• User reveals growing difficulty in maintaining anonimoty
  • Case highlights the big shift in privacy terms
  • Company will have to stem public fallout

Glassdoor has some corporate firefighting to do. The employer review / job marketplace hybrid is accused of breaching its own policy of anonymity for user reviews. One user discussed the growing difficulty of staying annonymous, with many Glassdoor users spooked by the claim and the company’s updated privacy policy.

The debacle underlines the increasingly thin tightrope that employer-review sites have to navigate to appease both employers and reviewers — all while adding new technical capabilities and fighting off potential legal challenges.

Anonymity abandoned

Last week, a blogger called Cellio (also known as Monica) made a post on online journal site Dreamwidth describing how Glassdoor had added her real name on the back-end for its own data-collection purposes. Tech magazine ArsTechnica followed up by interviewing Monica for additional details.

The story? U.S.-based Monica contacted Glassdoor by email earlier this month to help remove some information from her account. She had been using the site for around 10 years via a pseudonym. But instead of removing the data, Monica claimed that the Glassdoor tech support team took her name from the email and added her real identity to her profile on the back-end without her permission.

The cause of the confusion likely lies in Glassdoor’s integration of Fishbowl, the office “water-cooler” app its parent Japan-based Recruit Holdings acquired for an undisclosed sum in 2021. It’s a networking service that encourages candid conversation among workers about employers. It has a professional focus like LinkedIn, but is less about marketing and self-promotion than it is about straight talk on work.

The acquisition was a good fit for Glassdoor, except one significant differentiating factor — unlike Glassdoor, Fishbowl required users to verify their identity. In mid-2023, Fishbowl was integrated with Glassdoor, and every Glassdoor user was then automatically signed up for a Fishbowl account. Consequently, Glassdoor’s terms of service changed to require all users to be verified on the back-end.

Glassdoor’s terms now state that it “may update your profile with information we obtain from third parties. We may also use personal data you provide to us via your resume(s) or our other services.”

In other words, when a user provides information, it will now automatically cross-populate between all Glassdoor services, including Fishbowl.

“Glassdoor now requires your real name and will add it to older accounts without your consent if they learn it, and your only option is to delete your account,” Monica wrote on her blog.

Clear issues in back-end integration

Glassdoor did not directly address the concerns of back-end integration, but reiterated its commitment to public anonymity.

“Glassdoor is committed to providing a platform for people to share their opinions and experiences about their jobs and companies, anonymously — without fear of intimidation or retaliation,” a spokesperson for Glassdoor told the AIM Group by email.

“User reviews on Glassdoor have always and will always be anonymous. In the Glassdoor community, users always have the choice to post with their name or post anonymously with their company name or job title. Glassdoor has never and will never reveal a user’s name alongside their content, unless that is what the user chooses.”

For Glassdoor, verifying user identities on the back-end brings clear benefits, including data collection and cross-service log-ins. But it creates several key issues:

  • If Glassdoor is subpoenaed, or given a request for information, the company will now have the data and will have to provide it.
  • Likewise, the data is available if there is a data breach.
  • Employers could also potentially leverage real names and information used on Fishbowl to narrow and identify Glassdoor users.

“I feel like what they’re doing is sort of at cross purposes with the promises and goals of the Glassdoor review website,” Aaron Mackey, a lawyer for the U.S.-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told ArsTechnica. “If Glassdoor’s purpose is really to empower employees to speak candidly about a variety of things that might occur in their work — whether that’s the compensation, whether it’s the working conditions, whether it’s harassment or other workplace abuse — having the potential for your name to be associated with it, and having no choice but to provide Glassdoor with a real name is a problem.”

Glassdoor’s challenge is to continue building a business dependent on users for traffic but which is dependent on companies for revenue.

“Glassdoor has always straddled the uncomfortable reality that its users are what created the value for the company, but it monetizes that value by charging a hefty premium to companies by allowing them to pay to blunt the impact of negative reviews,” Derek DeVries, digital strategist at BlackTruck Media, wrote on LinkedIn.

The employer-review site offers employer branding services to companies and also posts job listings on a pay-per-click model, with an option to cross-post them on fellow Recruit-owned marketplace giant Indeed.

The company’s updated data-sharing policy may even breach data privacy laws in countries where they exist, most notably in the EU where general data protection regulation (GDPR) has been enacted since 2016. It’s unclear whether Glassdoor is cross-sharing data in other countries outside of the U.S. Glassdoor has a presence in 20 nations globally.

“I think that the big lesson here is how callously some in our industry treat the data entrusted to us by one of our two customer groups: candidates,” Steven Rothberg, founder and chief visionary officer at U.S.-based College Recruiter, told the AIM Group. “We must not lie to the candidates about how we’re going to use their data, or even mislead them by burying our plans deep into our privacy policies knowing that virtually none will read or understand the impact of those policies.”

German court ruling offers a precedence

Employer-review sites having access to users’ real identities is a legitimate concern for reviewers.

In Germany, a Hamburg court ruled in February that companies have a right to know the identity of their reviewers. The court initially rejected a company’s application for an interim injunction that would require Kununu, the local employer-review site owned by Germany-based recruitment business New Work, to delete a negative review. But the court ruled in favor of the company on appeal.

Kununu enables anonymous reviews on its platform.

The court also ruled that even if the review site acquires proof of activity from the user, this is not sufficient to ensure that a review does not constitute a legal violation. Moreover, it determined that reviewers cannot invoke data protection to justify their anonymity, asserting that companies must know everything they can to verify the legitimacy of a negative review.

“We consider the decision to be absurd and wrong,” Nina Zimmermann, Kununu CEO, told press after the ruling.

Around 10% of all reviews attract complaints from companies, a Kununu spokesperson told the AIM Group. Kununu said it employs 30 people to investigate the complaints, most of which focus on perceived slander and false statements.

Kununu doesn’t plan on abandoning anonymity, citing the ruling as “preliminary” and “not highest-instance decision” — suggesting the regional court doesn’t hold weight on a national level. The company has been forthright in defending its users’ anonymity.

Glassdoor has also been active in defending user rights, joining the EFF on multiple occasions to shield reviewers from potential retaliation by employers in the courts.

“They regularly would try to get [legal claims dropped] for their users’ speech when they believe that the user had a First Amendment right to speak about their employer. And they have done incredible work,” EFF’s Mackey said.

Nonetheless, Glassdoor will likely shed a significant number of users as a result of Monica’s story, which is already being spotlighted by TechCrunch, Wired, BusinessToday and major publications across Europe and Asia. What matters now is how it handles the blowback and what reassurances it can offer to stop the panic. It’s an unwelcome distraction for parent Recruit, which had to deal with the fallout from Indeed’s abandonment of the pay-per-application model in December.

In 2023, Glassdoor counted 55 million users worldwide and 180 million company reviews. In February, the site saw 45.7 million total monthly visits globally, according to Similarweb. It’s the No. 6 recruitment marketplace in the world by visits, according to AIM Group analysis.

Could there be a longer-term impact for the employer-review segment from this latest blow-up? Perhaps.

“Review platforms face a growing struggle to balance the validity of user profiles and the promise of anonymity,” Costin Tudor, the founder and CEO of Romania-based employer-review site WhereWeWork, told the AIM Group. “Fake accounts, data privacy concerns, and evolving tactics to bypass detection, the way we handle sensitive information or personal data, all contribute to these important threats.”

More recruitment marketplaces are adding employer reviews as a feature, but the ruling in Germany and a desire to placate revenue-generating employers will likely see a shift toward real profiles rather than anonymous reviewers in the future. In time, Glassdoor may want to make this switch as well, but not yet, at least not by design.

Debbie Stowe, Greg Spencer and Damian Shore contributed to this article

Related Articles