Behind the Glassdoor Reviews

Glassdoor reviews reflect employee engagement, leadership capabilities and organizational maturity. If you are looking for a better role or a business leader with a Purpose – start with Glassdoor reviews.

Having worked for quite a few companies as a salaried employee and as a consultant, I can’t find a single example of a Glassdoor review rating that would go against what every insider would see.

TL;DR: Glassdoor reviews and comments are very reliable. If you are considering a role with a new company, the Glassdoor reviews are your starting point. And if you happen to be in a leadership position and care about your business, these anonymous reviews left by your colleagues may help you run the business better.

Granted, there will be an error margin caused by personal biases, both positive and negative. Although positive and negative errors do not cancel out, they cannot change the overall picture: you can’t beat the statistics.

Here’s how to read between the lines of Glassdoor reviews.

Pay attention to “outliers.”

By outliers, I mean a small number of reviews that are way off the mean rating.

If it is a negative one left for an altogether good company, there may have been a “bad apple” that is trying to take vengeance. These “retaliation reviews” are less common than one may think. If you see one (just one!), you may as well ignore it.

Likewise, when you see an occasional 5-star review for an otherwise lackluster company, that was probably an attempt by the owner and/or HR to boost their falling rating. Good companies have relatively stable reviews, with comments containing some objective, factual information, and not just an “awesome team” or “amazing career opportunity”.

Look at the total number of reviews.

Good companies have a stable flow of good reviews, and the total number of reviews is usually closer to the number of employees registered on LinkedIn because in good companies employees are engaged; they care about the company image and want to promote it.

In bad companies, the number of reviews will be relatively lower. Even though you may expect many disgruntled employees to vent their frustration, more often than not, they don’t spill their guts on Glassdoor: they do not care. And that is a sign of disengagement and not a promising place to work.

This correlation with the company’s quality is not linear. On a rare occasion, you may see a stable flow of highly critical reviews. That indicates a high percentage of actively disengaged employees. But that’s a rare occasion: when a business is that bad, it doesn’t last long.

Pay attention to the percentages.

Every Glassdoor review shows what percent of reviewers would recommend this company to a friend, the CEO Approval, and the business outlook.  Usually, they are well aligned with the star ratings, but in some cases, they offer additional insights.

Here’s what you should look for.

“Recommend to a Friend” is the overall opinion of the company. People have a so-called acquiescence bias, i.e. a tendency to agree or to indicate a positive connotation. Hence, a 50% “Recommend to a Friend” rating is actually a rather poor sign; look for at least 70%.

“Approve of CEO” is how the employees assess their management. Again, 50% is likely to indicate poor management systems. An interesting point here is that truly engaging and talented CEOs rarely get the “full mark.” Thus, if I see CEO approval over 95%, I’d be very cautious.

“Positive Business Outlook” is how stable this employer looks to the insiders. It is strongly correlated with the “Recommend to a Friend” percentage, but it is a longer view. A friend may recommend you to take the job (it pays the bills after all), but if the outlook rating is lower, this will probably not be your long-term employer of choice.

Read the Comments

For companies with a statistically significant number of reviews, Glassdoor puts a comprehensive summary of Pros and Cons right under the overall rating. As the hierarchy of human needs has not changed since Abraham Maslow had discovered it 60 years ago, this summary is a good reflection of how well the reviewed company meets the needs of its employees.

Key consideration: The Pros in the summary indicate the highest need achieved. Seeing “good pay and good benefits” is an overall positive sign, but this means that the company is only breaking through the “D-needs” (“deficiency needs”), the lower needs according to the hierarchy. Decent pay, working conditions and safety are among those needs. That may not be enough for today’s workforce.

If you are looking for a Purpose, you may then have higher needs (“B-values” or being values), and those are rarely achieved. A probable indicator of a more creative and engaging environment would be multiple comments like “smart people around” and “opportunities to grow.”

Counter-intuitively, Pros like “good work-life balance” may indicate that many employees perceive their work as something altogether negative, and thus their work must be “balanced out,” or compensated, by additional personal days, free food, etc. In really creative companies with high employee engagement, there’s no discussion of work-life balance.

Obviously, if the Cons summary includes comments about bureaucracy or micromanagement, that’s what the reality is for this company. However, do not take “the pay could be better” comments at face value: except for a few companies that are doing extremely well, almost every company will have complaints like that because pay increase looks sufficient only for the first two weeks. This is human nature, not company culture.

Let’s Look at Six Real Glassdoor Reviews.

Here’s how the above observations are reflected in real Glassdoor reviews. The first three of the analyzed reviews are for well-known global IT leaders. The other three are private companies that are not “celebrities,” but I have enough information about them and that allows me to draw the conclusions.

These two well-known IT companies are on the list of top global employers. Not surprisingly, their reviews are positive and very much alike. Note that their CEOs are truly capable high-tech leaders – buy they score just over 90% in employee approval, with only 80% positive outlook.

It is interesting to note that successful companies from the same industry will have similar ratings and reviews. Look at the third company, a more junior relative of the first two: its rating is close to those of the first two. This should not be a surprise but rather an indicator that Glassdoor reviews are indeed valid.

The fourth one is a large engineering company. Its leaders

It shows a respectful 4.2 score – due to an avalanche of 5-star reviews in the last year and a half, coming in at the rate of up to 7 reviews per month (while prior to this period, the company would get very average ratings and about one per review per month). Looks like their management has changed? No, the same CEO has been there for the last 10 years, buy now his Glassdoor rating has become one of the best in the world. I’d suggest to investigate this unexpected rapid improvement further.

The last two private tech companies (#5 and #6) are struggling to improve their performance. Not surprisingly, their Glassdoor ratings are similar. One of the companies conducted an internal employee engagement survey and declared that their employee engagement is 80% (which is very hard to believe: check with Gallup). The other company received a more realistic level of 11% (provided by an external company) – but said that the calculation was wrong and insulting to the employees. This engagement level is well in line with the GD rating.

Of course, their leaders would never admit that, and least of all – to the new hires. Perhaps, if they look at the reviews and ratings, they will realize that it is about time to really change the way they lead their businesses – if they want to stay afloat.

Now that you have the insights, do you think Glassdoor reviews are reliable?

Check your company review and share your findings.

For more on Glassdoor reviews and how to distinguish the fake ones, read this post.