It’s great to receive glowing feedback about your company. Unfortunately, no business is immune to negative internet comments that can plague online reviews. And former employee reviews can be especially hard to take, particularly if they feel unwarranted.
Learning how to navigate this part of managing your employer brand is important not only for your company’s reputation but also to help you minimize negative online chatter in the first place. (And although this article focuses on online reviews by former employees, many of the strategies apply to reviews by negative current employees, too.)
Understanding why former employee reviews happen
When you discover a former employee has reviewed your workplace negatively, you may feel shock or embarrassment. Anger may rise up, too. The remarks may feel like a betrayal by one of your own – like dirty laundry laid bare for anyone on the internet to see.
Negative employee reviews commonly target and criticize a company’s:
- General working conditions
- Flexibility and work-life balance
- Quality of assignments and projects
- Opportunities for growth and promotions
Why do former employees feel compelled to post negative reviews?
Because they feel wronged in some way – whether their grievances are legitimate or not – and want to get back at your organization. This is their form of revenge for:
- Being treated in a way they didn’t like
- Not getting something they wanted
Make no mistake – these former employees want to do harm to your organization. Their goals are often to:
- Warn prospective job applicants against joining your company
- Turn off customers from your company
- Impair your company’s reputation
In truth, these reviews do have the potential of accomplishing these goals. Depending on how the review is written and the nature of the complaints that are raised, a negative review may sway the opinion of job candidates, prospective clients or even otherwise neutral third parties. Others may think, “Well, this former employee no longer works for the organization and has nothing to lose. There’s a good chance they’re speaking the truth, and I don’t want to be associated with this organization.”
Yet handling negative reviews from former employees in such a public forum as the internet poses certain challenges and questions, including:
- Should you respond?
- What should you say?
- What if the former employee counters back?
- Who will other people believe?
- How many people currently working for your organization feel the same way as the negative reviewer?
These questions are important. You may have other considerations, too, depending on your field or community. And each individual comment may trigger new concerns.
Still, there are some essentials to bear in mind when tackling this problem, including planning ahead so that you aren’t caught wholly unprepared.
Follow your response policy
If you already have a response policy in place, then you’ll have established guidelines for responding to negative employer reviews. Typically, this won’t be its own separate policy. It’s often part of a larger brand-management policy or a policy governing social media and internet use.
When you’re in the heat of the moment dealing with a negative review, however, you don’t want to be thinking about this type of policy for the first time. Having a response policy in place helps minimize the risks related to taking rash actions that can inflict more harm on your business.
When it comes to monitoring and responding to online comments, you always want to have a proactive, rather than a reactive, mindset. Even if your business hasn’t received a negative review yet, it’s likely you’ll receive one at some point. Indeed, as your business grows and your employee population increases, it’s almost inevitable. And that’s one more reason why it’s wise to create a response policy.
- Your policy should identify who – or which job title – is responsible for crafting responses. Typically, responders may include:
- Someone with experience in media relations, brand management, social media management or customer service
- A senior-level manager
- Human resources (HR) staff member(s)
You could also have a response team comprising professionals from HR, management and/or one of the areas of expertise referenced above. In this type of partnership, HR can act as an advisor.
The important thing is that this person, or people, can be unbiased when evaluating the statements made in negative reviews. In other words, the person who evaluates and makes a response shouldn’t be directly involved with the complaint or at risk of allowing emotions to impact their response.
- Clarify whether responses should be posted under the company’s name or the specific responder’s name. Although using a company name makes it clear that it’s an official response, it can also look impersonal and anonymous.
Having an actual person respond using their own name can appear more personalized and vulnerable – in a good way. It’s putting a name and face on the individual who’s taking a stance on behalf of your organization and demonstrates transparency and commitment. If you go this route, just be sure to have responders reference the name of the company and their job title, and make it clear they’re responding on behalf of your organization.
- Delineate between scenarios that require a response versus a mere acknowledgement. You shouldn’t ever completely ignore a bad review from a former employee, lest someone else think your silence means that an allegation is true or your company just doesn’t care.
But not every review requires a full public response. For instance, maybe a response could put your organization at a disadvantage in a legal proceeding, or a former employee’s complaint is so insignificant and minor that it probably won’t cause serious harm to your organization and isn’t worth spending much time on. Define those circumstances in which a full response should be mostly taken offline.
- List and describe the precise steps that should be taken prior to responding. This may include:
- A decision tree or other tool to help determine when some comments warrant additional consideration (e.g., matters that may require legal counsel)
- Outline of how internal investigations on matters raised in reviews should be carried out
Clarifying steps can also help staff who might need to step in for the designated responder due to vacation, illness or job vacancy.
- Establish standards for professionalism in responses. We’ll discuss this in greater detail later, but it’s important to set the right professional tone to manage the company’s reputation and prevent negative conversations from escalating further.
- Establish a desired timeframe for responding to former employee reviews. You don’t have to respond to every negative review in a rush, before you have all the information you need to write an appropriate and effective response. In fact, it’s probably better not to respond immediately – in any way other than “we acknowledge your concerns and are investigating” – to allow yourself time to cool off and organize your thoughts.
But you don’t want to wait too long either and, again, allow other readers to think the reviewer’s allegations are true or your company doesn’t care.
Monitor the internet continuously
Be aware of all the major sites on which your company could be the target of former employee reviews and maintain a company profile on them.
- The most popular sites for reviewing companies include:
Additionally, Google Reviews and Facebook are both growing in prominence as a place for former employees to review workplaces.
But these sites just scratch the surface of where your company could be a topic of discussion online. That’s why you should set up Google Alerts so that you receive notifications when your company is mentioned in the news or in blog posts – including within the comments section.
It can also be a good idea to monitor your competitors’ reviews to gain more insight into what resonates with your target employee market – and know what mistakes to avoid.
Investigate the problems raised
If a negative review uncovers potential issues you weren’t aware of and they’re sufficiently concerning, find out what’s going on within your organization and uncover the root causes before you compose a response.
A few good practices to keep in mind:
- Rely on your company’s complaint resolution process or grievance policy as you carry out your internal investigation.
- Have someone who’s neutral and unbiased lead the investigation. In some cases, it can be helpful to insert additional objectivity by bringing in an outside HR specialist, professional employer organization (PEO) or employment lawyer.
- Consult with HR or legal specialists, especially if allegations from former employees involve discrimination or harassment, or any other ethical or legal breaches.
If the claim proves true, you want your response to be well informed and meaningful in the sense that you can explain the steps you’re taking to control and remedy the situation. You also want to make sure you’re not unintentionally exposing your organization to adverse legal action.
Respond professionally and maintain positivity
Once you’ve had time to examine the complaint and decide on a course of action to address it, you’re ready to craft your response.
You don’t want to let a bad review sit unaddressed on the internet for too long. A good rule is to respond to former employee reviews within two weeks. (It’s also acceptable – and encouraged – to respond immediately to let the reviewer and wider internet audience know that you’re taking the complaint seriously, are investigating and will report back in a timely manner with a more detailed response.)
No matter how angry or annoyed the former employee’s review made you, remain professional and adopt a measured tone. Some tips:
- Don’t get defensive.
- Don’t engage in back-and-forth arguments.
- Convey empathy and respect for the former employee.
- Be transparent.
- Stay objective.
- Offer a solution, if one exists, or express a commitment to improve.
- Be personal – don’t stick to a canned script that you’ll use over and over again, because it appears disingenuous.
- Thank the former employee for offering helpful feedback (if appropriate).
- Invite the former employee to contact your company to discuss their concerns in greater detail, and provide a point of contact.
If you get aggressive or combative in your response, it will make you and your organization look worse than the negative review itself. It certainly won’t stop the former employee from continuing to badmouth your company, and it will lead others to conclude that there are deeper problems within your organization if that’s how you engage with others online. Don’t prove the negative reviewer right.
Instead, you want all readers of this online interaction – including the negative reviewer – to get the impression that your company:
- Cares enough to listen
- Takes the time to investigate issues
- Is humble enough to admit mistakes, if they’ve been made
- Is willing to fix problems
As you respond, try to shift your attitude from “This is a hassle and a terrible thing” to “This is an opportunity to obtain insight into our employee relations and identify problems within our organization before they get bigger, as well as engage in good PR and impress third parties with how we handle conflict.”
In short, stay positive. After all, “bad reviews” aren’t necessarily all “bad.” And no company is perfect.
Resist enlisting current employees to counteract negative reviews
It’s tempting to think that if only you could ask current employees to add more positive reviews of your company online, they’d drown out the other negative reviews and make everything better.
But that’s not always the case. In fact, that can be a risky move.
Sure, positive reviews are great. More positive reviews may help your overall “score” on review sites. But directly asking current employees to post positive reviews is generally a bad idea. Why? For starters:
- Suddenly flooding your company’s profile on review sites with effusive praise can make it look like you’re tampering with your profile in desperation. It’s pretty obvious to everyone else when a review is genuine versus over the top, fake or forced.
- You don’t want your current employees to feel coerced into leaving a positive review, as though they have no choice and they’ll face retaliation for not complying. It’s a tricky situation to ask them to leave a positive review and have them not feel pressured to follow through and perhaps uneasy about the request.
You could offer more subtle encouragement for employees to leave reviews, such as posting a link to your company’s Glassdoor profile on the home page of your company Intranet. But this introduces the risk of inviting more negative reviews. Who’s to say whether your employees would leave a positive or negative review? When it comes to posting reviews, the negative voices are always loudest and most eager to speak up.
It’s best to let employees who want to post positive reviews do so voluntarily.
Be proactive about preventing negative reviews
Enhance your workplace culture to focus on and be responsive to employee needs. One way to do this is to engage in more two-way communication and keep a pulse on the climate of your organization so that you can address any issues earlier and not get caught surprised. You want your people to feel heard in the present so that they’re less likely to vent on a public forum later on.
- Have a process in place to enable employees to share their thoughts and feedback on an ongoing basis – including anonymously, if that makes them more comfortable.
- Conduct more formal annual employee surveys to gauge their satisfaction levels and identify any concerns.
- Maintain an open-door policy with employees, in which they know they can always come to you or their direct manager with any issues related to the workplace.
Any time an employee resigns from your organization, take steps to make sure they leave on a high note and avoid burning bridges with soon-to-be-former employees.
Before employees depart from your organization, conduct an exit interview. To make it worthwhile and better your chances of obtaining more honest, valuable feedback, consider using a PEO or external consultant to facilitate the interview. You can also allow the employee to write down their thoughts on their own time versus engaging in a live, face-to-face discussion that could be potentially awkward.
Summing it all up
Handling negative former employee reviews comes with clear do’s and don’ts.
- Monitor your company’s presence on review sites and in online discussions.
- Have a response plan.
- Investigate claims made by reviewers.
- Stay professional, objective and empathetic.
- Offer a solution or commit to improve.
- Focus on your workplace culture and employee relationships.
- Get defensive or argumentative.
- Miss the learning opportunity or overlook the positive outcomes that negative reviews can provide.
- Push current employees for positive reviews.
Want to find out how to further reduce your chances of becoming the subject of a former employee’s rant? Download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to being a best place to work.