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Resolving Employee Complaints Before They Hit the Internet
January 25, 2010
Training Magazine
By Beth N. Carvin


These days, some of the most respected businesses in the world are finding themselves pilloried on the Internet by their own employees. Websites such as Glassdoor.com carry posts calling one Fortune 500 "the most abusive company I ever worked for," and another a place where workers will be "kicked like a dog." Hundreds of other companies are being skewered in the same way.

The question, of course, is what to do about it. It's more than a matter of damage control. Trying to repair the harm to internal morale, recruitment efforts, and corporate reputations after the fact is not as effective as preventing the damage in the first place.

That is especially true because the practice of airing dirty corporate laundry online isn't likely to go away. Like sites that rate products, politicians, professors, hotels, charities, and so many other facets of our lives, these online forums can be expected to spread and morph. More outlets such as IHateDell.net, which has a section for employees to air grievances, are sure to emerge.

The focus for employers, then, should be on identifying potential sources of employee dissatisfaction and resolving them before they escalate into embarrassing diatribes about abusive managers and impossible work demands anyone can read with the click of a mouse. After all, if you're hearing about problems in your work environment on the Web before uncovering and addressing them internally, something is amiss.

Managers, trainers, and HR personnel should continually be on the lookout for signs trouble is brewing beneath the surface of business-as-usual. That can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Here are some suggestions.

1. Focus groups, roundtable discussions with senior executives, and lunches with the CEO. These are tried-and-true methods of discovering what employees are thinking, but they're still valid assuming you have created an environment where employees feel comfortable openly expressing their opinions. Anything that provides an opportunity for open dialogue can help you take the pulse of your employees.

2. Strategic exit interviews. With the right questions, exit interviews can uncover information about irritations in areas ranging from the work environment to management, work, compensation, company, culture, and safety. Newer online methods of administering exit interviews typically generate more candid feedback ("Mr. W has created a hostile work environment through petty intimidation tactics"), as well as enabling companies to ask more questions and making it far easier to analyze the results via point-and-click reports.

3. Management by walking around. This management style, popularized by Hewlett-Packard and later by Tom "In Search of Excellence" Peters, fosters manager/employee communication that makes it possible to learn about problems and concerns firsthand. This approach may not work for every company, but being able to connect directly with employees remains a valuable way for managers to detect trouble spots that may come back to bite the business if they are not remedied.

4. New employee surveys. Measuring employee attitudes shortly after hire can uncover problems ranging from poor expectation-setting by recruiters to unfriendly co-workers, weak on-the-job communication, and failure to convey company goals. It also can help combat the widespread problem of early attrition. As with exit interviews, administering these surveys electronically makes it possible to capture more data and more candid responses, as well as simplifying data analysis.

5. Suggestion boxes. It may sound old-fashioned, but suggestion boxes are coming back to life with new online programs. Electronic suggestion boxes can yield useful information such as ideas to improve productivity, training, products, or the tools and resources employees need to do their jobs. Suggestions can be published company-wide for other employees to build on or submitted privately to HR.

6. Mentoring programs. Mentoring is an important strategy for promoting talent development, knowledge transfer, and collaborative interaction, but mentors also serve as a sounding board for mentees. If an employee can express frustration or anger to a person who is perceived as having the power to solve the problem or at least have the ear of senior executives, he or she may not be moved to publicly condemn the company online.

7. Corporate social networking. Like mentoring programs, corporate social networks provide a safe setting for employees to let off steam. Anything said inside the firewall can keep complaints in the corporate family instead of exposing your warts for the world to see. This adds to the other benefits of offering Facebook-style internal communications, including helping employees find individuals with common personal and/or professional interests, share ideas, gather information for just-in-time learning, and form cross-departmental relationships.

Once you have identified a problem bothering your employees, the next step is to develop strategies to remove the irritant—whether putting together a training program to ensure managers in a given department provide positive reinforcement or change behavior that can be perceived as sexual harassment, or creating new policies to address complaints such as schedule inflexibility or concerns about career advancement.

This kind of problem-solving can help blunt criticism that would otherwise make its way to Websites, either by providing an alternative outlet for the critique or by eliminating the cause of the complaint altogether.

Tackling these issues head-on also serves the broader purpose of creating a culture of openness that can help improve the work environment as well as business performance. In that sense, the need to limit employee diatribes on online gripe sites also provides an opportunity to cure what ails your company.

Remember: while some online complaints can be dismissed as the rantings of inadequate employees, others can be traced directly to your corporate doorstep. Where there's smoke, there may indeed be fire. It's your job to douse the flames before they burn you in public in the form of postings on the World Wide Web.

Beth N. Carvin is the CEO and president of Nobscot Corporation, a global technology firm specializing in online software tools that help companies combat turnover by identifying sources of dissatisfaction. She can be reached at bncarvin@nobscot.com.


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