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Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

Here's How to Interpret Anonymous Company Reviews Correctly

Company culture: two words that hold a lot of weight and can be the difference in making or breaking your professional happiness. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but the truth is, there’s a lot more than salary and title to consider. Not only do you need to be qualified for positions you’re applying to, but you also need to be a good fit. Hiring managers care about this, but so should you, the job seeker—and getting a sense of the culture isn’t as straightforward as learning how much money’s on the table and what your business card will say.

Gone are the days of simply applying for a job, going on an interview, and receiving an offer. Before you tailor your resume and cover letter for a specific role, you’re probably researching the company, doing a little LinkedIn browsing, and maybe even checking out a few current employees’ social media accounts. And you’re also most likely reading company reviews on sites like Glassdoor and Indeed.

It’s kind of genius: You get the dirt—and the glitz—from people with first-hand experience. No interviewer’s going to tell you that the company has had a problem with cliques or that the unlimited vacation policy is actually discouraged, but an anonymous employee sure will. While getting a decent picture of an organization involves plenty of weeding through (especially if there are a lot of reviews) there’s undoubtedly a lot to be gained by taking the time to figure out what the place is like based on people on the inside.

Once you get going perusing the reviews, you can usually start to tell the difference between a person who intends for his commentary to be productive and useful versus the person who just has a lot of anger and frustration and has decided to spit it up online. Muse Career Coach, Adrian J. Hopkins, says that “It’s good to take all reviews with a grain of salt.”

And while you’d be short-sighted to base your decision solely on this type of anonymous forum, you’d do well to arm yourself with info on how to read the reviews, what to look for, and what else you can do when you’re seeing feedback that makes you uncomfortable

How it Works

If you’ve ever taken the time to discuss your experience at a company on Indeed, you might like to know that all reviews are moderated with a combination of “machine-learning trained algorithms and human moderators,” according to Andrew McGlinchey, Product Management Director at Indeed. McGlinchey says that the company, which has over 10 million reviews posted on the site, “wants to ensure that job seekers looking at company reviews are seeing authentic and honest assessments.”

If you’re a job seeker, you obviously want to get as comprehensive a picture as you can about a company. You might like to know that both Indeed and Glassdoor take the reviews seriously. Each has a community guidelines section, and if you wish to post a review on the latter, you must have a permanent, active email address or a valid social networking account.

Samantha Zupan, Glassdoor spokesperson explains that “Reviews are subject to a multi-tier review process that includes technological and human review. If a piece of content submitted to Glassdoor warrants additional review, we have a full team of content moderators to ensure the content meets the community guidelines and terms of use.”

In spite of these measures, it’s not impossible to come across a review from a disgruntled former employee. These individuals, so long as they’re following the outlined guidelines, are entitled to report back on a terrible year at Company X. If someone found the frat-party atmosphere pervasive at Company P, she can certainly write about that—hopefully, she’s doing it because she thinks it’s an important piece of information for the prospective employee, and not just because she’s annoyed that the organization prioritized social functions when she’d have preferred better equipment. Regardless of a reviewer’s M.O., as Zupan points out, “It’s also important to keep in mind that reviews are people’s opinions.”

As such, employers have an opportunity to respond as well—so long as they too obey the posting stipulations. Explains McGlinchey, “We do offer a way for employers to respond to reviews that they think need clarification or that they disagree with.”

This seems fair, but what about big, powerful companies posting fake reviews? After all, it’s not that hard to create a fake email address and verify it. Then, HR personnel can write up glowing reviews in response to a negative one. But McGlinchey said that they haven’t seen an issue with this. Neither has Zupan (or if she has, she’s not saying). Instead, she offers the following, “Glassdoor takes the integrity of its content and community seriously.” She goes on to say that the company offers any user, “be it a job seeker or an employer, the ability to flag reviews that they feel does not fit the Glassdoor community.”  

How to Read Reviews

Besides the obvious ones—spurned former employees, not a good enough sample size, subjective—company reviews, while valuable, come up short filling in the big picture. Peter Phelan, Founder and CEO of ValuesCulture, a company that strives to help other organizations make smart hiring decisions with respect to culture, isn’t opposed to reviews, but he notes the likelihood of negative reviews.

You may pride yourself on writing the occasional glowing review on TripAdvisor or Open Table, but more often than not, if you’re in the habit of offering online feedback that’s anonymous, you’re probably more eager to do so when you have a complaint. That’s an important point to keep in mind as you dive in.

Look for themes. If enough reviews tell you to “steer clear” or “stay away” that might not be something you want to ignore. On the other hand, reading a few reviews that claim the CEO’s a terrible human being and the company’s going downhill fast shouldn’t be sufficient info for you to abandon the position you’re seeking there if you haven’t gotten that impression.

Just don’t forget to keep an eye out for small details, especially as they pertain to things you’re seeking or those you can do without:

  • Do the most recent ones seem positive, on an upturn swing from reviews posted over a year ago?
  • Was there a change in leadership?
  • Did the company change its mission or rebrand itself?
  • Are a lot of the reviews complaining about the lack of perks?
  • Is a loaded snack closet even something you care about?
  • Is there a pattern of complaints about too many young managers?
  • Are you fresh out of college and OK with having a supervisor two years older than you?
  • Is there a heavy social culture, and is that something you’re actively seeking?

Depending on the perspective, criteria, and agenda of the reader, the review may look quite different. Let’s take a look at a real review below (important details hidden for privacy purposes).

The title of the review has the potential to immediately turn off non-Millennial candidates, whereas others may become even more attracted after seeing that. Either way, reading on’s important because a four-word heading isn’t enough to judge a company by. The reviewer mentions that the company is an industry leader that’s growing. The workplace, according to this current employee who’s been there for more than one year, is diverse. He or she seems to support and believe in the brand, but clearly the overriding issues he or she sees—“bro culture,” “age bias”—are felt strongly enough for the reviewer to have only a neutral outlook and state that he or she “doesn’t recommend” the workplace.

There’s some interesting information to be gleaned here, especially because someone at the organization responded, encouraging the dissatisfied employee to connect with someone on the human resources team to discuss ways of enhancing the culture. That said, there’s still a ton that a candidate can’t learn from these paragraphs.

While a “tech bro culture” doesn’t sound great at all, there’s such a thing called fit, and sometimes someone who discovers a place of employment isn’t a good fit for him will be quick to criticize the organization instead of considering that it just might not be right for him. A person who cares about diversity may zero in on that detail and ignore the “room for improvement” note. Anyway, it’s a rare place of employment that can’t stand to improve on some level, right?

How to Use the Reviews in an Interview

Career Coach Hopkins believes you can leverage the information in the reviews and use it to ask pointed questions during an interview. He suggests going ahead and reading reviews to learn about the company’s culture and ethos and then developing “nuanced questions to help you find answers. For example, rather than asking your directly about the company’s allegedly poor work-life balance, ask them instead about what activities they’re involved in outside of the office. You’re more likely to get a genuine answer that’s more useful than a canned, ‘We have a great work-life balance!’ response that can still leave you suspicious.”

You can ask about the CEO’s involvement without saying that you read a lot of dissatisfied reviews claiming her total lack of it. Watch for facial expressions—they can sometimes be the dead giveaway in a situation like this.

And if you go in for an interview before your discovery that the company only rewards people who kiss up to management, you can take your questions elsewhere. Phelan’s a big proponent of the out-of-office meeting. It’s not always the easiest thing to navigate, but if you really want to get an idea of what’s going on behind those closed doors, consider reaching out to a current employee and setting up a coffee meeting.

It’s great to have access to individuals’ reviews of current and past employers, and it’s somewhat comforting to know that this feedback’s monitored and nice to know that the employer can respond, but it’s still a very limited way to gain insight. While your hope is that you’ll join a company where everyone’s happy and fulfilled and a perfect fit, it’s unrealistic that every single person’s going to be satisfied.

The reasons for a disgruntled reviewer can vary—maybe Leslie is on sales and quietly dreams of being a writer, or maybe Aaron on IT is envious of the dev team’s exciting programming projects, perhaps Felicia’s email to the CEO was never answered and she developed a grudge because of the oversight, or Jake’s proposal to increase the social budget got rejected—and it’s impossible to know if someone took to the online forum to complain purely because he needed an outlet for his frustration.

On the flipside, overwhelmingly positive reviews can only reveal so much as well. Taking everything you read at face value fails to consider underlying factors, such as a person’s recent promotion, or a talent recruiter’s glowing review in an effort to draw more interest to open positions.

Taking the reviews with a grain of salt, as Hopkins suggests, and exploring as many other ways as possible to get a feel for a company before you apply or accept an offer is not only the smart thing to do, it’s also the professional thing to do.

Photo of woman reading reviews courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.