What do employee reviews really say about your agency?
Your agency's rating on Glassdoor might not be telling the whole story. Columnist David Rodnitzky describes the essential ingredients of a high-performing company culture.
I’m obsessed with creating a great culture at 3Q Digital, my employer. If you type in my name and the word “culture” into your favorite search engine, you’ll see at least a dozen articles I’ve written about the importance of culture.
I’m also obsessed with data. At 3Q, we measure both internal and external Net Promoter Score and client and team attrition, and we use a tool called TinyPulse to constantly ask our team quantifiable questions about their satisfaction.
The good news is that almost every metric we evaluate internally shows that team members are generally happy with the culture at 3Q. We are definitely not at 100 percent, but when we benchmark our performance against other companies (something we can do with TinyPulse and Net Promoter Score), we are always above the mean.
If, however, you look at our ratings on Glassdoor, you might draw a different inference. Our overall score out of five stars is a middling 3.8. Granted, this is better than a lot of our peers, but it is also worse than many, a few of whom have five-star ratings!
There are some obvious problems with Glassdoor (and any user-generated review site): Some reviews are fake; disgruntled employees will use the medium to distort facts and make themselves feel better; and the sample size is often so small that individual reviews carry too much weight. I’m sure countless articles have been written exploring these issues, so I’m not going to cover them here.
Instead, I want to posit what will at first seem like an illogical argument: Bad reviews on Glassdoor can actually be indicative of a high-performing culture! In short, a culture that keeps every employee happy is probably not doing a good enough job of weeding out underperforming employees.
I know this argument seems self-serving, given that 3Q does not have the highest star rating on Glassdoor vis-à-vis other digital marketing agencies. And I’m not suggesting that those agencies are doing a bad job (though I have to admit, there are a few agencies who have glowing reviews that seem to have been entirely written by the founders!).
Hire slow; fire fast
Ultimately, however, high-performing cultures have to do two things: First, they need to create cultures where team members are fiercely proud of being part of the team, and second, they need to “hire slow and fire fast,” which means that low-performing team members need to be let go on a regular basis.
To paraphrase Netflix’s amazing culture deck, above-average performers deserve above-average compensation; adequate performers deserve a generous severance package (and by the way, Netflix has a 3.5-star rating on Glassdoor).
Alas, this is a toxic combination when it comes to Glassdoor reviews. When we let team members go, it’s a big hit to their egos, because they took personal pride in being part of a high-performing culture. So writing a negative review on Glassdoor (and perhaps embellishing it by stretching the truth) is a form of catharsis.
And what of the other agencies that have near-perfect ratings? Removing the obvious offenders who have written their own reviews, I have two theories about these companies:
- They have a rare combination of a flawless hiring process and a great culture. In other words, they have built a high-performing culture where they expect A-level work from team members (like 3Q), but they have also developed a fail-proof hiring process such that they almost never have to fire people, because every person they hire is an A player who is a perfect fit for the culture.
- They have a culture that strives for happiness over performance. In such companies, hires who turn out to be duds are given chance after chance to improve performance, or are moved to different departments, or are just allowed to stay around because no one has the guts to let them go. As a result, the company ends up with a lot of happy B players. This is a win for happiness but ultimately a loss for the company’s growth potential and ability to execute.
I tried to express this in a graph, and it looks like this:
The worst type of agency is the one that is meticulous in hiring and fast in firing, but has a terrible culture. I’d expect these companies to get destroyed on Glassdoor, because no one is happy — whether they are gainfully employed or fired from the agency.
On the flip side, agencies that get (real) glowing reviews on Glassdoor are either perfect at hiring and culture, or are really just nice places to work without a lot of pressure to actually perform. And in between are the agencies that are either nailing it (but getting penalized by fired employees on Glassdoor) or who are moving in the right direction, but need to improve one or both vectors.
When you think of great cultures, you probably think about companies like Zappos, Google and Whole Foods. You might be surprised to discover that these are not five-star companies, at least not according to Glassdoor. Zappos clocks in at 3.8, Google at 4.4, and Whole Foods at 3.4.
I continue to strive for that Nirvana-like state where I hire the best and keep the best, but in hindsight, I think I’m actually pretty proud of our 3.8 stars!