asking a company about its bad reputation in an interview

A reader writes:

I’m set to interview for a lead role in a service-based company. There’s not a lot of information about the company online, but the majority of what is there is highly negative. The job was posted anonymously, so I didn’t know the company name until I was asked to come in to interview.

I’ve been job hunting for several months, so while I really want to get back to work, I’m not desperate enough to take the first thing offered to me. I’m willing to give this company the benefit of the doubt, because I’ve worked in this field before and know that any reviews on the web should be taken with a grain of salt, especially when the kind of clients this industry tends to attract are, to try and put it kindly, fairly unrealistic and high-strung to begin with. Should I ask about the company’s online reputation, and if so, how would you suggest I phrase my question?

Yes, definitely ask. You don’t want to end up working somewhere that you’re not proud to be part of, especially when you have options (as you sound like you do).

The key is that you don’t want to make them feel defensive (because there might be a perfectly legitimate explanation). Your tone and your wording both need to express that you’re not making any assumptions, that they seem like lovely people with good intentions to you so far, and that you’re not coming at this as if they’re shady or bad people. And this is especially true because of what you know about their client base.

I would say something like this:  “I couldn’t help but notice that the company has drawn some unfavorable reviews online. I’m curious about the company’s take on that and if it’s something you’re trying to combat.”

Then listen to the way they respond. Do they brush the reviews off as something that happens to everyone? Do they seem to take it seriously? Do they have a plausible explanation that rings true to you? Do they sound angry? Do they seem put off that you asked? Do they not even know about their online reputation problem?

This is a legitimate area to ask about, just like it’s legitimate for them to ask you about concerns with your resume or references. Just do it in a polite way that starts by giving them the benefit of the doubt and doesn’t sound like an accusation.

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. Joyce*

    The company’s response to this question communicates volumes. If the answer is defensive, for example, then management may not be accustomed to taking responsibility or owning up to an underlying problem. Just as the interviewer is listening to your responses for clear situations, actions, and results, you the interviewee should do the same.

  2. Malissa*

    I would guess, given that they advertised the position anonymously, they are well aware of their bad reputation. I would definitely talk to them about it. Given that this is private industry I’d be willing to bet they are looking for ways to improve.

      1. Wilton Businessman*

        I know, right? One of the most loved brands to one of the most hated in a few short months.

          1. Joey*

            I’ve wondered if Reed had these dumb ideas and the smart people around him couldn’t get through to him or did everyone agree on the dumb ideas.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I know! So much I want to know. I’m praying for a book or lengthy investigative piece about it at some point. Like a Bob Woodward-type insider piece.

      2. Josh S*

        Yeah, I don’t necessarily disagree with all that Netflix has done in the last year, but I *do* take issue with how they went about communicating it. It’s one thing to say, “We’re increasing the cost significantly because we’re using that money to develop exclusive content and buy licensing for even more movies, including X Y and Z.” It’s quite another to do what they did and simply say, “We’re raising prices. But we don’t think most of you will notice that much difference because of how you use the service. Thanks for your money!” Even though they did the latter well in advance and gave everyone plenty of notice, it was a pretty lousy communications strategy… but I digress.

        I suspect the whole thing will be a HBR case study at some point…

        I’m right there with you. I wish I had a connection at Netflix to get a feel for their process–what are they thinking!?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I know I’m hijacking this post to talk about Netflix, but I can’t help it. The thing that shocked me most was their plan to split the service into two separate services for streaming and DVDs and require customers to maintain two separate queues. That just seemed to show such a lack of knowledge of or concern about how customers use Netflix — the whole point is the convenience and no one would want to maintain two separate queues, especially when movies come and go from streaming. And they didn’t seem to have tested or focus-grouped the idea at all and then were shocked when everyone hated it (and within about a month, they were backtracking). I just can’t figure out what happened there.

          And then Reed Hastings’ condescending response about how Netflix was obviously just modernizing too quickly for people, like we’re not cutting-edge enough to see the genius of their plan … grrrr.

          1. Joey*

            Maybe they thought joe public didn’t know what they needed or wanted, sort of like the iPhone. Although with a limited streaming selection how could you not expect the wave of complaints? But, it’s nice to see a company that’s willing to take risks and who are nimble enough to fix it when it doesn’t work.

          2. Josh S*

            Oh, right. I forgot about that because they backed off it so quick. I can see the draw to that from a financial sense–they want to position the DVD-by-mail service as a separate entity that can be sold when it’s no longer profitable.

            But from the customer-centered focus that *had* been their MO for most of the company’s existence, it was quite the negative change.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes, and I love it! This is actually connected to why I find the Netflix story so interesting — they’ve been considered a wildly successful company with a fantastic employee culture, and all the missteps of the summer of 2011 happened against that backdrop. So it’s more interesting to me because it’s Netflix than if it had been some normal, mediocre company.

          1. kristinyc*

            I wish they had a setting when you deactivate your account for “I moved in with my boyfriend and we only need one Netflix account. Quit trying to get me back as a customer. I’m still using your product, I promise.”

      3. Jen M*

        I agree! I was thinking about applying to work for them, but then there’s the “fascinating” stuff…

  3. kristinyc*

    I interviewed with a company that had a lot of complaints/came up in “Company Name Scam” google searches, and had lots of complaints to the BBB. (Basically, the company was a place where freelance “experts” could set up their own online shop, and customers could pay to chat with them. The company just gave them a platform for it. All of the complaints I had read online were complaints about the “experts,” not the company, but it still made the company look horrible).

    I asked about it in the interview in a very reasonable (I thought..) way : “So, as I was researching this company to prepare for this interview, I noticed that some people have been saying ____ about you. How is the company responding to that?”

    The interviewer got really defensive and pretty much said that it was the “experts,” not the company, that were the problem, and that there was nothing they could do to fix it.

    I asked if they’ve thought about trying to improve the vetting process/quality of their experts, and I got a dirty look and a “no.”

    I didn’t get the job. Completely okay with it.

    OP – Yes, ask. Just be tactful.

    1. Stacy*

      I asked about why the person formerly in the position I was applying for had left in a couple of recent interviews. (Excuse the long, awkward sentence.) I found that I got hesitant responses that ended up not sounding honest to me. I found through experimentation that it was much better to ask about the “history” of the position. In other words, what kinds of people had previously been in it, for how long, and what happened to them. Much more telling answers!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes, I like that wording. If the person last in the job was fired for performance, it can be awkward to say that. Not that the employer shouldn’t be willing to talk about it (in theory, it should be hugely helpful to talk about why someone didn’t work out in the position), but it can feel awkward, especially if they’re not prepared for the question. At that point, they have to explain why the person was fired, and then suddenly they’re revealing stuff about someone else that they probably don’t feel they should be talking about to someone who isn’t working there yet.

      2. Anonymous*

        I have asked: “Would you explain to me what created the need to fill this position?” It could be a brand new position, new business area, someone left, etc.

        That said, I recently met a woman (in a brutally difficult class, no less) who asked if her predecessor would be there to train her up, and was told the predecessor had committed suicide! This classmate had taken the job and is having a truly miserable time of it.

        1. Piper*

          I recently had an interview where the interviewer announced to me near the beginning of the interview that the previous person was absolutely amazing, did not want to quit, was wooed by an offer he couldn’t refuse, but really, really didn’t want to leave, really, and oh, by the way, he’s impossible to replace. Add that to the interviewer’s overly condescending manner and a seeming disconnect between the job description and what the interviewer was telling me the position would be, I couldn’t get away from that company fast enough.

          1. Joey*

            Interesting. I would take the comments about the previous person as a good sign. By the way there’s frequently a disconnect between the job posting and the real duties, especially in larger companies where a hiring manager doesn’t write the job description.

            1. Piper*

              Yeah, I’ve been burned badly by that disconnect before. When the job description says the job is a creative position (loose, generic term) but I come in for an interview and you tell me it’s all analysis and statistics, we have a problem.

              Also, the tone and inflection of the statement’s delivery was why I took it negatively. She was not singing this guy’s praises; she was putting every other person down. And that was pretty obvious. This alone wouldn’t have been enough for me to decide I didn’t want the job, but given all the other things I didn’t feel right about in the interview, I knew it was not the position for me.

              1. Piper*

                And in this case, actually, the hiring manager did write the description, which is another reason I was extra confused about the disconnect.

              2. Anonymous*

                When the job description says the job is a creative position (loose, generic term) but I come in for an interview and you tell me it’s all analysis and statistics, we have a problem

                I don’t see that there’s an immediate disconnect. With the right mindset, one can be outstandingly creative with statistics. It’s just a matter of crunching the numbers enough (crunching them until you can hear them squeal, to be precise).

              3. jmkenrick*

                Um, I would argue that analysis and statistics can be very creative endeavors. It’s not exactly art class, but that’s not the only place creatively comes into play.

              4. Piper*

                For clarification since we’re splitting hairs (and I did mention the job was a creative, but I said I used the term generically and loosely since I didn’t want to be specific), it was a design-related job. Nothing about this job should have centered around statistics.

        2. Piper*

          Also, I think I’d walk from a job where they told me the previous occupant had committed suicide. Not that the job was necessarily the reason, but it could have been a contributing factor. That, and there are just bad omens written all over that situation.

  4. Anonymous*

    You should definitely ask about their online reputation! I did this last summer when a recruiter made arrangements for me to speak with a prospective employer. I did my research on this company and most reviews were negative complaints from customers.

    I questioned the recruiter about this and he basically brushed it off saying that it was disgruntled customers and the company was doing well and ramping up for 2011. I didn’t get the gig and luckily I did not get it. I found out the company shut down 2 days after Christmas because they didn’t pay their debts.

    Always ask if you see a red flag, otherwise you might end up SOL.

  5. OP*

    OP here. Thanks for answering my question, Alison! I interviewed at the company (not Netflix :) ) and actually didn’t need to take your advice–the bad reputation was one of the first things the interviewer brought up, along with a bunch of other insight that made it clear this was not the job or company for me (or anyone).

    The interviewer knew that the company reputation needed fixing but said that it was mostly due to “the disgruntled”. She also stated that several members of company leadership thought everything, reputation included, was fine the way it was, and that this newly created position I was interviewing for was a waste of time and money. And that was just one of the doozies I learned about this place!

    Needless to say, I asked to be removed from the hiring process.

    1. NicoleW*

      Wow! The “newly created position…was a waste of time and money.” I’d be running away, too. It sounds like if the wind shifts the position would be eliminated. Hopefully you find something better soon!

  6. Just Me*

    There are 2 companies ( a parent and its subsid ) that have such a bad reputation it is riduculous. They are in the paper advertsing for help every single week.

    As matter of fact when I was let go ( as were at least 6 other women within a year……hhmm ) when I went to an employment agency she asked who ran the place and when I said who she smiled nodded in a Oh yeah… I understand what happened.
    We actually have about 5 companies including the above ones that have such bad reputations that even if people need job’s they don’t go to those places. They hire for the work they need for “x” amt of time and then lay off, or the management is so bad people just walk off.
    Interesting to see that it is so hard to find jobs nowadays but that people will just walk if the working conditions stink. Not agreeing or disagreeing… just noting.

    One place I worked at was so bad I know of 5 people that walked out right in the middle of the day. It was ulcer city in that place.

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