How Your Employer Brand Can Benefit From a Bad Review

More than 20 years ago the Internet reinvented job advertising, job searching and employer research. But every technology advance seemingly comes with its dark side. The proliferation of online reviews for just about everything has left many business owners, chefs, product manufacturers, book authors, entertainers and employers with a love/hate relationship with reviews. As individuals they now depend on them for purchase decisions, but as business owners they often dread reading bad reviews, fearful of unfounded complaints and fake reviews from competitors.

Bill Tancer, author of the book “Everyone’s a Critic: Winning Customers in a Review-Driven World” and general manager for global research at Experian Marketing Services, calls business owners’ reactions to reviews a form of cognitive dissonance.  In an interview with Simply Hired, he elaborated on some of the ideas discussed in the book. “The classic example of cognitive dissonance is a chef’s reaction to a bad review. ‘How can that be?’ he asks, knowing how much effort went into preparing the food.”

The human mind experiences conflict when it considers two observations that both can’t be true. Just as a reaction to an entrée is obviously a matter of taste, employers also have fans and detractors. Where one spends at least a third of one’s day is a big decision, and job seekers increasingly consult reviews before accepting an offer. According to a 2014 survey, nearly 8 in 10 Americans at least sometimes check reviews before purchasing a product or service.

Employer Brand quote

While reviews can be difficult for recruiters and HR managers to look at, Tancer writes, “Every valid negative viewpoint in a review has the potential for helping you improve your business. Think of it not a criticism but as data.”

Harnessing the Power of Bad Reviews

To help with the cognitive dissonance business owners experience when reading reviews of their businesses, Tancer recommends an “exercise in desensitization,” outlined below. While Tancer is not a business owner himself, he experienced the cognitive dissonance of bad reviews firsthand after the release of his first book, Click: What Millions of People Do Online and Why it Matters.

Despite the difficulty of considering the points made in the bad reviews, he said, “I found that there was some truth to the criticism.” One reviewer said that
“Click” was “too promotional” because he only used one source of data—his employer’s.

“I used that information to ask my publisher to get an editor who would be harder on me for this book. I wanted someone who would push me to use different data sources and make sure I didn’t get promotional.”

Exercise in Desensitization

Once you step past the cognitive dissonance, thoughtful evaluation of reviews can help you get a better understanding of your employer brand and decide how to improve it and highlight it.

Before doing this exercise for your own company, try doing it for a previous employer.

  • Spend a few minutes putting yourself back on site at that job.
  • Take out a piece of blank paper and draw a line down the middle and label the columns “pros” and “cons.”
  • Write in the appropriate column everything you remember, from the office environment, your former manager and colleagues, the work you did, the review process, the perks, etc.
  • Now go through the online reviews of the company, sorting by five-star reviews to find material for the “pros” column and scrolling or sorting to the end to read one-star reviews for the “cons.”
  • Once you’ve got your list and the aggregate list from the reviews, look for similarities, differences and things you missed in your own assessment. Are there any patterns to the comments? Any eye openers?

“One of the hidden values of online reviews,” Tancer said, is that “often the aggregate opinion of online reviewers can reveal perspectives you may have missed.”

When you do this for your own company and find the patterns, use this information to decide:

  • Which negative comments can be addressed through HR practices, employee communication or should be communicated to specific department managers?
  • Which positive comments indicate an aspect of working at the company that can be highlighted in employer branding materials or otherwise communicated to candidates?

Reviewer Bias is Real

But there’s still a danger in the natural bias of reviewers. “There are always people with gripes,” Tancer said. “Maybe they got fired or had a bad experience. And then there are the company defenders.” This is common among reviews for many business types.

“People who are infrequent reviewers tend to give either one star or five stars,” said Tancer. The unique situation for employers is that most people only hold one job at a time and average tenure lasts several years. Infrequency is the nature of employment reviews. Those who review restaurants or products have many more opportunities to write reviews.

Are the ‘Best’ Really the Best for Everyone?

Tancer completed the same exercise in desensitization for Freakonomics, a popular book about economics and incentives that he admired. In evaluating the reviews of a runaway bestseller, he was surprised to find it had several hundred 1- and 2-star reviews. The perspective that every author, no matter how popular or acclaimed, had to confront bad reviews made him feel less alone.

After doing the desensitization exercise for a current or past employer, Tancer recommends doing the same evaluation of reviews for a best-in-class company (e.g., one on a “best places to work” list).

“The more popular something is, the more critical people can become,” he said. “Popularity lends itself to more scrutiny. ‘Is this really as great as everyone says it is?’”

In “Everyone’s a Critic” he describes reading the one-star reviews for a famous California restaurant, The French Laundry. Many of the reviews were about the difficulty of getting a reservation or the high cost, rather than the food itself, though one reviewer wrote, “anybody who could grill a steak or chop carrots could cook this food.” There’s just no way to please everyone.

“A few bad reviews might be good for you,” Tancer said. A study by Reevoo found that that 68 percent of consumers trust reviews more when they see both good and bad scores. Close to a third suspect fake reviews or censorship when there are no bad reviews.

“Bad reviews communicate that the fit isn’t for everyone,” Tancer said. Employers invest in their brands because they want to find more employees who are a good fit. People looking for a new job have obviously left or want to leave because that company or position is no longer a fit. Perhaps they even have written negative comments about their current or most recent employer.

On the whole, Tancer believes that reviews are beneficial because they can be the impetus to improve quality. “Now I keep a list of common criticisms, challenge myself to address them and return to those reviews to come up with ways to keep improving.”

There’s no reason employers can’t do the same.


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