Published April 30th, 2019
by Steven Clark

If you weren’t already aware, Glassdoor is a website that allows employees to leave reviews about their employers. The stated purpose of this is to enable jobseekers to make informed choices about potential future career moves by giving them an idea of what it’s like to work at different businesses directly from prior employers and candidates. This allows you to verify the claims made by potential employers during recruitment by reading first hand accounts of what working at each is really like by what appear to be objective sources (though maybe not, but we’ll get to that). Like other review websites, Glassdoor has an interesting response feature, allowing verified employers to reply to reviews and address or counter potential negative feedback. And much like those other websites, this provides a lot of potential for comedy.

Naturally, when you first discover Glassdoor, you’re going to search for previous employers to see if they’re listed as well as what’s been said about them. One of mine is, and if it wasn’t for the fact that this company has now been sold and is now part of a larger conglomerate, I’d have quite a few things to add to what’s already been said. This highlights one potential flaw with these sorts of websites, in that an employee with a bad experience will be far more motivated to leave a review than an employee with a good one. This tends to make Glassdoor a more difficult place for smaller organisations with less staff, as negative – but probably still honest – reviews by disaffected employees are far more likely to be seen and make up a larger portion of their aggregated score.

bad one
The very first Glassdoor review

But why shouldn’t these employees share their experience? Transparency and the ability to hold management accountable is in short supply for your average worker, particularly in creative industries where mismanagement and exploitation is typically the rule, not the exception. In the absence of a union or any kind of collective organisation, a place where you can air the company’s dirty laundry in public – should you have fair reason to – returns a meagre amount of power to the individual employee. Staff turnover and hiring are major things creative organisations struggle with, with some describing an inability to attract and retain the staff they need to operate as a “talent crisis”. As you might expect, proposed solutions to this supposed emergency include things like more flexible working hours, “diversity” or rebranding the industry and not things like, say for example, paying your staff market rates or not offering unpaid internships.

I mentioned earlier that not everything you read on Glassdoor is what it appears to be. This is because some employers, usually the lowest scoring, force their staff to leave positive reviews. I don’t have to tell you how dystopian it sounds to be told by a manager you most likely dislike, whilst employed by a company you’re actively trying to escape, to fabricate a positive experience in order to increase a number on a website. But it does at least illustrate how seriously some companies and CEOs take their Glassdoor scores, possibly because these scores eventually do hurt their bottom lines by making it more difficult and costly to hire. Another, perhaps more relevant, explanation is that some of these orgs are run by remarkably petty people.

boss posting
When your boss posts

One of the main reasons I wanted to write this piece was because I found the Glassdoor reviews and their CEO responses for Zen Agency, a long-running small digital agency based in Glasgow. For disclosure reasons, I should mention I’ve worked alongside them in the past – they were brought in to set up a content management system for some websites I designed for a large drinks company. I also once got the CEO, Alan Ronald, to admit that he is “in favour of all genders” in a pointless back and forth on LinkedIn. Alan’s approach to responding to negative reviews is among the most entertaining in the industry, a masterclass in denial, conspiracy and contradictions, that don’t so much address or counter his employee’s complaints as help to verify them.

I was originally going to do a breakdown of the various cons listed by the reviewers and then go into how Alan addressed each of them, but after a little messing around with that idea, it proved completely fruitless. All of the negative reviews are more or less the same – they blame Alan’s conduct for why they disliked their jobs, which may go some way to explain why his responses to each come across as besieged and retaliatory. It may also explain why, as of writing, he hasn’t bothered responding to any positive reviews. He’s described as “flaky”, “changeable” and “the worst person I’ve ever dealt with”. Complaints about a high level of staff turnover is a common theme. One reviewer says he “behaves in a child like manner” while another says “…colleagues were reduced to tears”. Positive reviews tend to forego talking about management at all, and instead describe working with the team as a whole.

Alan’s initial responses were off to a good start. He thanked the reviewer for their “constructive criticism” and says he’ll “take [their] points on board”. He then immediately goes on to question the legitimacy of the review, claiming that “no one has left the company in over 8 months” as if leaving the company recently is a prerequisite for posting on Glassdoor. As the review had mentioned the cleanliness of the office, or lack thereof, as a negative, he’s quick to deflect this by implying the problem is his staff don’t wash, stating “cleaning takes place most mornings in the office however personal cleanliness we are unable to influence in any way”. Later responses descend into madness straight away, with Alan claiming he “wondered how log [sic] it would take before we got your review” and going on to say that the employee “failed” by “promising the world and delivering nothing” which is why they’ve resorted to lying about the reason they were fired. This would continue in subsequent replies, where he would attack the employee personally and claim he was being trolled.

That was until recently, when Alan wrote his magnum opus. Starting by calling the reviewer a “Storyteller”, he leads with his canned introduction about taking their feedback on board before dismissing each of the points made in the review. How can he be “flakey” and “changeable” when he “[has] a plan set out”? Because plans can never change, especially when it comes to website projects. How can 14 staff members – “over 1 a month” – leave in one year when there’s only “8 people working there”? 8 is a smaller number than 14, checkmate. How can he be the problem when the consultant they employed 4 years ago recommended he “[has] to step up to the plate” and that “management too relaxed and requires staff to put more effort in [sic]”? All good points, well made. He peppers the remainder with some personal attacks, claiming that the reviewer has a “clouded […] memory” and a “clear lack of knowledge in business” before finishing with:

“Clearly you are a fantastic storyteller, and this might be they [sic] way forward in your career – our staff are all fed up with the garbage that is written on this rag of a platform about us most of it a complete fabrication from people who either never worked here, failed in their skill set or unable to keep a job. […] Our recommendation to you take a up [sic] a new career – probably storytelling ;-)”

I can only assume from the winky smile at the end, that Alan wanted the reviewer to know, despite his bad review, that he’s still horny.

Looking at the dates on each review on Zen’s company page, there often seems to be a rush of positive reviews after negative reviews are posted. I’m not cynical enough to suggest that Alan actively pressures his employees to leave positive reviews, like other aforementioned poorly reviewed organisations, but it’s quite a coincidence. Would a coerced Glassdoor review from an existing employee be considered entirely fake or are they at least somewhat valid? Would you be honest about your experience when it could affect your income? After all, you’ll potentially lose your job if the company loses work or begins to tank. That’s in addition to the possible repercussions of posting an honest middling-to-negative review under duress while still employed by the company, should you feel more or less the same as the negative reviewers you’re being tasked with countering. If Alan is in any way responsible for any of these reviews, it would be ironic then that he’s convinced most, if not all, of his negative reviews are fake (and possibly also paid for by his competitors), based on some of his responses and posts. As if anyone (besides me, I know) cares enough to dedicate significant time to posting online about his company, let alone fabricate what sound like multiple credible and consistent accounts of working there. More than one reviewer does mention that some of the positive reviews may be fabricated but their obvious bias means we should be skeptical. One of the five star reviews also says the following under “Advice for management”:

“As a new member of staff who has observed the previous comments on this website, I have found that this agency is not all the doom and gloom it is made out to be. It is a typical faced paced agency where you work, learn and grow. Anyone starting out in an agency like this would benefit from it’s wealth of knowledge in the digital industry.”

okay sure
Checks out

After tweeting about Alan’s latest response detailed above, I was sent a link to a document by an anonymous email address. This report was supposedly commissioned by Zen Agency and goes some way to laying out the atmosphere many of these reviewers describe but in more detail. Just a few pages long, the text contains direct advice for Alan several times. The author couches language in the most diplomatic way they can, writing what reads like a very blunt and honest assessment of Alan’s business – as well as his role within it – at that time. I don’t think it’s a good idea to publish this report and I couldn’t verify if it was real but for what it’s worth, it pretty much directly refutes Alan’s claim in his most recent response that he’s “too relaxed” and staff need to “put more effort in”.

Unfortunately, the review and response that originally inspired this article is now down – possibly because it had quite specific numbers about staff turnover, something Glassdoor could – and probably should – consider questionable information. It’s worth noting that Zen Agency are far from the only agency in Scotland with negative reviews on Glassdoor. Equator has a handful, the umbrella corporation that owns and operates Whitespace has several and even After Digital has one, all of which suggests agencies face many of the same challenges when it comes keeping their staff happy, despotic management often among them. It’s rare though that the job of responding to these kinds of reviews isn’t delegated to someone with some diplomacy. Occasional negative reviews are a difficult thing to handle, particularly as a smaller business, and addressing the points raised in each usually requires careful consideration when responding to sound like you’re taking feedback on board (even if you aren’t). But if your staff feel strongly enough to regularly share their experiences working with you publicly, that’s not only a sign that something needs to change but also that they’re more than likely sharing their stories privately too, with anyone that will listen. There are entire guides on how to remove negative reviews from your Glassdoor company page, featuring statistics like “60% of people won’t apply to businesses with a 1-star review” and “62% of respondents agree that their opinion of a company improves if they respond to negative or positive Glassdoor reviews”. Stats like these suggest that posting responses doesn’t automatically improve a potential applicant’s impression of your company, particularly when said replies are petulant or dismissive. They do however, in Zen Agency’s case, make for excellent reading. So long storytellers ;-)

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by Steven Clark

Steven is a designer/developer and wannabe intellectual with an obsessive personality and too much spare time. Don’t follow him on Twitter.

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