I Heard That Company Was Horrible (three years ago) – Truth in Company Reputation

Let’s start with a brief exercise.

  1. First, name three companies in your area that you have heard negative details about from other software engineers (sweatshop, poor code base, horrible software processes, buggy product, low salaries, etc.).  Places you would probably never work.
  2. Got it? Now name three companies in your area that you have heard stories about, and you would classify them as great places to work.  Places that you would pick up and leave your job for tomorrow.

If I had to guess I would say that the first question was probably much easier to answer than the second, and the obvious reason is that bad news is sticky and tends to travel fast. There is evidence of why this happens – read about the availability heuristic as an example.  Your ability to recall a co-worker saying his former employer was ‘pleasant’ is lower than your ability to recall him saying that ‘the place was a sweatshop’.  Casual sports fans will know OJ Simpson or Kobe Bryant more about them from tabloid headlines than their impressive athletic statistics. The same goes for anecdotal evidence about technology companies, and unfortunately some technologists miss out on great opportunities based on what is often dated or inaccurate information.

When I start a search for software engineering talent with a new client company, I  know that it is only a matter of time before I will hear a candidate telling me that he/she has heard that my client has flaws. No company is immune, and I always dig deeper to find out what the candidate has heard. Sometimes the information is so outlandish that it can be immediately dismissed, but more often than not there is some truth in the dirt, and it’s important to find out as early as possible about any skeletons in the closet.

When presented with patterns of information that paint my client in an unflattering light, I go to the client with the ‘word on the street’ and ask if there is any merit to the stories. Most shops own up to past sins and how they remedied the situation, or sometimes they say that the issue is still an issue.

Part of the problem is a general mistrust of the messenger (recruiters) by the tech community, with the prevailing thought that recruiters lie.  Some do. Another potential issue is that companies looking to hire tend to describe their environment as they would like it to be and not as it actually is. Self-assessments of work environment, the quality of an engineering team, and internal development process will often be at least slightly biased.  Lastly, the web is a tremendous resource for finding negative opinions on companies from disgruntled former employees, but probably not a great tool for honest company reviews.

The inspiration for this blog post was a discussion I had last week with a candidate.  I was giving him details on a new client company and the candidate told me that he had heard a few years ago that they suffered from high turnover, poor technical leadership, and the engineering staff was overworked.  I told him I would look into this as I had not heard any of it before, and this candidate told me that at this point he was not interested in pursuing the opportunity.

I immediately contacted an engineering director at the client and asked about the feedback.  The manager responded that their turnover was about industry average and provided numbers for the past year.  He told me that there indeed were two managers who were ineffective and they had been released earlier in the year, and the managers that replaced them have received positive reviews from their engineering teams.  Lastly, the manager described several improvements they have made over the past two years to try and appease the development staff.  These changes included the creation of an application support group that would tackle client issues and bug fixes that the development team had previously handled, upgrading the physical office space and equipment, and redesigning the floor plan to increase developer collaboration.

I was quite pleased with this response, as it answered all of my candidate’s concerns while acknowledging that there was some historical truth to the information.  When I shared this information with the candidate, he felt that he would like to pursue the opportunity.  I don’t know if he will or won’t get the job at this point, but his ability to keep an open mind at least gives him the chance to compete for a good career opportunity.

Simply put, a bad reputation or stereotype is difficult for any organization to overcome, even if the information is old or completely inaccurate.  Many companies are able to change with the times and make improvements over time, and technology companies are perhaps more adept at reinventing themselves just based on the ever-changing world of software development.  If you don’t want to miss a potential great opportunity, weigh the evidence you have seen and keep an open mind.


  1. stimpy77 (Jon Davis)

    “the obvious reason is that bad news is sticky and tends to travel fast”

    I worked at a company that has a well-established bad reputation. The obvious reason, however, why this reputation gets around is not because as you describe “bad news is sticky”. It’s because when people dislike their job, they quit their job, and that’s how the rumor transports itself to the desks of recruiters. “I am leaving [or left] my job. Got anything better?” “Why? What happened?” Whereas, when people like their job, they stay at their job–hence, recruiters more often have no idea that there is a good reputation for that company because the candidates from that company aren’t showing up looking for work.

    This is a conversation that won’t happen: “I love my job. I don’t need a better one.” “Why? What happened?”

    • fecak

      Thanks for the comments. I actually assume that the less I know about a company, the better that company is to work for (in most cases) as their turnover must be pretty low if I don’t know anything about them. Regarding bad news being sticky, I can recite lists of companies that people have told me bad things about their employers (and often the names of the people that go with that list) from memory, but I don’t seem to remember the ones that loved their companies. Maybe it’s just sticky for me.

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