Should You Believe the Company Reviews You Read Online?

We prize first-hand experience when making decisions. Thanks to online reviews, we can receive that information any time and about anything. In fact, half of adults under 50 check online reviews before making a purchase, and 20 percent of applicants won’t apply to a low-rated company.

But should you believe online company reviews when job hunting?

The short answer is no. In a world where a Google reviewer gave the Colosseum one star for not being “that big,” and another dinged the Louvre for its lack of walking beer, it’s clear online reviews represent expectations more than reality.

That doesn’t mean company reviews can’t be a handy job-hunting tool, though.

Understand the reviewer’s mindset

Folk knowledge says a happy customer will tell a few people about their experience, while an angry one will tell dozens. That’s because our negativity bias primes us to feel greater sensitivity to negative experiences than positive ones.

Combining this with our social impulse, we naturally desire to warn others away from bad things. We share positive experiences, too, but the impulse doesn’t feel as imperative.

Noting something missing? The average. When we have an adequate experience, we aren’t impelled to share it. This creates a bias in online reviews. The people who take the time to write company reviews likely had an extreme employee experience. It’s why the three-star rating is the least selected whether it’s for companies, coffeemakers, or the Colosseum.

The fault of online stars

Because of this bias, we can’t rely on ratings to inform us about a company. Instead, we should read a decent sample of reviews and ask the following questions:

  • Are there enough reviews to present a multifaceted picture?
  • Are they rants or do they make well-reasoned arguments?
  • Do the reviews emphasize or criticize the same thing?
  • If so, are these areas of concern or not relevant to your situation?
  • How old are the reviews? What’s the difference between the oldest and most recent?

None of this is to say reviewers are lying. The point is to probe the information to discover patterns and develop a fuller understanding of life at the company.

Interrogating the platform

You should also question the platform itself. Some platforms safeguard against trolling and smear campaigns, while others are gossip mills with no oversight. That difference can alter the information available to you.

Other things to consider:

  • Is there an independent verification of employment?
  • Is a system in place to prevent users from creating multiple accounts?
  • Does the site discourage companies from offering incentives for positive feedback?
  • Does the rating system make sense?

These questions help determine the quality and veracity of the reviews on the site.

Using online reviews

At this point, review sites probably sound like hollow echo chambers for people with too much free time. But they can be useful if used properly. Here’s how:

Read reviews later. Avoid online reviews when deciding whether to apply. Look at the company’s mission, its offerings, its place in the industry, and your desired career path. Find this information on websites, social media, job postings, and some self-reflection.

Interview prep. Read the reviews after you’ve secured an interview. Ignore the stars and ask the questions we outlined above. These will help pinpoint areas of concern with either the job or company.

Form questions. Based on those concerns, devise some post-interview questions.

If the reviews keep mentioning a lack of benefits, for example, you can ask the hiring manager about it directly. You may find the reviews were accurate when posted, but the company worked to improve and now offers a competitive benefits package.

As always, word any post-interview questions to be appropriate and professional.

Seeing past the surreal

Review sites don’t offer an objective measure of a company’s business practices or corporate culture. That doesn’t mean people are lying, but in aggregate, the picture formed can distort reality to surrealist levels.

But like any tool, if used with intention and care, online reviews can be a huge benefit to your job search.

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