Are employers learning to love honest feedback?

Glassdoor has been publishing reviews of employers for 15 years, inspiring numerous imitators. What impact have they had on employment practices – and what can firms take from the transparency trend?
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Applying for a job was, for many decades, an opaque affair. A typical recruitment ad would offer few details about the role on offer, while information about the salary would be restricted to a decidedly unhelpful “competitive”. And the culture of the hiring organisation was anyone’s guess. 

That started changing 15 years ago, when the arrival of Glassdoor gave this murky world a level of transparency that jobseekers had long yearned for. The US-based business (acquired by Japanese group Recruit Holdings in 2018 for nearly £1bn) carries more than 150 million reviews of employers in 20 countries, written by employees past and present. It attracts about 50 million unique users each month. 

Its success has spawned a competitive market of sites offering comparable services. Some of the better known of these are Blind, CareerBliss, Jobcase, Kununu and Ratemyemployer. All have their nuances, but the basic formula is much the same: anyone can sign up and leave anonymous evaluations of their employer, rate its leadership and share salary information. 

In Glassdoor’s early years, most users were concerned about one key detail: the money. Their list of questions has since grown significantly, particularly after the pandemic revolutionised working practices. Culture and values, work/life balance and career opportunities, for instance, are three of the top six categories on the site’s dashboard. 

Another top-six category – diversity and inclusion (D&I) – is particularly important to people from groups that often face discrimination from employers. It’s unsurprising, then, that review sites such as Fairygodboss and InHerSight have been set up with female users specifically in mind. 

“People increasingly want to know that where they’re going to work has D&I that’s respected by its leadership,” says Jill Cotton, an expert in career trends at Glassdoor.

What transparency means for the workplace

The ability of employee review sites to give such detailed information to jobseekers is turning interviews into more of a “two-way street”. So says Yvonne Smyth, director of the HR and legal recruitment practices at Hays in the UK and Ireland. 

“Professionals have become much more likely to challenge prospective employers on why they should join their organisation, what’s in it for them and how they’ll be able to further their career,” she explains. 

Such sites are also altering existing employees’ relationships with their bosses. The most significant change concerns salary secrecy. According to Glassdoor’s research, 85% of UK employers don’t disclose their pay ranges internally. 

“The biggest thing we’ve done is to give employees a tool that lets them know what they’re worth,” Cotton says. 

Anonymity empowers people to discuss culturally taboo topics and express their opinions freely

Review sites are also enabling employees to communicate frankly without fear of being identified by their company. An early provider of such anonymised platforms was Blind, which is used by workers in the tech sector to sound off about problems in their firms and the wider industry. 

Part of Blind’s appeal is the fact that all comments from its 8 million-plus users are anonymised, explains Rick Chen, a senior director at the firm. “This empowers people to discuss culturally taboo topics and express their opinions freely,” he says.

People also visit the site in search of reassurance, adds Chen, who notes that activity increases at times of uncertainty in the industry. Blind’s user numbers more than doubled during the depths of the Covid crisis, for instance. 

Transparency advocates argue that, while the upsides for employers may not be immediately clear, they do exist. In a nutshell, employers with bad ratings receive a useful appraisal that they can learn from, while employers with good ratings find it easier to attract talent. 

That said, the system can be manipulated. Despite the precautions the platforms have in place – for instance, community guidelines, compliance algorithms and manual checks – fake reviews inevitably slip through. 

Good employers like honest feedback

Most employers accept that trend towards transparency is not only irreversible; it also offers them information that could prove crucial. 

Quick to capitalise on the latter factor was Phillip Chambers, who in 2015 co-founded Peakon (since rebranded as Workday Peakon Employee Voice) as a way for organisations to assess levels of employee engagement. The online service uses so-called intelligent listening techniques to source anonymous information continually from employees.

We don’t want a situation where transparency helps some people to avoid getting stuck with a bad employer while others are less lucky

It was conceived as an alternative to the annual staff survey, which, in Chambers’ words, is a “very arduous process” that typically delivers few actionable results. Instead, firms can use the Peakon platform to ask employees short, personalised questions in manageable batches throughout the year. 

“We’ll look back to the time when employers asked their people what they thought only once a year and think that doing it so infrequently was crazy,” Chambers says. “Getting real-time data really enables companies to be more agile.”

For the Peakon service to work to maximum effect, employees must feel that it’s worthwhile answering the questions put to them, which first requires them to feel heard by their bosses. This is why it provides a shareable dashboard showing what the employer plans to do in response to any issues raised. 

Managers can also respond directly to comments via the platform, which gives employees the sense that they are “not just putting this stuff in the ether”, Chambers says. 

Does transparency serve everyone equally?

Most users of Glassdoor and its ilk tend to be in white-collar occupations. For lower-skilled workers with less bargaining power, the beneficial effects of these sites are less clear.

“Anything that sheds more light on employer practices is a step forward,” says Paul Nowak, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress. “But we don’t want a situation where such transparency helps some people to avoid getting stuck with a bad employer while others are less lucky.” 

On the employers’ side, just a few bad reviews can harm a small firm’s reputation “significantly”, notes David D’Souza, membership director at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. D’Souza’s advice on how to avoid such an outcome? Worry less about the reviews, he says, and “focus on the substance of being a good employer”.