Business

How should employers respond to online criticism?

One of the Internet’s enduring cultural gifts is the ability to anonymously review just about anything, from that undercooked burger you had for lunch to the hotel bed that gave you a stiff back.

The corner office is not exempt. Today, plenty of websites make it easy for current and former employees to sound off about how a company is being run. And for executives bent on attracting the best talent, that means deciding whether to address the anonymous criticism or just tune it out and hope for the best.

Tom Erickson, chief executive of Boston-based Internet software provider Acquia, has taken a hands-on approach by personally responding to numerous reviews on Glassdoor, a popular website that lets workers publish anonymous assessments of their employers.

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While there’s often praise, the criticisms can sting. Last year, for example, someone who claimed to be an Acquia employee complained that the company “used to be a very collaborative, supportive environment, but we’ve lost quite a few great leaders over the past year-plus,” leading to “a very high school mentality.”

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Erickson’s response was diplomatic. “There’s no doubt that a lot has changed since we started the company only eight years ago,” he wrote. “We still highly value our team and are working hard to understand how we can continue to improve.”

That level of openness, Erickson said, stems partly from Acquia’s roots in the open-source software world, where the essential code is freely available and continuously modified by volunteers who review each others’ work.

“In a business like this, you have to be open and create an open culture, or there’s a big group of the team that’s going to be disenfranchised,” he said. “Which makes some finance and legal people very uncomfortable.”

Amazon.com is widely acknowledged as a pioneer in launching customer product reviews in 1995. The concept soon caught on, and eventually spawned entire businesses built around consumer-written reviews, such as TripAdvisor and Yelp.

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But reviews of the workplace took time to spread. Glassdoor, founded in 2007, was a pioneer in the field and now has millions of reviews on some 700,000 companies, attracting 41 million unique visitors monthly. Indeed, the top US job-listings website, introduced detailed company reviews in 2015 and said it now has 15 million posts.

Austrian company Kununu recently brought its review site to the US market in partnership with job-search site Monster, while startup InHerSight offers reviews specifically about a company’s environment for professional women.

Katie Burke, the human resources chief at Cambridge marketing software company HubSpot, said online reviews have quickly become a standard tool for people researching job openings.

“Candidates who don’t research us using Glassdoor are the exception. That’s how rapidly it’s grown,” she said. “The way people searched for jobs used to be controlled by the recruiter or the company, and now it’s in the hands of the candidate.”

Glassdoor investor Neeraj Agrawal, a Boston-based general partner at Battery Ventures, said he initially found it puzzling that the concept of job reviews hadn’t taken off sooner. “You could learn a whole lot more about the hotel you were going to stay at on TripAdvisor than you could about the company you might spend the next five or 10 years at,” he said. “That was surprising. It’s one of the biggest decisions of your life.”

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Sifting through online company reviews can feel a lot like parsing the sea of crowdsourced restaurant or product reviews. Some posts don’t give you much to work with, while other commenters seem like they’re merely venting about a job that wasn’t for them. But the most intriguing posts offer detailed, colorful takedowns of leadership decisions and company cultures.

In those cases, Erickson said, one of the most important steps is to embrace the criticism.

“It’s like couples therapy. It’s acknowledging that the other person has a point of view, and they could well be entirely correct. And in a public forum there’s no value, in my opinion, in stating that they’re not accurate,” he said.

That’s not to say that Erickson is totally in love with the Glassdoor process. Some reviews seem to be thinly rewritten variations of the same post, he said, raising questions about whether someone is setting up multiple accounts. In one instance, Erickson said, Acquia thought that a person critiquing the company was actually an employee who had been fired for questionable behavior.

“There are times when Glassdoor doesn’t accurately reflect reality,” he said.

Glassdoor does monitor company reviews, both with software tools that can flag suspicious-looking posts and a team of human moderators who can be alerted to take a second look, said Lisa Holden, an employer communications manager at the Mill Valley, Calif.-based company.

And although reviews can be anonymous, Glassdoor tries to ensure that account creators are authentic by requiring users to log in with an e-mail or Facebook account. Glassdoor also doesn’t allow anyone to post more than one review per company each year. Employers, who can pay Glassdoor to list jobs and company information on the site, are not allowed to dictate which reviews stay or go, Holden said. (Indeed offers the same assurance about its reviews.)

“We take it really seriously,” Holden said. “The reviews are our bread and butter, and the reason that our site is able to function.”

Management experts say responding to online reviews can be a sign of a good leader who isn’t afraid of unfiltered criticism.

Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, said honest feedback is key to helping leaders break out of “the CEO bubble” that keeps them isolated from the reality of running a business. Executives who seek honest feedback, he said, are less likely to be blindsided by a crisis.

“It’s the challenge of status that comes from either hierarchy or expertise,” Gregersen said. “As soon as you start getting into any kind of position where those things come into play, you’re automatically dealing with the challenge of other people trying to decide, ‘Should I tell this person the truth or not?’ ”

But experts caution that if employees take their concerns to a public website, it might be too late. That’s why some companies have invested heavily in their own feedback systems, such as regular in-person meetings with employees, or internal websites that solicit candid reviews.

“I guess you can put a Band-Aid on a bleeding wound. I’m not saying you shouldn’t. But if I’m a time-starved CEO. . . I’d be wanting to spend less time on the message boards and more time listening to employees internally,” said Rob Markey, who leads Bain & Company’s global customer strategy and marketing practice.

Both HubSpot and Acquia use internal surveys to solicit feedback, but they take things a step further. Acquia executives conduct roundtable meetings with groups of employees to get more detailed critiques, while HubSpot posts survey results on its internal website.

HubSpot also encourages people to write reviews on Glassdoor, Burke said — and not just if they’re having a good time. “The easy way to do review sites is to pay attention to the glowing ones that tell you exactly what you believe about the company,” she said. “People are having that water-cooler conversation about your company online, whether you engage or not.”

Curt Woodward can be reached at curt.woodward@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.