Have your say on your working life

Employee review websites have the potential to change university cultures, says Alexandra Blakemore

November 13, 2014

Glassdoor is reportedly used by 48 per cent of job applicants to find out more about potential employers, including salaries

The National Student Survey is widely credited with driving a step change in universities’ responsiveness to student concerns. However, recent articles in Times Higher Education have highlighted the pressures that can be brought to bear on whistleblowers and the use of gagging clauses to hush up problems (“Attempts to ‘gag and silence’ are commonplace”, 11 September). They suggest that universities still have a long way to go in improving their responsiveness to the concerns of their staff.

The picture painted is that many university managers would rather hush up problems than confront them, and many academics are rightly frustrated about that approach. But tools are already available that, by publicly rewarding positive workplace cultures, could potentially have just as transformative an effect on management priorities as the NSS has had.

Employee review websites such as Glassdoor, Indeed and TheJobCrowd have been around for a few years. In the US, Glassdoor – the market leader – is reportedly used by 48 per cent of job applicants to find out more about potential employers, including typical salaries.

UK universities are working towards improved workplace cultures, including a fairer deal for women and minority groups. In particular, a good deal of effort has been directed towards achieving external recognition of good practice through charter marks – most notably, through the Athena SWAN awards.

Elsewhere, however, any improvements may be superficial and cosmetic. A significant gulf between the external message and the internal realities quickly engenders frustration, cynicism and disillusion among staff.

Most institutions conduct staff surveys but staff are often wary of claims about their anonymity, while early career researchers tend not to engage and the input of former staff members is not sought. So it is difficult to use staff surveys to gain a rounded picture.

THE has begun an attempt to gain a more representative picture through its Best University Workplace Survey. But employee review sites also offer a new way to capture information on staff members’ experiences. Because they are both anonymous and open to outside view, problems cannot be swept under the carpet. Glassdoor, for example, prides itself on not allowing the blocking or editing of reviews by employers.

Efforts have been made to ensure that employee review sites provide a constructive environment for feedback, rather than just a place for the disgruntled to air grievances anonymously. Positive opinions and advice to management are sought and employers have the opportunity to respond to any comments. There is also the facility for reviewers to state whether they would recommend a particular employer. My alma mater, the University of Sheffield, was recommended by 86 per cent of reviewers when I last looked, and scores highly for “culture and values” and “work-life balance” – which gives the impression of an enlightened management style.

At the moment, most universities are represented on such sites by only a few reviews – mostly from early career researchers. But the number of contributions by administrators, professional services staff and established academics is growing. If this continues, it could spark a sea change in the way that UK university “brands” are perceived and managed. Universities need to recruit and retain the best staff as well as the best students so they would have to pay attention to their own and their competitors’ ratings. Glassdoor already publishes an annual list of the best US university workplaces.

Bland statements by managers about institutional culture and values will cut no ice if they are not reflected in the self-reported experiences of numerous employees. Issues will have to be addressed head on – even if the managers themselves are the source of the problems.

Wise university leaders will accept this and welcome the feedback, especially if it is fair and constructive. And, having acted on it, they will then be able to bask in the public recognition of the positive work environments they have created – and take advantage of all the benefits.

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