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Forget Glassdoor: Use these killer tips to judge employers

In the April 18, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader needs to get past the Glassdoor company reviews to find the truth about an opportunity.

Question

I was recently asked to interview at a company that at first I was excited to have a chance at joining. Their industry is interesting and familiar to me, and the position itself is a great next step in my career.

glassdoorAfter my interview was scheduled I did my due diligence and started doing research to prepare. Sh*t hit the fan when I got to employment reviews on sites like Glassdoor and Indeed.

Except for the one or two company-planted positive reviews, the clear majority for the past four years have been scathing and disheartening. To summarize: Employees say upper management rules with an iron fist, takes credit for employees’ successes, and compensation is not competitive.

I can understand a couple of bad reviews that might be from disgruntled people, but with a consistent theme delivered on multiple websites spanning a few years, I’m beginning to second-guess my effort.

My big question to you is: What is the best way to bring up my findings to learn the truth? I feel I absolutely have to ask because I not only want to see how they answer, but I also want to see if they own up to the need to change. I’m worried they’ll blacklist me for bringing it up, and I’ll never know whether the environment is truly terrible or not. I want to approach this with respect and good manners so that I don’t look like a bad seed trying to be planted.

How do I look behind the curtain? Is this worth the effort or should I just run now?

Nick’s Reply

I wouldn’t trust Glassdoor to help me judge a company any more than I’d trust Indeed or LinkedIn to connect me with a job. (See Can I trust Glassdoor reviews?LinkedIn: Just another job board and The Bogus-ness of Indeed.com.) All those websites make money when you keep looking for jobs — not when you find one!

I’d invest more effort to get the truth about this company firsthand, but only if the company passes the first test. So let’s cut to the chase.

The first test

I doubt you’d take this job in if the compensation is not competitive. So let’s get this deal-breaker out of the way because it may save you further effort and later frustration.

Since they asked you to interview, it’s incumbent on them to provide information you need. I’d ask about compensation before taking any more steps. It’s best to ask the hiring manager this question, but if HR is the best you can do, that’s fine.

Make a phone call. (Do not use e-mail. This is too important.)

How to Say It
“What’s the pay like for this job?”

That’s it. Do not elaborate. This simple, off-the-cuff, obvious question says it all. It’s friendly and it’s clear.

If they won’t give you a salary range, I’d thank them for their interest (always be polite) and explain that you can’t invest your time in interviews if you’re not all on the same salary page. If they decline to state a range and instead ask you your current salary or your desired range, I’d politely reply that they’re asking you to interview — and they need to confirm the salary range. (See The employer is hiding the salary!)

If they won’t tell you, you’re done.

Glassdoor reviews are not enough

I’m not a fan of company reviews, especially the way Glassdoor presents them. There’s no accountability. Anyone can post anything anonymously. Nonetheless, when strong criticism spans lots of time and multiple websites, you’re right to be concerned. Just remind yourself that every bit of the criticism could be wrong. Could. It probably isn’t, given the extent of it. But you seem to want to find out for yourself, so take the next step.

Since you’re still excited about the job as you understand it, it’s worth going in to find out for yourself what’s up. You don’t need to confront them with the online reviews. In fact, I would not, because consider their best defense. If I were the employer, I’d respond that those reviews are not proof of a problem and the critics are all hiding behind anonymity.

The company can quickly render your question as a fact-less accusation, and you’ll come off like a person who makes decisions and judgments without solid evidence. Glassdoor is not solid because critics are not personally accountable.

If you had nothing else to go on but all you’ve read, and you had to make a choice right now about this company, the prudent decision is probably to walk away. But you can get firsthand evidence on which to base a sound judgment — and you should, because online reviews are not enough to make a defensible judgment.

Killer methods to judge the employer

Here’s what I’d do. Go to the interview. Answer their questions, and ask the normal kinds of questions you’d ask even a very good company. Then use one or more of these killer employer-vetting techniques. Here’s what to ask the employer (preferably the hiring manager):

How to Say It
“If you could change anything about your company instantly, what would you change?”

See how they handle that. If they’re aware of their online reputation, it gives them a chance to explain without you actually bringing it up.

How to Say It
“I’d like to meet some of the people I’d be working with if I were hired, and I’m willing to invest some extra time to do that. I’d also like to see where I’d be working. Can you give me a cook’s tour of your facility? If today’s not a good time, I’d be glad to come back.” If they let you do this immediately, that’s a good sign. If they put it off, do they quickly schedule that next visit, or do they never get back to you?

Ask the employees

If you get the tour and have a chance to meet other employees on the team, try to get a few minutes with each one privately. Ask this question.

How to Say It
“So, what’s it really like to work here?”

Do not share what you’ve read online. Let them talk. Their reactions will tell you all you need to know. Remember: Your goal is not to show how much you know, because that gains you nothing. Your goal is to confirm what you’ve read and to learn even more.

Leverage the job offer

This is the most powerful way to judge an employer. If you get an offer, they’ve demonstrated they want you — and they want you to say yes. They’re waiting. People don’t realize what incredible leverage they have at this point. It’s the most control you’ll ever have in negotiations. It’s time to vet the company.

Tell them you’re thrilled to get the offer – “Thank you!” Then take more control and learn the truth.

How to Say It
“Before I accept your offer, I’d like to meet some of your key people – managers of departments related to the department I’d be working in. I’d like to make sure I’m a fit for your team and I’d like to get the bigger picture of the work environment.”

For example, if you’d be working in manufacturing, you’d want to meet the heads of engineering and product development, because they create the products your team builds. You’d want to meet heads of sales and marketing, because their job is to make money from what manufacturing produces. If they’re not all great people doing great work, then your team (and you) will fail. Get the idea?

Find your own truth

Glassdoor and online company reviews are not the truth. They’re the partial, questionable truth. The best way to get the whole truth about a company is to talk to key people inside, and to talk with people you’d be working with every day. There is no need to bring up Glassdoor reviews. (You might find that the company’s reputation online is not deserved.) Get the facts for yourself.

Any company that declines to let you meet the people I’ve suggested – even though it’s an unusual request – probably has too many skeletons in its closet, or has a lousy attitude about transparency.

Formulate these questions in a way that’s comfortable for you. Don’t use my exact words. I like that you want to be respectful and well-mannered. Always assume the best, and politely ferret out the truth. Then deal with it, either way.

I hope this is helpful. It’s probably more work than you’d like to do, but consider what you’re investing here – the next several years of your work life. It’s worth the extra effort to find your own truth.

If you need more suggestions about how to vet this company, these two books will help. Check the tables of contents at these links:

Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Attention
(See especially, “How to pick worthy companies,” “Is this a Mickey Mouse operation?” and “Scuttlebutt: Get the truth about private companies.”)

Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers
(See especially, “Avoid Disaster: Check out the employer,” “Due Diligence: Don’t take a job without it” and “Judge the manager.”)

Do you trust anonymous company reviews? How do you get the truth about a company?

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23 Comments
  1. You definitely want to hear from the folks there what it’s like. But I would ask the people you would be working WITH what they would change, or possibly better yet, the people who would be working FOR you-front line, customer support people, and even customers, if you can.
    If I’d done that before working for the VA, I would have known the management is rigid and controlling (see the McKinsey report on VA management “Assessment L (Leadership) “- scathing) , though the front line people want to help the customers, the ‘system’ stymies them.
    It’s a formula for frustration.

  2. IDK Nick, I feel like you’re a bit too cynical on your stance about a company not leading with what the job pays. The number one rule of negotiating is that whomever speaks first loses. Just because a company insists on having the upper hand in the upcoming negotiation is not reason enough to rule them out.

    I absolutely agree that you should vet the company as hard as they vet you. But if you find that their people are happy, AND they are willing to pay you whatever money you opened the conversation with, then what’s wrong with that?

    • @John: That old saw about “whoever mentions a number first, loses” was discredited sometime ago. Look up the “anchor effect.” I’m not sure I understand your point. If an employer refuses to give you a salary range on a job that it’s recruiting you for, what’s the point of investing your time?

  3. As a former executive, we would monitor Glassdoor carefully. Our CEO was obsessed with good reviews there and “encouraged” current employees to leave great reviews.

    In other words, the results were stacked in our favor.

    It’s probably the same with many (most?) other companies as well.

    • @ESI: The problem is that if Glassdoor (and other company review sites) permit anonymous reviewing, then it doesn’t matter what a review says. It’s compromised by definition unless reviewers identify themselves.

      The justification is that anonymity protects whistleblowers. I agree, but it creates a new, bigger problem. I think there are ways around this, but Glassdoor and other review sites have no incentive to deal with the problem. Why should they? As long as the reviews and readers keep coming, it’s no skin off their noses. They keep making money.

      Facebook has solved this problem to an extent. If you want to have a community online of people you know who know you, you must identify yourself. That makes you accountable when you post stuff that might compromise your integrity.

  4. Great question and great response.
    Regarding Glassdoor, I take a lot of the less than positive feedback seriously. It does give me a starting point on what to follow up on. Most of the issues in organization are somewhat common so it becomes an opportunity to see what they are aware of and how they approach improvement.

    It is the POSITIVE reviews that actually concern me the most though. Some companies have consultants going on and writing fake positive reviews under multiple log ins. Other times it is, I believe, farmed out to external PR companies where multiple people are writing fake positive reviews. Fake reviews a more time consuming with Indeed as they require one manually create an online resume to be able to submit.

    So, it becomes a game of spotting the fake positive reviews.
    To start, they almost always “approve of the CEO”. Look for exclamation points “bright futures” and “positive outlooks”.

    Practice, Can you spot the fake reviews?
    https://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/T2-Biosystems-Reviews-E282568.htm

    • @Hybrid: Nice job picking out the key words. HR loves key words.

    • There are also those companies that pay for the special package gd offers where for an extra fee their system will automatically remove any negative reviews (the BBB was caught doing this). I found out about this when I posted a negative review of Fidelity Investments. Take a look at their golden gd ratings and then compare them to the real world comments on the Indeed forum (I haven’t met a single person in ten years that has anything nice to say about Fidelity)…

    • Here’s the interview review I recently left for Bain&Co. —
      https://www.glassdoor.com/Interview/Bain-and-Company-Senior-Graphics-Coordinator-Interview-Questions-EI_IE3752.0,16_KO17,44.htm#InterviewReview_13845456

      According to gd, not only do they have a stellar 4.6 rating but they ranked Bain&Co. as “The Best Place To Work.” Pretty funny that such an awesome company would single me out and treat me like crap, clearly there must be something wrong with me…or maybe I just got lucky…*sigh*

  5. I’ve found that a good way to get the good and bad is to ask it that way. When I’m one-on-one with a potential co-worker (i.e, not the manager) and we’ve been talking shop for a while, I’ll simply say, “So, what’s the good and bad about working here?”

    I’ve found that most people will hesitate at that point because I’m explicitly asking for bad news. Then I clarify with, “Hey, every place has good and bad things about it. That’s life. I’m just trying to get a honest feel for things. And I’ll keep things confidential. I won’t mention anything to anybody.”

    At that point, most people relax and open up. And, in my experience, they seem to want to give a balanced report. The old salty dogs will even try to look at my background and offer what they think I would/would not like about working there.

    The important thing is get them talking shop first. After swapping “war stories”, you’re more likely to get them into a relaxed mode where they’ll divulge stuff.

  6. If it is a public company a quick look at at the last few 10Ks (go to sec.gov)and look in the trade journals and local business newspapers (“Super Co.Wins Major Contract”.)A pretty good starting place.
    You may discover that you really don’t care what the compensation is at a company going down the tube or you may want to be sure that you are getting generously compensated for the risk involved in joining the rescue team.

  7. I’ve been using Nick’s strategy of getting to know people and developing a network. I am currently past the third interview and hoping for a job offer anytime now. While looking at this company, I noticed the Glassdoor entries were pretty bad. I asked my internal connection (a new friend I met while playing a game) about the reviews. He looked far away. I reassured him that I wouldn’t share and that I really wanted to know. He gave me the dirt on the company, explained I would be coming in to make change in the company, and that the company disliked change of any kind. He talked me into applying for the position because it has problems, I have solutions, and I got a leg up in the interview process because I came in knowing their problems (they need a peer-review change control system) and having extra time to come up with solutions for the interview.

    A) The real interview for me was talking to my new network friend while playing a game. There were really four interviews for this position. Use the same person who helps you get in with a company HR department/manager/owner to also get a feel for the companies problems and culture.
    B) Not all problems are bad. It means there is room for growth, change, and improvement of the company. The key is that if the manger/CEO/owner is open to change and willing to back you up.

    • @Leslie: “Eyes open” is a good approach. A company that’s a speeding train isn’t necessarily going to go off the tracks. And a slow train isn’t necessarily going out of business. Both can be good opportunities if you do your research, approach with eyes wide open, and if you have a plan. Having said that, I’ll add that I *generally* believe Dear Abby’s old advice that “people don’t really change.” I like how you’re approaching this by developing your own case one way or the other. Just keep in mind that change can be very difficult, because an organization’s “personality” is really the personality of its leaders.

      And having said THAT, I wish you the best and give you credit for taking an informed risk and for driving change. It often takes just one determined person to turn an entire organization. I’d love to know how this works out!

  8. I would have to disagree with the comments on reviews. As with all reviews, you have to look at them with an open-mind, but if you see an overabundance of high-praise for a company, that’s a red flag. Some comments also come across as though they are coming from a disgruntled employee so depending on what is being said, and how many times it is being said by others, the reviews can be enlightening or can be readily ignored. Further, I get the point of accountability, but it’s still an employer’s world and the risk of a current or former employee listing their name with their review can also be problematic. So I don’t discard the comments simply because they are anonymous – they may actually be the most truthful. If I met someone who was going through the interview process and who wanted to connect with the team members, so to speak, I don’t know how open I’d be with my comments if I had negative feelings. Just because someone will say they will maintain confidentiality, does not mean they will — I don’t know them from Adam. So online reviews are absolutely a starting point for me. It is also interesting to see how many companies have staff responding to the comments and how they respond to criticism. Is it with a long-range plan for the company to improve or just “thank you for your feedback” but we have no plans to change? Knowing someone at the company is the best to get a clear and open discussion of a company, but depending on the nature of some positions, the individual may not know what’s happening outside their department to offer useful information. You’ll see reviews for the “Best Companies to Work” for and when you look at what the comments are based on, they may hold little value for you (e.g. free snacks). Management at companies can run the gamut from excellent to extremely poor. I’m just not sure how many individuals are willing to be forthcoming with information that could potentially come back to bite them – again, they don’t know you. It’s still worth it to ask but you have to weigh all responses as you would online reviews. My final comment would be that this is all well and good in a perfect world and when there are ample “good” jobs all around, but sometimes you just need a job (a point often ignored) and many will take a job to pay the bills.

    • @J Brennan: That’s a good overview of the many issues in checking a company out. BUT, I continue to be amazed at the bias people reveal but don’t seem to recognize.

      You make two comments that are common:

      (1) “So I don’t discard the comments simply because they are anonymous – they may actually be the most truthful.”

      (2) “Just because someone will say they will maintain confidentiality, does not mean they will — I don’t know them from Adam.”

      While your thorough discussion tells me you have found a balance, those two comments are common self-contradictions that I don’t think many people understand.

      There’s a whole area in social science about bias in decision making. Our brains miscalculate and we don’t realize it. This is not a critique of your thinking, but my attempt at a short lesson. I will refer to “we” because I’m not criticizing you, but all of us, because we all fall prey to cognitive bias.

      In (1), we know that anonymity makes it easier to speak falsely and inaccurately without consequences. Yet we then claim that some of those comments may be “the most truthful.” There is no way to know what’s T or F. Yet we assign higher truth value to some of the reviews.

      In (2), we don’t trust someone because “we don’t know them from Adam.” That’s a sound conclusion. But then why do we trust reviews from people we don’t know from Adam because those comments seem to be “the most truthful?”

      Here’s what happens, and this is why Glassdoor is so successful.

      GLASSDOOR IS A RECOGNIZED BRAND
      MANY COMPANIES ARE REVIEWED
      LOTS OF PEOPLE POST REVIEWS
      THERE ARE MANY REVIEWS ABOUT A COMPANY
      SOMETIMES MOST OF THE COMMENTS LEAN ONE WAY
      SOME COMMENTS SEEM FAKE
      SOME COMMENTS SEEM REAL

      All these facts create a bias that supersedes our baseline understanding that anonymous reviews are suspect. We rationalize that we can pick out the true reviews because there are so many and because we’re good at judging T from F — even though we have no evidence that a reviewer is credible except for “how they say it.” (Cf. Advertising 101)

      You’ve argued that anonymous reviews can still be helpful, and I agree, insofar as they might raise details you’d want to add to your list of stuff to research. But all those questionable reviews you’ve read serve as a sort of brainwashing — they create a bias that your brain has a very hard time un-doing as you do your own, sound research.

      I know I’m picking hard at this. I just see too many people getting hurt by companies that make money serving questionable information. That includes Glassdoor for its reviews, and it includes LinkedIn and Indeed for their job postings. Superficial but easy “solutions” to complex challenges sell well because people prefer easy and quick over difficult and time-consuming. We want to believe.

      Let’s try it this way. Let’s print out 1,000 company reviews and 1,000 job postings served up as “results” for a job search you typed in. Close your eyes, and stab your finger at each list. You’ve picked one review and one job. Would you bet $1,000 the review is truthful and accurate and $1,000 that you’ll get that job?

      I’ll bet $1,000 you won’t take that bet. There’s a reason for that. It’s important to think about the reason. If you’re interested in cognitive bias, check out Dan Ariely’s excellent book, “Predictably Irrational.” I do a poor job here of explaining what he’s very good at explaining.

  9. Have you never worked for a company whet fear and intimidation are used to control employees? No? Well that explains your approach.

    I have been one of the employees in the interview process. One time a senior candidate bailed very late in the hiring process. A full scale I vestigatio. Was launched including looking through emails.

    We all knew to lie through our teeth convincingly or be punished. You know the only place where you could find the truth about that company? That’s right, Sunshine, on Glassdoor.

    Don’t gamble with the next 2-5 years of your life based on what people who are drinking the kooks of say while being carefully watched.

  10. As far as judging an employer, IF they are a consumer-facing company, look at their reviews online.

    How a company is viewed by its customers is a very good indication of how good of an employer they are / will be.

    At least that’s my experience in the recruiting work I’ve done.

  11. Here’s an interesting recent story about anonymous reviews on Glassdoor:
    “Glassdoor Can’t Ditch Retailer’s Row Over Bad Reviews”

    https://www.law360.com/articles/906381/glassdoor-can-t-ditch-retailer-s-row-over-bad-reviews

    Thoughts on this?

    • So torn on stuff like this.

      On one hand, there has to be some way to give feedback anonymously to a company without fear.

      But, with how much the words “racist” and “sexist” are being thrown around willy-nilly, some of these things need proper investigation.

    • I think there has been few cases where Glassdoor has been subpoenaed in the past year.
      I am fine with people posting anonymously as long as they are speaking about their experience. When it moves into broad sweeping statements and accusations (not in the first person) the company should be able to request the review be removed by Glassdoor and they should comply. Unless the content is purposely malicious and largely untrue, I would prefer the courts stay out of it.

      Glassdoor also has a role to play which is to read each review before posting and help provide guidance to the author regarding which aspect of the review is a concern or violates policy (I believe they do).

      Regardless, it will be far from perfect just a starting point. The positive reviews imo are typically the most FAKE:)

  12. I interviewed at a company where somebody posted a really rotten review in the midst of a sea of goodie-two shoe ones. A bunch of reviews were posted talking about how that former employee “must be on facebook too much instead of working” and trying to disparage the character. I didn’t get the job and felt a sense of relief as I felt a weird vibe going in there. I wanted the job as someone I used to work with who I really think highly of worked there, but that person is in a dept. that wouldn’t interact so much with mine.

    The job I just interviewed at for over 5 hours (where they fed me lunch) is supposed to schedule me an interview with their CEO. I really want to work there not just because some people laughed at my lame jokes (and I got too comfortable in the interviews which means I say lame things if you are me) but because I heard these golden words more than once “This is a great place to work. You can really make an impact”. That was said sincerely, unrehearsed to me a few times. And because one guy really enjoyed my questions and suggestions, and wanted MORE of them!

    So we shall see what happens. But I felt for the first time in a long time I REALLY WANT TO WORK HERE. No fakeness happy shiny people but keeping it real.

    I just wish I wouldn’t have admitted I watch alien and time travel stories whenever I can’t sleep. (Was asked what inspires me and I didn’t have a canned answer). I ended up making the product guy and the Sales Engineer break down in laughter, but I can see it later “she’s a little…weird”. I am still kicking myself. I always say something really off in each interview. Argh.

    • @Melissa: If you can’t be yourself, you’re not gonna be happy. Good people recognize that strong skills and abilities and a quirky personality are not mutually exclusive. There’s an old-time management expert named Tom Peters that used to teach, “Hire the weirdo!” It’s a good thing. Don’t sweat how you interview. Let them sweat whether you’re going to accept their offer. :-)

  13. Once again, Nick provides a thoughtful, practical approach.

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