Management sucks

Written by Suzanne Bowness

Imagine you’re at a cocktail party and overhear someone bad-mouthing the business you’ve worked so hard to build. You feel like decking the guy, but you know that’s a bad idea. So, what should you do? Ignore him? Ask someone on your staff to go over and start praising your firm?

Now, imagine how you’d feel if thousands of people were at the party and it was one of your own employees slamming your company. That’s the prospect raised by a new wave of websites that invite people to post anonymous reviews of their place of work. As these sites expand, they could exert a significant influence over how your company is perceived, especially by job seekers who don’t know anyone there. Online criticisms might deter good potential hires from considering working for you. Even many firms with fewer than 50 staff are being rated, with more added every day. If yours hasn’t been reviewed yet, it likely soon will be.

Geoff Whitlock, president and CEO of Lifecapture Interactive, knows about this new reality. His Toronto-based interactive marketing agency boasts an impressive client roster, including Roots, Microsoft and President’s Choice, and a ranking on the 2007 PROFIT HOT 50 list of Canada’s Emerging Growth Companies. Yet Lifecapture is also one of many firms having to deal with mixed reviews on Montreal-based RateMyEmployer.ca. At press time, six employees had rated Lifecapture — quite a few for a firm with about 20 staff and 10 contractors. The ratings span the range from one to five stars. Although positive reviews use descriptors such as “cutting edge” and call Lifecapture “an exciting and rewarding place to work,” one negative review claims that management “sucks,” and another calls the firm a “swet [sic] shop.”

As you fire up your browser to check out your own reviews on RateMyEmployer.ca, you’re probably wondering what you’d do in Whitlock’s situation. And rightly so. Even if most of your staff post positive comments, a few might attack your firm unfairly — or highlight genuine flaws. Or the contented majority of your workforce might not post anything, leaving the field to those who’ve taken a dislike to your company and see the site’s anonymity as a chance to get back at you. Because there’s less information available online about SMEs than big companies, job seekers might give more weight than they should to postings by disgruntled staff.

They’ll likely pay more attention to these sites as the stock of reviews grows. Since launching in January, RateMyEmployer.ca, the leading Canadian-only site, has posted 5,000 reviews on more than 2,000 firms, with 15 to 20 new reviews per day and 25,000 unique visitors per month. Sausalito, Calif.-based Glassdoor.com received more than 270,000 visitors during its launch month in June, and now ranks 11,000 companies in 80 countries, including Canada. Its growth is fuelled by US$3 million in venture-capital funding.

The model for these sites is New York-based RateMyProfessors.com, which, since its launch in 1999, has compiled reviews of more than one million profs in the U.S., Canada and U.K. Students routinely search its 6.8 million postings when deciding which classes to take. As they enter the job market, they see it as natural to read online comments when making key decisions, so they’re likelier than older workers to notice if your firm gets trashed on an employer-rating site. Or praised. These sites aren’t just for complainers; in fact, the average score on RateMyEmployer.ca is 2.95 out of 5, and there are plenty of positive comments.

The site’s founder, Manuel Francisci, is working on several upgrades to boost its traffic. (His main business, JobWings.ca, runs 16 specialized employment sites.) These include allowing visitors to rate the quality of the postings so the most helpful ones appear first, and adding searches by city and company size to make it easier to comparison shop. The site already permits searches by province and industry, allows five-star ratings on 20 company variables, from management to stress level, and includes a comment feature so other visitors can respond to reviews. It also has security measures to prevent a series of nasty or glowing posts from a single source.

So, what should you do if your firm is slagged on this kind of site? Whitlock is taking a calm view of the critical postings about Lifecapture. “We can’t always operate to everyone’s absolute satisfaction,” he says. “But for small companies like ours, the negative ratings help us grow and understand where our deficiencies are.”

Rather than monitor the site closely, he plans to focus on staying connected with his staff through weekly meetings: “We are very open with our team in-house, and we ask them for honest feedback on an ongoing basis.” And Whitlock says about 90% of his hires are by word of mouth, reducing the impact of negative reviews online.

Human-resources consultants advise caution if your firm takes a beating online, posting replies only to address specific factual points. “If people are disgruntled because they can only roll over two weeks’ vacation, that’s a policy and doesn’t require a response,” says Monika Morrow, a Toronto-based practice leader in career transition at Right Management Canada. “But if someone is saying something negative and untrue about, say, your firm’s ethics, I might want to post a response. However, I wouldn’t direct it to that particular person; instead, I’d say something about my company and philosophy.”

Mike Salveta, president of Mississauga, Ont.-based Pivotal Integrated HR Solutions, warns against tainting the value these sites offer job seekers by asking your staff to post positive comments. He also urges CEOs to resist the temptation to post positive ratings in the guise of an employee. Not only is this unethical, says Salveta, but visitors to these sites would likely spot fake comments and think poorly of a firm that resorts to this tactic.

There’s another way you could counter negative postings: invite all your employees to post honest comments, whether good, bad or indifferent. If most of your staff like their jobs, the positive comments will swamp the few negative ones. And the volume and range of comments will make the reviews of your firm more credible.

Salveta believes you should keep an eye on the ratings sites as a source of unsolicited feedback — although taking into account the number of comments and whether a development at your firm, such as closing a department, has skewed the ratings. But, he says, most of your energies are better spent elsewhere. Your first priority should be getting closer to your current employees via staff surveys, exit interviews and regular meetings to monitor their concerns. “These websites are popping up because not enough CEOs are spending the time to get the information from their employees,” says Salveta. “Most employees would love the opportunity to speak with their CEO or manager, or to provide feedback directly.”

He sees employer-rating sites as important, but likens them to a “cold referral” — one from someone you don’t know. Web users are savvy enough to be skeptical about the anonymity of a posting on one of these sites, says Salveta: “It will influence them, but it won’t tip the decision.”

Morrow says social-networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn have put a lot of information about businesses into the public domain. Ratings sites are just one more source for job seekers, and shouldn’t be their main one.

Employers should check these sites periodically — but rather than become obsessed with them, concentrate on overall employee happiness. “If employers are regularly taking the temperature of engagement in their organizations, comments on these sites should not be a surprise,” says Morrow. Your best strategy, she advises, is to work on your “employment brand,” which, along with salaries and benefits, includes intangibles such as relationships and a sense of connection with the company.

Some firms have taken a starkly different approach, launching lawsuits aimed at driving ratings sites out of business. A site for rating doctors in France suffered this fate just two weeks after its launch, and a U.S. site rating computer programmers was also forced to close. But the lawsuits have turned these sites into a free-speech cause. The computer-programmer site recently relaunched with help from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based free-expression advocacy group. Trying to suppress free speech on the Net has proven to be an uphill battle, so even if you loathe your firm being rated online, you’ll probably have to learn to live with it.

Geoff Whitlock has no problem with that. “If there’s something somebody feels they have to say, it’s a free world out there,” he says. “You can’t fight it; you have to embrace it.”

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com