👋 Hi, this is Gergely with a bonus, free issue of the Pragmatic Engineer Newsletter. In every issue, I cover topics related to Big Tech and high-growth startups through the lens of engineering managers and senior engineers. In this issue, we cover one out of six topics from today’s subscriber-only The Scoop issue. To get full articles twice a week, subscribe here.
I got a message from a software engineer working at a company which laid off 30% of staff in December 2022. It’s a late-stage startup valued at around $3B which had around 1,000 employees before the layoffs. The engineer wrote:
“My company is removing Glassdoor reviews because their rating has gotten so low. The company’s score went to 2.3 and they started doing this. I don’t think my company is alone in this practice to protect themselves from bad press, but lots of my colleagues have had their reviews deleted. Effectively, we’ve been silenced.”
I managed to talk to someone in this company’s HR department, who confirmed that the leadership set a goal to improve the business’s Glassdoor rating. The HR team’s target was to get the score above 3.0. And so, they got to work flagging negative reviews for removal, and encouraging staff to post 5-star reviews to balance out negative reviews. Turns out, this company is not alone in doing so.
In today’s issue, we’ll look closely at what is happening, and also investigate a specific company — cybersecurity company Trustwave — to find out what happened so the company reached an all-time high Glassdoor rating:
Some tech companies are in “Glassdoor crisis management mode” after layoffs. I’ve talked with CTOs and HR professionals at 5 tech companies, who all tell me they’re doing something similar to having set a target score to improve to, or did so in the past. I’m not naming these companies as I believe this is a widespread trend that’s not limited to just a few players (And, to be clear, Trustwave is not in this group: I do not have information of such mandates at the company). Also, there is business sense in doing this for reputational reasons. But first, let’s talk about what they are doing and whether it’s fair.
The Glassdoor site makes it very clear companies cannot remove reviews. On every Glassdoor review page is this message:
Well, this statement is somewhat inaccurate, as Glassdoor does remove some reviews. I talked with several HR folks whose mandate was to remove unfavorable reviews. This is possible, and here’s how it works:
- Paying customers seem to get priority in acting on flagged reviews. Although any company can flag reviews to be removed, a HR person told me that in their experience Glassdoor takes no action until the company is a Glassdoor customer. This person’s company flagged reviews that were very clearly in violation, but Glassdoor only took a review down when the company started paying. Glassdoor responded and said they allow non-paying employers to flag reviews: but the company did not say if they treat non-paying employers with the same priority as paying ones. In all fairness, doing so would make no business sense.
- There is no way to pressure Glassdoor to remove any single review. However, a Chief People Officer who has worked at tech firms for more than 10 years told me their “success rate” for removing reviews is about 1 in 3. This person said that in their experience, rude and abusive reviews can be successfully challenged. Otherwise, Glassdoor won’t budge.
- Glassdoor is pretty good at reducing spamming. The same Chief People Officer said they are satisfied with how well Glassdoor removed spam, or fake reviews. Spamming – a “copy-paste” style review – is a common problem and they do not feel Glassdoor take a backseat in battling this.
The most common way to get a review removed is for a company to claim it violates Glassdoor’s terms of service. A HR professional who used to be tasked with removing as many reviews as possible, told me the most common method is to flag a review for one or both of the following reasons:
- Impersonating another person. Employers frequently flag reviews claiming what the review was by an impersonator pretending to be a staff member. Should Glassdoor agree, it will ask the reviewer to prove they’re a current employee, and will hide the review until this happens. Naturally, some employees will not want to identify themselves, even to Glassdoor.
- Defamatory, libellous, fraudulent or knowingly misleading content. Again, employers can flag content that falls into this category. This could be abused by some employers, putting Glassdoor in the position of deciding whether or not they agree with the employer’s opinion.
Glassdoor is in a tricky spot, but doesn’t make the situation easier for itself. Glassdoor is a semi-anonymous site where employees post reviews on the understanding Glassdoor will protect their privacy; and the site makes good on this promise. Glassdoor went as far as going to court in 2022 to push back on toymaker Zuru, which wanted to know the reviewers’ identities. Unfortunately for privacy fans, Zuru won and a US court ordered Glassdoor to disclose this information. So if you leave a review, consider the non-zero chance that a court order could force Glassdoor to reveal your identity, even though it clearly aims to protect this as much as possible.
Imagine the situation where a review claims something and the company tells Glassdoor this is deliberately misleading information. What is Glassdoor to do? It needs to enforce the terms of service, so either it takes the employer at their word and removes this review. Or Glassdoor has enough knowledge to know the employer is incorrect and the information is accurate. However, when a review in question contains internal company information, Glassdoor will not have prior knowledge to fall back on, so it has to remove the review, or else fail to enforce its own terms of service.
And to be fair, the HR worker I talked to said the same. This person flagged every single 1 or 2-star review, and Glassdoor only acted on clearly defamatory and fraudulent ones, or ones which violated guidelines.
Glassdoor could make the process a lot clearer by publishing a moderation log which details when and why it removed a review. This log could contain only the redacted parts of affected reviews to ensure the terms of service are not broken. Such a log would build confidence that Glassdoor is a neutral platform which is only enforcing its own terms and conditions, and could validate this. Wikipedia’s edit logs, or the moderation log on the programming website Lobste.rs, are both examples of bringing transparency to moderation and content editing policies.
Companies encouraging staff to leave more positive reviews is a common way to increase the score. Glassdoor itself naturally encourages companies to have more employees add reviews in order to combat negative reviews. In the article “I'm an employer. What can I do about negative reviews on Glassdoor?” the company outlines 4 steps:
- Flag reviews. Glassdoor validates if they break its terms and conditions or community guidelines. If they do, they need to be removed.
- Respond to them. Responses are shown under the review.
- Post more reviews. Glassdoor provides several templates about how employers can do this.
- Take legal action. This is always a possibility, but is the most time-consuming approach and the outcome of legal proceedings is uncertain.
I’ve talked with several CTOs and HR professionals who told me their companies encourage employees to post reviews in various ways:
- Send a reminder to new joiners during the first few months, asking them to leave a review on Glassdoor. This is a smart approach, as new joiners are often in their honeymoon period, and are likely to leave a positive review.
- Remind managers of the importance of Glassdoor reviews when hiring staff, and ask them to consider sharing their experience on the site. Again, smart, as managers tend to sell the company anyway and are likely to share positive things about the place.
- Organize a “Glassdoor review event,” asking employees to leave honest reviews.
In cases where there is no pressure to leave a positive review, I cannot find fault in these approaches. Of course, employees know a good review makes the employer look better, but it’s the employee’s choice. However, there are companies which employ more questionable tactics. Engineering leaders and engineers shared some stories:
- A startup organized a social event at work, and asked employees to show up on time with their laptops. As everyone arrived, the founder instructed people to go to Glassdoor, and leave a positive review. The founder and other executives walked around, checking what people were writing.
- One company asked employees to write a “honest” review and email it to HR. Naturally, this meant the review was not anonymous any more.
- A company, as part of their onboarding checklists, instructs new joiners to submit a positive Glassdoor review during their first week at the company. Such reviews can often be spotted, as the descriptions will often mention how the reviewer has barely started at the company.
- A video platform startup company explicitly banned terminated employees from posting a negative review of the company on Glassdoor, or any other review site for one year, as part of their severance package agreement. A software engineer who was given this severance agreement contacted Glassdoor to complain about their employer, but never heard back. The engineer didn’t post a negative review for a year to protect their severance.
- Another company disallowed employees posting any Glassdoor reviews, in the employment contract itself: doing so would go against this contract. This company added this clause after a long and constant inflow of negative reviews.
These examples suggest bad company cultures, regardless of what the reviews say.
Some companies see relatively fast increases in their Glassdoor scores, after layoffs. Let’s take a specific example: Trustwave, which is a cybersecurity and managed services provider owned by Singtel, a telecom giant in Singapore. Here’s Trustwave’s Glassdoor page at time of publication:
But the company’s Glassdoor page was not always like this. Just 2 years ago, about 12 months after layoffs at the company, the scores were significantly lower:
Former employees told me the company had a restructuring in mid-2020, letting go about 10-20% of staff. This, naturally, decreased morale – and likely also contributed to more negative company reviews on Glassdoor. The company called this restructuring a company-wide transformation. A PR manager from Trustwave said that the changes since 2020 included a revamped performance management process, introducing a “Moments that Matter” workplace philosophy (basically, flexible remote work,) and investment in learning and development. This PR manager said they believe the improved Glassdoor score “is a direct reflection of Trustwave's successful corporate and cultural transformation with its focused talent initiatives.”
I spent a few days collecting and crunching Trustwave’s Glassdoor reviews, and can now map out how reviews have changed:
It’s not surprising to see the company’s Glassdoor score decreasing after mid-2020, as this happens to companies that go through restructuring which involves cuts. However, there’s a definite and ongoing uptick since the mid-2021. In May that year, the company announced a new Chief People Officer, and since then has been a lot more responsive in responding to Glassdoor reviews. Also, the number of reviews have increased by quite a lot.
What’s strange is that until June 2022, the number of reviews was up, but the average rating was still around 3.5. Then something changed from June 2022:
In the past 12 months, the company received more than 6 times the number of 5-star reviews than in the previous year. So I decided to look into the content of these reviews. To my surprise, 12 out of the last 25 reviews were exact copies of each other: exact duplicate reviews coming in 12-20 days after the first such review. Basically, 50% of recent reviews are spam. Here are some examples:
I reached out to Trustwave to ask if they’re aware of these duplicated, overly generic reviews on their Glassdoor page. The company responded, saying “Trustwave is not aware of any fake or duplicate reviews on its Glassdoor page.” Well, the company should be somewhat aware that half of all recent reviews are duplicates, given the Chief People Officer personally responded to a duplicate review less than a month ago, making it clear they read both reviews:
Given I already found a dozen duplicate reviews just by browsing Trustwave’s site, I was wondering how seriously Glassdoor is taking removal of such spam reviews, which should be easy enough to identify. I reached out for comment, but the company replied with a generic statement: “Before a review appears on Glassdoor, it goes through a multi-tier review process that can include both technological and human review.”
Well, that automated review does not seem to include checking for duplicate reviews, as of today.
Remember which company has what type of incentives. Glassdoor’s customers are businesses, and the company makes its revenue from 4 sources, all based on businesses paying for:
- Employer branding: the ability to respond to reviews
- Review intelligence, to discover trends in reviews
- Job listings
- Targeted job ads
Glassdoor’s incentives are tied to keeping its customers (businesses) happy, and to attract enough traffic from job seekers to justify businesses contracting with Glassdoor.
And as for companies? Their goal will be to present themselves in a positive light. HR teams at certain organizations could set a goal of getting their Glassdoor score to a given target, or the C-level leadership might set the target.
In the case of Trustwave, a year ago the company’s score was 3.5. Today it is 4.4. What’s changed? Dozens of generic-looking 5-star reviews that give no additional insight into what it’s really like at the company. So how much should you trust this score, or rely on it? My take is that you should be cautious, and treat this with due context. I cover more advice on this in the full The Scoop issue.
Independent of this article, solution scientist Shikhar Sachdev dived deep and investigated The underground economy of Glassdoor reviews, finding fake, 5-start Glassdoor reviews have a going rate of $10-25 per review on marketplaces, and providers offering review removal services - for a price. Review removal is something Glassdoor explicitly says should not be possible. It's fascinating research to read: check it out here.
This was one out of the five topics covered in this week’s The Scoop. A lot of what I share in The Scoop is exclusive to this publication, meaning it’s not been covered in any other media outlet before and you’re the first to read about it.
The full The Scoop edition additionally covers:
- Should Glassdoor reviews matter to you? As an engineering leader or a job seeker, how much weight should you assign to Glassdoor reviews? I give my take from both sides, pulling in expert advice. Opinion
- When will Amazon join the generative AI race? Among the big 3 cloud providers, Microsoft and Google are shipping generative AI solutions for customers to use. Meanwhile, Amazon has announced Bedrock, but more than a month later not even its own developers have access. What’s going on, and when will Bedrock be available? I talked with Amazon SDEs and have answers. Exclusive
- A 1.5 month-long code freeze at Stack Overflow. With hundreds of hardcoded secrets in its repository, this became a major problem for Stack Overflow, due to the CircleCI security breach. To remedy things, the company froze all deploys for six weeks. What can we learn from this incident? Exclusive
- Early warning of recent layoffs at AWS. It’s rare to know if you’re at risk of losing your job, before cuts are announced. In what was probably an oversight, affected AWS employees got a few days’ notice that the axe was going to fall, which helped many people prepare. Exclusive
- The AI boom to intensify? NVIDIA’s earnings revealed a much bigger-than-expected demand for hardware to run and train AI models. Could we see the already hot AI field heat up further? Analysis.
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