We recently received a couple of negative reviews for Barrel on Glassdoor, a website where people can find reviews posted by employees and former employees as well as salary ranges. Except for a couple of very positive reviews from interns in the past, we hadn’t seen any other posts until the two recent ones. They’re very similar to each other, so I thought it’d be a good time to publicly assess each one and share my thoughts on the anonymous feedback.
First, a quick note on anonymous feedback: as crappy as it feels to receive it, I think the feedback, even if it’s negative, is better than no feedback. I find it unfortunate that the person who wrote the feedback didn’t bring these things up while he/she was at Barrel, but I think that’s a sign that we need to be better about soliciting more honest feedback, perhaps through anonymous surveys.
Since the Pros for each review were somewhat identical (mostly about our perks like free lunch, beer/wine, and nice, young people), I’ll focus on the Cons and Advice to Management sections:
Review #1: September 9, 2014
Here’s review number one (in italics) with my thoughts below each of the points:
The marketing is flashy and perks are attractive but behind the gloss, it can be a pretty toxic place.
-Poor work-life balance, often have to stay late for client work
I think this varies depending on the employee and the position. We try to be mindful when scheduling project milestones so people don’t have to work so much to get things done, but we sometimes do get aggressive deadlines that require late nights. Our Producers meet every morning to talk about resourcing, and if we see that someone is overstaffed, we take steps to offload the work or reconfigure project schedules. We know that long-term, having people constantly work late or on weekends will have a negative impact on their ability to perform and their desire to stay. What we have is an imperfect system, and we’re making a conscious effort to make improvements.
-Inexperienced, often unprofessional management with no creative or technical background and no sense of scoping
I agree that we’ve been pretty weak with scope management. I think part of it has been the growing scale of our projects and our inability to adjust from the way we scoped smaller projects in the past. More complex projects require deeper discovery and more detailed statement of work documents. We’ve started to involve our creative, UX, and technical leads as well as our Producers to spend more time in these areas. What also helps is that we’ve been saying no to projects where we’ve had little or no experience in using the technology. Taking on a project that uses an unfamiliar technology may have worked on small projects in the past, but we can’t afford to risk a relationship and sink our team into a slog by doing large scale projects that might tank due to our inexperience.
-Complete lack of trust from management toward employees = frequent micromanagement, hovering, feedback sessions and reviews
I’m unsure about feedback like this because I sometimes get the opposite feedback from employees as well (that we’re not giving enough feedback and not involved enough). I think the issue here is that the type of feedback this employee received wasn’t helpful and that it gave him/her a sense that we didn’t trust the work.
-No interest in quality of creative ideas and a ton of emphasis from the top on churning out websites quickly to turn a profit
This statement is interesting because we’ve deliberately chosen to eat into our profits for a number of projects in order to push for quality and creativity. Of course, this hasn’t been the wisest of business decisions, so we’ve been trying to tighten up our process and the way we set expectations with clients. The other thing to note is that we have a lot of clients and a lot of projects. Some projects, by nature, require a more creative and in-depth approach while others emphasize quick and precise execution. I think I’ll have to keep a better eye on what I’m doing or saying that’s communicating a “churn out for profit” perception.
-Lots of office drama behind the scenes that influences the way they run the place
I really hate drama. Earlier in the year, we had a couple of situations where an employee was not a good fit. This led to a lot of turmoil and stress in terms of how to best handle the situation. There are a lot of lessons we learned in the process, but I’ll cover that in a separate blog post in the future. These days, things have been a lot calmer, and we’re trying to be smarter and more careful about who we bring on to the team.
-Poor compensation. Company tends to hire young people and pay them the least that they can get by paying them
I think this type of statement only comes from someone who started off with us with relatively little or no experience. For people with relevant experience, we’ll try our best to pay market rates since we’re often up against competing offers. For young people, we’re taking a risk by giving them a chance, so we’re going to opt for an entry-level salary. I’d like to think that we’ve been good about giving raises to those we’d like to retain. I do think that those who’ve been more aggressive in asking about raises have done better. We’ll have to do a better job of getting people to talk to us more openly about compensation.
-Little to no room for growth and no such thing as moving up since the company has zero interest in nurturing talent
I take this comment very seriously. I think part of the problem is communication: we haven’t been good about explicitly laying out growth paths for people and articulating expectations for how our employees can advance. These are thoughts we often have and conversations that take place behind closed doors, but we haven’t been proactive about communicating with the team and laying out concrete plans. We know this is a perceived weakness, so we’ve been investing quite a bit of time in recent weeks to think about our organizational structure, the hiring of more senior-level folks, and the way our team members can grow at Barrel.
-Turnover rate has been insanely high due to employee dissatisfaction at the hours they need to keep, the management and the low salaries
I’ll cover more of this in the other review since that person points to a specific number of turnover in recent months.
Advice to Management
-Learn to trust your employees and actually care for their personal and professional growth.
If we’ve given someone a reason to write this, then we haven’t done a good job of communicating.
-Transparency, openness and trust come first. Don’t let egos and drama get in the way.
Agreed. Same as above.
-Have a clearer hierarchy with mentorship or growth opportunities in place within each team
Yes! In progress, but we’ll need to move faster.
-Act appropriately to your employees and treat them with absolute trust and respect from every single minor interaction to every major company wide decision.
Agreed. Definitely an improvement area for me personally and something I’ll need to hold myself accountable for.
Review #2: September 4, 2014
Here’s review number two (in italics) with my thoughts below each of the points:
A lot of people who work there are coming straight out of college, or it’s their first agency job. This results in a lot of inexperience and mismanagement. Management doesn’t trust their employees to get client work done so there is a lot of micro-managing. Management also won’t hire experienced and senior employees (maybe they don’t want to lose their “control” or provide a competitive salary). Since there is no creative direction (just management telling you what to do) there are a lot of missed opportunities to work on interesting client work.
Inexperience and mismanagement are definitely a problematic combination, and I’ll admit that my own inexperience has probably played into this person’s perception. We’re actively trying to address inexperience through better training and strategic new hires. Training-wise, we’re working to established standardized discipline guides and defining the process to grow people from a junior role to more experienced roles without rushing them. In terms of hiring, we’ve been having good interviews with more experienced practitioners (3-5 years professional experience) as well as senior-level managers. Sei-Wook and I have always told each other that we haven’t really built a great business if we’re still having to manage every aspect of it ourselves, so we’re really eager to bring on experienced talent. I do think the sizable investment in an executive-level salary has made us balk in years past, but we’re committed to making some big changes.
As for the lack of creative direction, this has been entirely my fault. I’ve been the de facto creative director of my team since the start, but I’ve never positioned myself this way. Instead, I’ve been murky about who owns creative leadership at our company. I’ve done a better job on the UX and strategy side, but even there, I think I could be more explicit. As a result, I can see how this person felt that we lacked creative direction. One of our more pressing priorities is to find a Creative Director to fill this role.
Turnover rate has been very high (10 people in 5 months) because people have been unsatisfied with management, client work, and compensation. Perks are great but they are not genuine, I’ve heard HR and management say numerous times “it keeps you here”. Obviously perks are not what people value higher than trust, creative freedom and competitive salary.
There was a time, probably 2-3 years ago, when we did care a lot about the perks and thought it made a big difference, but our thinking has shifted considerably since then. We know that retention is all about engaging work, professional growth, and great personal relationships. And this person is right about trust, creative freedom, and competitive salary being important factors for people.
In terms of turnover, the perception has been that turnover has been rampant. When there are less than 30 people, ten or more people leaving feels like a very big change. We’ve had twelve departures in the past 5 or so months. That’s a lot of people in a very compressed period of time. Here’s how they break down:
- 2 people moved to a different city for personal reasons
- 2 people were terminations
- 1 person was a 3-month contract that we didn’t extend
- 2 were interns whose internships ended
- 5 were voluntary resignations; 4 of them had other jobs lined up
It’s the last point that I’m concerned about. Four people leaving us voluntarily for another job at a pace of almost one a month. Of the four, two of them had been with us for 2+ years and the other two had been at or slightly over 1 year. I know a particular client project that did not go well contributed to some of these people leaving. This was a hard-learned lesson. I also know that compensation was brought up in exit surveys, so this is something we’ll address head on during our 6-month check-ins with the team.
The interesting thing is that for most people who work at the company, the specifics of a person’s departure are besides the point. What’s felt is the absence, especially if that person was a ping pong buddy or a friend to talk to during lunch. I don’t have an answer on how to better handle this right now, but it’ll be something I’ll have to keep in mind as our company continues to evolve through departures and new additions.
Managing people is a humbling experience. Even when I think things are going well, there are always a thousand things to improve and unanticipated challenges lurking around the corner. There was a time when I was especially sensitive to feedback and wanted to do all that I could to make everyone like me as a manager. This was a very insecure and immature way to run a company. These days, I have more of a backbone. I know where I want our company to go, and we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about our short-term and long-term goals. We’re constantly tinkering our plans, but we have a good feeling about how we want to grow the business, the type of team we’d like to field, and the type of work we’d like to do as a company.
To the people who wrote the Glassdoor reviews: thank you for taking the time to gather and articulate your thoughts. Management’s got lots of work to do.