Behind the Curtain

As executive vice president of global HR at Protiviti, Scott Redfearn gets pinged several times a day by email alerts from the job site Glassdoor, notifying him that an employee posted an online comment about his consulting firm, which supports 5,000 employees in approximately 75 countries.

“With negative reviews, we find that often employees need to let off some steam,” he says. “We step back and look for overall trends to determine whether there is some underlying issue that we should be sensitive to.”

Most companies receive negative reviews–whether they admit it or not. Across all industries, employees post their opinions about their employment experiences on many job sites, covering topics ranging from their boss or job responsibilities to workplace environment. Their comments are not always productive or even accurate and, sometimes, are quite painful to read. Consider this employee’s post: “Unstructured environment, no processes in place, everything is done without thinking it through, zero company culture.”

Ouch. Still, negative comments should never be ignored and must be routinely monitored–since they can help improve your workplace culture, people and practices.

Typically, four HR staff members at Protiviti monitor job sites for all employee reviews–good or bad. For comments where a response is required, one is always given, either by HR or a representative of the department involved. Redfearn says those responding always thank the individuals for posting their comments, correct false assumptions and encourage employees who posted the comments to follow up by discussing their issue directly with an employee, such as a supervisor.

But some employers simply look the other way and ignore negative feedback. Bad idea. Redfearn says negative employee comments are not only accessible to the employer, but also to thousands, even millions, of other workers, and potential candidates.

“This feedback is visible for job candidates that you’re trying to hire,” Redfearn says. “If you don’t stay on top of it, don’t respond, it gets to be more of a daunting task [to manage].”

He adds that HR should encourage employees to comment on their work experience. “Let the chips fall where they may,” he says and, in the end, the feedback will “lift the work experience for your people and improve their morale and engagement.”

At Nestle Purina PetCare in St. Louis, Steve Degnan, vice president of HR, says roughly 7 percent of the company’s 200 reviews each year are negative, which he calls “clinkers.”

Transparency is a big deal at the company, says Degnan, who oversees approximately 7,000 U.S. employees at the company and thousands more throughout North and South America. The employees who respond to reviews vary depending on the topic. It may be a department head, someone from the talent-acquisition team or even Degnan himself. But the approach is consistent.

“The strategy is honesty and authenticity,” he says, adding that comments–positive or negative–may address terminations, politics, personality conflicts or frustration with promotions and are published in the employee newsletter.

Although some reviews appear to have no factual basis, Degnan believes they usually contain one kernel of truth. The takeaway, he says, is to perceive job sites as free engagement surveys that offer instantaneous data about your organization. Reviews generally offer valuable information to companies about blind spots, enabling them to fix or repair issues and better recruit and retain skilled workers.

Influential and Powerful

Make no mistake: Online reviews can either attract job candidates or push them elsewhere.

Glassdoor, for instance, sees an average of 50-million unique users each month. In nearly a decade, several-million employees have posted company reviews on the job site. Although the majority (73 percent) rated their employer with three stars or above using a five-star system, 27 percent of companies fell below three stars. Based on Glassdoor’s 2017 survey, 48 percent of its users read at least seven reviews before forming an opinion of a company.

Another job site–kununu–also invites employee feedback. Out of its nearly 600,000 reviews on 300,000 U.S. companies during the past two years, 42 percent of companies fell below three stars (out of five), according to a report released in February, says Moritz Kothe, the company’s CEO. The three lowest-rated industries include medical technology/biotechnology (averaging 2.77 stars), printing/packaging food and beverage items (averaging 2.76 stars) and manufacturing (averaging 2.73 stars). However, negative reviews have been on the decline, going from 66 percent in February 2016 to 51 percent the following year.

Count on negative reviews impairing your recruiting efforts. Last year, an auto supplier received bad reviews from temporary workers on various job sites. John Malloy, partner with international auto recruiter AutoKineto, was tasked with recruiting an accountant for the organization.

But candidates kept turning him down because of the online negative comments.

“Rather than walk away, we had to give them a pretty strong sales pitch about how the company made major changes,” he says. “People who knew us understood but were still skeptical. We took what was a totally black attitude and created a gray perception. It’s taking a long time to rebuild their reputation.”

Since most job candidates log online to read company reviews, Malloy says, it’s critical for employers to encourage employees to not only write honest reviews of their work experiences, but to include “real pizzazz.” Skilled employees or job candidates need to see those types of comments online before accepting a position.

Meanwhile, to prevent being surprised by online comments, consistently ask employees about their work experiences. Consider soliciting feedback at town halls, during exit interviews or performance reviews and even when communicating with retirees. If people believe their complaints are being heard and resolved, they’re less likely to post negative reviews.

However, Malloy says, employee comments are often distorted, making it very “dangerous” to defend yourself. For instance, he says, consider a company responding to a comment about a bad supervisor, stating it will “correct the situation.” Then imagine the supervisor reading the comment. No one wins. Instead, Malloy says, flip the comment around and reply with something positive.

“One of the things we’re really harping on with our clients is to have a regular set of [honest] positives on social media,” he says, adding that positive and negative reviews tend to balance each other out. “It’s not a matter of hoping your employees do it … . There’s got to be a strong campaign to make sure that occurs.”

Opportunity for Improvement

Reviews are oftentimes used to improve in-house practices. At Protiviti, each negative comment is sent to the department or employee addressed in the review. It’s evaluated and then a response is drafted if one is warranted.

The feedback has helped HR make some changes to the company’s benefit programs. As a result of online employee reviews, the company enriched its parental-leave policies and increased its 401(k) match.

When employees at Nestle Purina posted their perceptions about the long wait for employee promotions, Degnan says, HR developed communication initiatives to help employees better understand its talent-management and associate-advancement process and recommended options to better engage supervisors on the topic.

Likewise, American Public University System, a private online university in Charles Town, W. Va., that employs 2,808 faculty and staff, receives approximately three positive and two negative reviews every week.

The school is strengthening its communications tactics due to employee comments about insufficient communication about school changes, says Amy Panzarella, senior vice president of HR and community relations at the school.

“When there’s a change in motion … we need to make sure that we do a stellar job of communication–in person and email,” she says. “It might be ad nauseam but we’re going to [repeatedly] say it so that [employees] are very clear as to what lies ahead.”

Broad vs. Targeted Responses

Although negative reviews are often considered a “hot potato,” Protiviti responds to every one of them that calls for a response, says Redfearn.

One employee posted his opinion about the company’s vacation benefits, stating that they were “inferior.”

“We saw this as a chance to tell our side of the story, present an alternate point of view related to the facts,” he says, explaining that all comments not addressed by the company could be considered factually correct by a job site’s visitors. “We won’t let the word ‘inferior’ stand without at least presenting what our paid-time-off benefits actually are.”

Panzarella at APUS has also assigned several of her staff to monitor all company reviews on various job sites. They escalate all negative reviews that involve employees or job candidates to her and also partner with marketing to draft responses.

However, she says, the majority of responses tend to be broad instead of directed toward individuals. For example, in January, the school extended its customer-service hours since the majority of its 65,000 students work full time while some live in different countries.

Although this change was communicated to employees over many months, she says, some employees posted negative comments about how the school was creating a call-center environment. HR worked with marketing to craft a positive response that addressed how the additional service hours appealed to students, better accommodated their needs and reflected the school’s customer service-oriented brand.

In another review, an employee commented on the high cost of the school’s benefits. HR again responded generically by stating how generous and competitive the benefits package was for the industry and area. Panzarella says this approach repositions negative comments in a positive light by introducing facts.

“Our role in this organization … is to really take stock in those reactions,” she says, adding that negative reviews are typically more about employee perception than reality. “Instead of taking it personally, look at [negative reviews] as an opportunity to reiterate how you feel about employees and the value they add to the organization.”

Avatar photo
Carol Patton
Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at [email protected]