How Negative Employee Reviews Hurt Your Employer Brand – and How to Stop Them

negative reviews employer brand

We love to talk about ourselves and our lives: the things we eat, see, love, and especially what we hate. We watch what others watch, avoid what others dislike, spot trends, learn new lingo, and see the world through fresh eyes. Nothing is too mundane or sublime to post – from how the barista misspelled our name to the decadent cocktail that looks like an appetizer explosion with all its offshoots.

Posting a glowing review feels good. We feel like we’re helping to support a business or product that we love. Posting a scathing review maybe feels even better. Whether you call it schadenfreude or just desserts, it’s empowering to relay a negative experience in a public forum. And the power is real: Go Fish Digital found in a recent survey that more than 67 percent of respondents’ purchasing decisions were impacted by online reviews.

And just as hair salons can’t afford to ignore Yelp reviews, employers can’t afford to ignore Glassdoor reviews. Software Advice found in a survey that 48 percent of respondents had used Glassdoor at some point in their job search. While 40 percent of respondents said they would apply to a company as long is it had one star, a third of job seekers said a company needed at least a three-star rating in order to apply.

And Glassdoor isn’t the only options employees have when it comes to forums for airing grievances. Facebook, Twitter, Medium, LinkedIn, Indeed, blogs – pretty much anywhere someone might post on the internet is fair game. While some people post positive comments about their work experience, it’s the unfortunate bad reviews that capture attention, occasionally go viral, and can affect the bottom line.

Most people smear their employers with relative immunity, and as the trend continues, companies are at a loss to protect their brand and their reputation. Attracting talent to a company whose exes are so incensed they feel the need to vent online can be an uphill battle. And in a competitive job market, top talent is key.

The Impact of Negative Reviews

A Bayt.com survey found that 76 percent of professionals research a company online before considering a job opportunity. An Indeed survey shows that 83 percent of job seekers are likely to base their decision on where to apply on company reviews, and 46 percent will weigh a company’s reputation heavily before accepting a job offer. If your online presence shows a pattern of negative feedback, candidates quickly move on to the next offer. Why jump into someone else’s frying pan?

Many sites allow businesses to reply to negative reviews and even make amends for poor service. But if your company is slammed by a former employee, you’ll need to think twice about responding. Defending yourself with “Dan was fired for sleeping on the job” might get you into hot water. Posting details of a former employee’s private personnel file are a big no-no. Depending on your local laws or the nature of the problem, you may be violating their right to privacy or disclosing protected information.

Even if you are within your rights, the impact on potential employees could be damaging. You don’t want to appear petty and defensive, yet choosing not to respond can also have damning effects.

Libel or Legal?

As an employer, keep in mind that your legal recourse for negative reviews is somewhat limited. Today’s social media policies can help deter the practice of dissing while a staffer is employed with you, but only to a certain extent. The courts have ruled that complaining about your company in an effort to improve working conditions for yourself and/or others is protected speech (even online).

The National Labor Relations Board has brought complaints and won when employees post online, and even solicit comments from others, about they believe are substandard working conditions. If employees get personal, rant, or complain about being singled out for unfair treatment, that speech is not allowed. But the waters are muddy here, so employer beware.

What can you do to stop toxic commentary? Letting employees know that a condition of employment is that they don’t diss you publicly can be complicated and needs to stay on the good side of NLRB regulations. But such a policy is easier to enforce when employees are still on the clock. Once they’re gone, you have little control over their behavior. The best approach is to slow this trend before it sh*t hits the fan.

Proactive Protection

Companies not only need to be quick to address damaging posts, but proactive in preventing them from occurring in the first place. Here are some steps to take:

  • Set up alerts that notify you when your company is mentioned in a post or on social media.
  • Ask employees to notify HR if they become aware of any employee posts that could have a negative impact on the company.
  • If you find a negative post and can identify the employee, call them and ask that they address their concerns through internal channels rather than online. Nicely request that they take it down and don’t argue the merits of the post.
  • If it’s a current employee, this can be easier to effect. If they are not, appeal to their sense of fairness: Let them know that these comments are affecting their former colleagues, and ask the post be removed.
  • If that doesn’t work, ask a colleague within the company to make another appeal. Damaging the “man” is one thing, knowing that you’re negatively affecting friends is another.
  • If the post stays up and the comments are damaging, consider legal action. A cease and desist order could be issued, depending on the nature of the post. You’ll need to consult counsel for this step.
  • For particularly nasty comments or ones that have gone viral, consider issuing a statement. Do not address the conditions of the individual’s employment, but do address and refute the issues raised by the post.

Put a Policy in Place

Consider crafting a “brand protection” policy, one that addresses social media and non-disparagement guidelines. This may not be the right move for every workplace, depending on your culture. But if you’re thinking about updating a current policy or creating a new one, it should be worded something like this:

In the interest of professional courtesy and mutual respect, employees are expected to address concerns about work, colleagues, and working conditions through the proper channels: supervisory, managerial, and/or Human Resources. Internet or social media posting of concerns or complaints are counter-productive and do not remedy legitimate concerns about working conditions.

Posting complaints, concerns, or company practices or policies through social media while employed could result in disciplinary action up to and including termination, depending on the level of the infraction. While the right to affect change for working conditions is protected speech, the nature of the comment(s) will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis to determine if any infraction has occurred.

Employees who leave the company are asked to discuss any problems that led to their separation through the exit interview process, rather than online, on social media or third-party websites so they can be addressed by the appropriate managerial staff.

Current and post-employment online complaints will result in an addendum to the reference check policy. References will reflect a staff member’s online behavior to future employers.

Of course, you don’t want to get into a Twitter war with an ex. However, forewarning that you’re willing to inform future references about their behavior, even after they were no longer on the payroll, is a fair response to the problem. If they didn’t want future employers to know they engaged in this activity, they wouldn’t have posted it on the internet. And, since it’s widely available, your recourse to point it out to potential employers should not violate their rights in any manner.

Final Thoughts

Smart employees will understand that negative posts don’t just reflect poorly on the companies – they may reflect poorly on them. Stacey Gawronski notes on The Muse that an employee’s decision to complain on Medium about their job at Yelp wasn’t a wise one. Not only did it get her fired, but “by choosing to publish, she likely made it even harder for her to move on and get the salary increase she was seeking.”

In its annual social media recruitment survey, 34 percent of hiring and HR managers responded that bad-mouthing former companies or employees were a major candidate turn-off, even higher than poor communication skills (30 percent) and discriminatory comments (29 percent). This attitude is only likely to grow, so warning staff members about the possibility is in your best interest – it’s in theirs, too.

If you’re called for a reference for a former employee who dissed you publicly, offer only that the employee engaged in internet commentary. Do not discuss the nature of the posts in any way. Leave it to the new employer to research and make their own determination of the content.

It’s not only your right, but your responsibility to protect your company’s reputation. Offer staff reasonable outlets to discuss any problems they encounter, but if they don’t, there are ways to protect your employer brand against this unfortunate new practice.