionals to do the same.
"If you respond openly, acknowledge the feedback and highlight measures being taken to address concerns, it can help mitigate negativity," Aird said. "[Glassdoor is] a workplace review platform, but it also provides the opportunity to show both current and potential employees your commitment to growth and betterment."
In fact, responding to negative reviews on Glassdoor is "an art, a delicate balance between acknowledgment and improvement," Lamarche said. "We approach each review as a mirror reflecting areas of enhancement. A thoughtful, constructive response is our canvas, illustrating our commitment to growth and acknowledging the experiences of our current and former team members."
Conduct a 'Temperature Check'
If negativity is turning up in different corners of the company, this is a great time to conduct an employee survey to try to identify the causes. But before issuing the survey, HR should ask all people managers to conduct a "temperature check" of their teams to determine where employee sentiment stands.
"[Managers should] ask team members about the level of engagement and satisfaction that they're experiencing and what they're hearing from other departments," Falcone said. "Ask the critical question: 'Are you able to do your very best work every day with peace of mind?' "
Getting ahead of "corporate grapevining" and "stirring the pot" is important from time to time, but Falcone said it becomes crucial "when you begin to hear negative comments from multiple sources or from employees who are typically positive and pro-company."
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
To prevent negative feedback—or at least keep it as private as possible—ensure the lines of communication between employers and employees are clear, said Kate Walker, SHRM-SCP, an HR consultant in San Francisco who previously oversaw HR teams at Nintendo and the United States Tennis Association.
"Provide ongoing employee performance feedback conversations so that employees know how they're doing," Walker said. "Keep open lines of communication in all areas of the business. Pulse-check employee attitudes with an engagement survey. If there is transparency and open dialogue, there should be less to speak negatively about."
At Offices.net, the HR team holds regular feedback sessions, has created open-door policies and hosts team-building activities to ensure employees are valued and heard, which reduces the chances they will vent their frustrations externally, said Aird. She added that employee satisfaction is critical to the success of the company and something it doesn't take lightly.
"A company's most valuable asset is its employees," Aird said. "When they're content and feel integrated into the company's vision, they can become your biggest advocates. By addressing concerns and ensuring a nurturing working environment, more positive external communications will likely result."
Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.