Why you should 'embrace transparency' at work, says Glassdoor CEO: 'People are scared to be direct'

Glassdoor CEO Christian Sutherland-Wong
Glassdoor, LLC

Glassdoor CEO Christian Sutherland-Wong views raw workplace feedback as "an important gift," even though receiving negative feedback can feel "uncomfortable" at times. 

"We are all human and when we see people criticizing us, it can sting," Sutherland-Wong says. "But even if you don't do exactly what the feedback is recommending, you can learn a lot from just stepping back and listening to it."

This is why Glassdoor launched its new initiative in July 2023, Company Bowls. The initiative adds a Reddit-esque flare to Glassdoor's company review platform: users across their platform can now join online chat threads of their companies, called "bowls."

Sutherland-Wong says that Glassdoor's own employees have quickly embraced company bowls, using it often to connect with each other and to raise concerns directly with management. People can post questions, celebrations, and grievances either with their names and positions on display, or completely anonymously, although most posting happens anonymously as it gives people "a feeling of safety to bring up anything on their minds." Sutherland-Wong says this has "democratized" the company's decision-making process.

Executives at Glassdoor have also found this unfiltered exchange of feedback useful in keeping a pulse on how their employees are actually feeling. 

"Companies usually use annual surveys to try and get feedback from their employees; I have had that now at my fingertips every single day," Sutherland Wong says. "Our philosophy at Glassdoor is to embrace this transparency."

A culture of transparency in the workplace promotes raw feedback

Many successful business executives value raw feedback in the workplace. Billionaire founder of Kind Snacks Daniel Lubetzky told Make It in a recent interview that he attributes his success to surrounding himself with people that can give him unfiltered advice. Co-founder of Google Larry Page reportedly responded with a grin to harsh negative feedback from an employee. 

But in order to have a free exchange of unfiltered feedback in the office, employers need to start by creating an office culture that values transparency, which Sutherland-Wong says they can only do by personally embracing transparency.

"If you have a culture of holding things close to your chest and not being straightforward in how you operate then you create a political environment where people will shy away from telling you the truth," he says.

A way that he practices transparency is by responding to all the reviews he receives on Glassdoor. This acknowledgement also makes people feel heard. And even if you decide to stick to the same decision you had made initially, people still respect you taking their criticism seriously.

"It makes [the employees] respect the broader leadership team more if we're not quiet on issues and show that we are listening and not defensive about the conversation being brought up in the company," Sutherland-Wong says.

How you respond to feedback is important

Responding to criticism can be tough. Although it is crucial to make sure that no piece of feedback you receive goes unacknowledged, not every single response you get will be good.

The first thing that Sutherland-Wong says that he does when he receives feedback is to acknowledge it. Then he determines if "it's a chorus or a few loud voices." To do so, he keeps an eye on the subject of criticism and gets insights from people that he works with. If he does determine that the criticism is not shared by a large group of people then he does not take the advice. "[You have to] be thick-skinned; it is not your role to please everybody," he says.

But if the sentiment is echoed by a lot of people in the company then it is important to respond to the problem quickly. In this case, Sutherland-Wong says the company bowls initiative has given him a unique strength in doing so.

A year ago, Glassdoor rolled out changes to their compensation pay bands to reflect market base pay depending on where their employees lived. Although they thought this was the right thing to do, with a move to a largely-virtual format, they received "surprising pushback" on their company bowl.

Sutherland-Wong says the executive team made tweaks in the policy based on the criticism they received. Thanks to the anonymous feedback they were able to receive quickly with each tweak, he says they solved this issue much faster than they would have if they had let employee resentment fester.

"In a typical workplace, people are scared to be direct when they think there can be repercussions, so they say things in a roundabout way or talk behind the scenes with fellow employees and it takes time for it to filter through [to executives]," he explains. "Whereas here [the feedback] was instantaneous and we got to move forward more quickly."

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