Should You Respond to Negative Online Reviews?

Glassdoor and similar websites force firms to strengthen their employer brand

By Steve Bates Apr 1, 2016
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Having to respond to poor online reviews from former employees has been an issue at most companies for some time. But a rise in the number of critical comments by job seekers about the interviewing process and what it’s like to work at a company are putting more pressure on organizations to shore up their employer brands.

Websites such as Glassdoor, which has about 30 million monthly users, allow current and former employees to criticize or praise a company, typically through anonymous posts. Though many such sites screen critiques to prevent the posting of offensive comments and those that would disclose private information, they nonetheless present a conundrum for employers: Do you ignore criticism—even if it’s false—or do you respond to it? The former tactic can do severe damage to an employer brand; the latter can make an employer look defensive.

Employer review sites do the same thing that a site such as TripAdvisor does: Both give consumers independent advice. In the case of employer review sites, the consumers are job applicants. And in the war for talent, the applicants generally have the upper hand.

“We’re in a new age of transparency,” observed J.T. O’Donnell, CEO of Careerealism, a career advice firm based in Hampton, N.H.

“The result is a true insider view of the company for job seekers,” said Owen Tripp, CEO of San Francisco-based Grand Rounds, which provides employer-based health assistance to patients and families. This easily accessible insider view can be unnerving for employers, but “the avoidance strategy doesn’t work,” he added.

New Considerations of Today’s Job Seekers

In the past decade or so, applicants have changed the way they look for work. According to a report by CareerArc, a social recruiting platform based in Burbank, Calif., 94 percent of workers believe that negative comments on employer review sites damage an employer’s brand. Three-fourths of job seekers consider an employer’s brand before applying for a job, CareerArc found. Sixty-two percent of job seekers visit social media sites to evaluate an employer’s brand, yet only 57 percent of employers say they have an employer brand strategy.

Just over half of job seekers start their search by visiting an employer’s website, according to CareerArc. Seventeen percent turn first to people in their personal and professional networks. Fifteen percent start their search by visiting employer review sites such as Glassdoor. The rest begin by reading news articles or other means of research.

Regardless of the way that they start their search, today’s job seekers are thorough. A survey by Chicago-based job board CareerBuilder found that job seekers on average use nearly 18 resources during their job search.

While young people are particularly active users of employer review sites, “I don’t think it’s age-specific,” said Michael Hennessy, founder and CEO of recruitment marketing firm SmashFly, based in Concord, Mass.

Employer Brand Is Critical

Some employers are just beginning to recognize the importance of review sites and to focus on improving the way their brands are reflected online. “If you’re a company just waking up to Glassdoor, you can definitely move the needle,” said Hennessy. “Talent acquisition leaders are understanding that this is not a nice-to-have,” he added. “It’s the new norm.”

There is no single approach to managing a brand. “The employer brand will vary by market and skill set,” said Bryan Chaney, director of employer brand at job board Indeed, which is based in Austin, Texas.

Among techniques to enhance an employer brand:

  • Respond to online criticism in a way that shows that the organization is genuinely committed to improving.
  • Create intranets for employees to expose concerns internally before they turn to outside sites.
  • Ask current employees—including new hires—to comment about their application process and work experiences on review sites.
  • Mine online review sites for actionable aggregated data.

Tread cautiously, however, because encouraging employees to post on Glassdoor can backfire. If it looks superficial, “It can appear like you’re trying to strong-arm me,” said Yair Riemer, chief marketing officer of CareerArc, based in Los Angeles.

Collecting aggregated data from review sites is an emerging tactic. “Usually, employers say: ‘I don’t know what to do with it,’ ” but that’s changing, said Ursula Mead, CEO of InHerSight, an employment review site aimed at women based in Alexandria, Va. Rather than provide a single satisfaction rating on a scale of 1 to 5, InHerSight asks commenters to score companies across 14 metrics in order to provide “a much more balanced picture of a company,” said Mead.

Glassdoor also has a paid service permitting employers to extract aggregate data from its site, said Marc Cowlin, the firm’s director of employer communications.

HR as ‘Brand Stewards’

Still, employers don’t make their brand, they only nurture it. “Controlling your employer brand is almost an illusion,” said Chaney. As an organization, “you can influence it and you can reinforce certain aspects of it. But [individual] people have more to say about it.”

Said O’Donnell: “You don’t create an employer brand; you reveal it.”

Educating your workforce about the importance of the employer brand can help, said Chaney. “There’s a big gap in most organizations between what the employer brand should be and how it is communicated to internal employees and to job prospects.”

HR can play a vital role in managing the way job applicants view an organization, said Riemer. “Marketing departments need to start thinking of HR departments as strategic collaborators,” he said. “They are the brand stewards. They are the first point of contact.”

Clearly, the stakes are high for employers.

“Employers can’t get people to apply for their jobs. It’s because of the branding,” said O’Donnell. “Applicants don’t want to work for a company; they want to work with a company. They want a partnership.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

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