Why we are more vocal about loo rolls than our jobs

People feel compelled to review everyday items but are more reticent regarding their work

With jobs, unlike with loo paper, there are many axes to grind. Photograph: Getty Images

With jobs, unlike with loo paper, there are many axes to grind. Photograph: Getty Images

Mon, Jul 21, 2014, 01:00

Last week I went online to buy my weekly groceries and was attempting to order toilet paper when, instead of clicking “add to basket”, I clicked “reviews” by mistake.

Thus I stumbled into a world I barely knew existed. For the past couple of years, hundreds of customers have been anonymously telling the Ocado website what they think of its lavatory paper. Some reviews are basic: “This loo roll is VERY thin and insubstantial” or “Great quality for the price”. Others are a bit more advanced: “You can use the packaging as a bin liner for your toilet wastebasket.” Or downright mystifying: “Quality is good, but sometimes a little ‘dusty’.”

Reading the reviews involves a heavy investment of time and effort and now means I must add toilet paper dust to my list of worries, but it does serve a minor economic purpose. Ocado stocks more than 60 sorts of toilet tissue, and faced with such a ludicrous degree of choice it could be helpful to know that, on average, customers don’t rate luxury Triple Velvet but they love the supersized product from Cushelle.

However, I suspect the main point of reviewing groceries is the odd pleasure people seem to get from doing it. It is as if the time we save by no longer pushing trolleys up and down supermarket aisles we spend drumming up an opinion on every item we’ve just bought.

Basic

Nothing is too basic to be written about, not even postage stamps. “Ocado puts them in a neat little envelope so they don’t get lost in your shopping,” writes one customer, while another tries something more humorous: “I have used this product before but disappointed that they failed to work when stuck on to an email.”

While people feel compelled to write reviews of everyday items, they are more reticent when it comes to doing something that would be far more useful – reviewing their jobs. Indeed nearly twice as many people have written about Waitrose Essential Toilet Tissue on the Ocado site as have gone on Glassdoor – which is to jobs what TripAdvisor is to holidays – and told us what it is like working at Ocado.

This is a shame – and a puzzle. The experiences of current and former employees should be the single most important thing to consider when choosing a company to work for. But despite the constant prompts the website gives to leave reviews, only a tiny proportion of employees at big companies seem to want to tell the world anything about their jobs at all.

The most obvious explanation is fear. Even though the reviews are anonymous, and even though the sites swear they will never pass on your details, people may still worry that if they said their company was a shambles, retribution could be more severe than if they were to denigrate, say, Andrex’s new Moist Toilet Tissue Wipes.

Axes to grind

The second is that with jobs, unlike with loo paper, there are many axes to grind, meaning it can be a mistake to take what is written too seriously. Last week a reader emailed me alerting me to the Glassdoor page of a small financial services company. Various employees and former employees had left spectacularly damaging reviews, talking of the “psychopathic culture” and “horrific treatment of everybody”. The only thing they admired was free coffee and the gallows humour of fellow workers. A few days after these were posted came a suspiciously large number of glowing, four-star reviews, all written within a short time of each other. These have been followed by another one-star review, ending: “Advice to management: spend less time writing fake reviews.”

This brings me to the most important reason why online job reviews will never have the power of reviews for groceries. My loo paper is the same as your loo paper – assuming we both went for Waitrose Essential.

But my job isn’t the same as your job even if there is the same name on both our pay cheques. Mine depends on the person I report to and the people I sit with and what I’m doing as I stare at my screen. So my review of my job, which would go something like this – bright people, we share sweets and jokes, but I have to generate all my own ideas – would be of almost no relevance to anybody, apart from me. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)

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