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How to handle brutal online reviews from your employees

A CEO gives his advice on how leaders can handle anonymous harsh reviews from their employees and colleagues.

How to handle brutal online reviews from your employees
[Photo: Moritz Mentges/Unsplash]
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The first Glassdoor review felt like a gut punch: “Toxic executives create culture of fear and intimidation,” said the headline published in August 2020.

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What went through my head was, “Whoa, do I and this person work at the same company?”

A week later, another one-star review arrived. “I have never felt so worthless and unappreciated anywhere that I have worked,” my colleague wrote.

In the past, I had acknowledged negative Glassdoor reviews at our all-hands meeting hoping to start a dialogue. The anonymous reviewers didn’t see it that way. As one wrote, “The CEO will bring up the negative reviews in front of the entire company to intimidate others from speaking out.”

“That’s not true . . . they’re wrong . . . maybe they mean . . .”

I read the harsh reviews again, and again. And too many more times to count from there. I came away from the experience feeling attacked. With anonymous review sites, such as Glassdoor, it’s tempting to dismiss people’s opinions on account of how and where they were made. This mode of thinking would be a copout, though; after a period of self-reflection, there are rarely appropriate excuses.

The question is, how should a CEO or any leader handle a situation where colleagues attack your leadership and organizational culture anonymously? If you haven’t already been through this, I can assure you, it’s coming. I’ll share my experience in hopes that other leaders find it useful in their experiences.

Turn to “learned optimism”

After masochistically reading and rereading the reviews, it felt like the whole organization must be silently burning around me, in mutiny. Of course, that wasn’t the case. Martin Seligman, an American psychologist and author of the book Learned Optimism, is my favorite resource for putting these situations in context. He focuses on three aspects of how people explain events.

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  • Is it permanent? No, feeling hurt and angry is impermanent, as are the problems at Widen that led to the reviews.
  • Is it pervasive? No, these reviews are isolated. The glowing and constructive reviews far outnumber the negative ones.
  • Is it personal? No, I am accountable for our culture, both for the good and bad. But I can’t control how everyone feels.

Learned optimism gave me perspective on these situations and created space for the harder task: forgiveness.

Practice forgiveness

Why forgiveness? It’s normal to feel anger, resentment, or shame when someone trashes everything you’ve built. But to dwell on it or hate someone for it isn’t productive. I turned to a reliable source for advice, Saint Mother Teresa.

In 1995, the author and atheist Christopher Hitchens published a brutal essay titled “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.” He argued that Mother Teresa took advantage of the poor to advance Catholicism. When a sister asked Mother Teresa about the book, her response was, “Oh, the book. It matters not. He is forgiven.” Later, the sisters read the book, prayed and fasted on it, examined their actions for errors, and forgave Hitchens.

I’m no Mother Teresa, but I can certainly strive to be more like her. It’s hard to empathize with a hurting person and examine my actions when I’m too busy being hurt. So I chased forgiveness.

Dr. Robert Enright, author of Forgiveness Therapy, became my go-to resource. His “Let It Go” assessment provided a structured way to work through the anger, resentment, and shame.

First, I had to identify the injustice. Truthfully, I just didn’t like the way the reviewers had communicated. The reviews seemed venomous. Second, I had to decide whether to forgive these people. Yes, I was ready.

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The third task was I had to empathize—to understand their perspective and what may have led them to act as they did. That was the turning point.

Empathy to action

Once I forgave my colleagues, I could empathize with their situation. They probably voiced their discomfort on Glassdoor because the system for expressing their concerns internally was flawed. After immersing in the reviews as an empathetic—not an aggrieved—party, I came to a few realizations about how our culture had failed:

  • The internal grievance process was new, and we needed to make more people aware of it. We always encouraged people to talk with their manager, but sometimes that’s not the best or most comfortable channel.
  • Career progression and promotions are not clear enough at Widen. We had grown our team quickly without specifying how to advance.
  • Diversity and inclusion are lacking at Widen. Although we are nearly balanced in terms of gender, our company is lacking in racial and ethnic diversity.
  • Our managerial training and communication must improve. We advance employees into leadership positions with a learn-on-the-job mindset. That isn’t enough. Leaders should become more aware of the ways in which they may express favoritism or unintentionally cause fear, intimidation, or offense—myself included.

While we’ve made some early headway on these issues, we have a ways to go. And as much as I felt hurt by the reviews, ultimately, I’m grateful for the opportunity they created.

Forgiveness in business

In the 2000s, U.S. business culture has become less hierarchical and more egalitarian. Employees have gained powerful tools, including sites such as Glassdoor, for holding leadership accountable. We’ve seen this at major tech companies where employees blow the whistle, leak documents, and stage walkouts to protest their leaders’ actions.

This modern employment culture requires CEOs to become masters at forgiveness rather than unfeeling robots. Empowered employees will do things that, intentionally or not, cause you to feel anger, shame, frustration, and sadness. In public, you can hide behind a confident smile. In private, the injustice is debilitating. The journey from anger to context, forgiveness, and empathy gives you the space to examine your errors and take action.

I wish it were easy to copy Mother Theresa and say, “Oh, the reviews—they matter not. They are forgiven.” But she’s a saint, and I have a long way to go.

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So, if you can learn to contextualize, forgive, and empathize with your critics, detractors, and enemies, what can possibly stop you from creating better leadership and culture?


Matthew Gonnering is the CEO of Widen, a company founded in 1948 to unlock human potential through the power of story. His mission is to create happiness, health, and prosperity for his colleagues, customers, and community.