The latest challenge for companies seeking prospective employees isn't skills shortages or salary expectations, but what their own staff is saying about them online.
The number of websites where employees can comment, complain and rate their employers is on the rise, providing a new tool for job seekers and more work for human resources staff.
Ratings and reviews posted on websites such as Glassdoor.com and CareerBliss.com, along with traditional social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, are forcing companies to face their critics in public.
The result is an increase in workplace transparency that can both benefit and backfire for employers and employees.
"The disgruntled employee existed long before the Internet and social media – now it's just easier to get the word out," said Eleni Kassaris, an employment lawyer at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP in Vancouver. "It's cathartic, which is why so many people do it, but there are also potential ramifications."
Although some companies end up scrambling to rebuild reputations tarnished online by employees (recall the 2009 Domino's Pizza YouTube prank in which two employees did unsanitary things to food and posted it online), employees need to be careful not to go too far.
There have been a handful of cases in Canada where online comments have landed employees in legal trouble. In what was described as the first Facebook firing case in Canada in 2010, two car dealership employees in British Columbia were fired after making "offensive, insulting and disrespectful comments" about their workplace on the social media site, the decision from the B.C. Labour Relations Board found. A number of similar cases have cropped up since.
Most disputes regarding online complaints do not reach the courts, said Allan Wells, an employment and labour lawyer at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP in Toronto.
"A lot of bigger companies aren't really inclined to litigate this stuff," Mr. Wells said.
He said companies tend to weigh the potential publicity of an online battle with a disgruntled employee against the impact on an organization's corporate reputation, and pursue more proactive measures such as tightening social media policies for staff.
That said, it's increasingly difficult for companies to put controls on a societal trend where people evaluate online almost everything they do, from buying a car to taking a trip to choosing a future employer.
"It's part of the growing trend to expose individuals, companies, products and services to an open evaluation process," Mr. Wells said.
"I generally believe that more information is better than less information … as long as people respect the rules of defamation and civility."
Online job forums can also lead to better employee-employer matches, which Glassdoor, based in Sausalito, Calif., said is part of its mission.
Glassdoor launched in 2008 and recently unveiled a Canada-specific site, www.glassdoor.ca. Workers can offer anonymous feedback and ratings of current and past employers, which are monitored by dozens of Glassdoor staff to ensure they meet the website's accuracy and objectivity standards. Employers are also able to post responses to the comments, and also can purchase more enhanced services to promote their company.
Companies are encouraged to respond, and see the site as another tool to talk to their employees, Glassdoor community expert Scott Dobroski said.
"There is value for companies in going along with it, as opposed to resisting," Mr. Dobroski said.
"Workplace transparency is on the rise. … Companies need to realize this is a trend going forward. They need to get involved in the conversation."
Companies can also benefit from the feedback on the site, he said. "Employees can be a company's biggest brand ambassadors."
Glassdoor makes money through job clicks, online advertising and services that companies buy to help raise their profile through content such as articles and videos.
Waterloo, Ont.-based software company OpenText Corp. said it's planning to use Glassdoor as part of its recruiting strategy.
OpenText has its share of both positive and negative reviews on the site, but the company sees the forum as a place to tell its story to attract and retain staff.
"Our efforts will be to continue to use forums such as Glassdoor to spread this message organically – through our recruiting efforts as well as through the experiences of employees who work here," Ali Rajah, head of global recruitment at OpenText, said in an e-mail.
OpenText also uses other online forums such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Google+ to advertise job openings and try to engage prospective employees.
"We think these social media tools can be useful in the context of understanding a company from all angles," Mr. Rajah said, adding that online forums have both pros and cons.
"Just like any forum that is open for people to post their opinions, there is considerable subjectivity associated with it, so that's something to be cognizant of."