Oct. 5, 2012 at 1:24 PM ET
Travelers may love TripAdvisor.com, but hotels often gripe that unverified bad reviews have cost them customers. Now a former hotel worker says a questionable review cost him his job.
“I’ve never heard of anyone being targeted specifically and actually being fired over a TripAdvisor review,” Fred Keeler told NBC News. “I want to prevent this from happening to anyone in the future.”
Keeler said he worked as a bartender at the Four Points by Sheraton Philadelphia Northeast hotel for almost 14 years. Then everything came to an abrupt end in the spring. On April 30, a harsh review of the hotel appeared on TripAdvisor.com. Titled “Bad, Bad, Bad… Did I Say Bad!” and posted by a user named “Angelo G,” the review gave the Sheraton one circle out of a possible five – or a “terrible” rating. The review has since been removed, but a screen shot provided by KwikChex, an online reputation company contacted by Keeler, shows the reviewer complaining about everything from a “crappy check-in” to clogged shower drains.
Then, the reviewer singles out an employee.
“Well wait there was one good thing,” the poster wrote. “The bartender, I think his name was Fred said for $20 tip he would give me open tap all night, he said ‘they count the good stuff.’”
Keeler suspects a disgruntled co-worker actually wrote the post – an employee with whom he had a fight on the day the review was published, he said.
Keeler said he was summoned to human resources on May 3 and shown a copy of the post, with the portion containing his name highlighted. He said he categorically denied the allegation.
“Whoever wrote this said I did something that I did not do. They said that I told him that if you give me a $20 tip, I’m going to give you free draft beer all night. I told them flat out, I did not say that,” he recalled.
Keeler was fired five days later, he said.
Four Points by Sheraton Philadelphia Northeast declined to discuss the case, saying it does not comment on employee matters as a matter of company policy.
TripAdvisor said it couldn’t comment specifically on threatened litigation.
“However our policy is that if anyone feels they’ve been subjected to an unfair review, we ask that they contact us immediately,” said spokesman Brooke Ferencsik.
“We have a team of content integrity specialists that review in detail every report of suspicious content. If a review is found to be in breach of our guidelines, it will be removed from the site.”
TripAdvisor allows hotel management to respond to reviews written about their property.
But as an employee, it appears Keeler’s options were limited. He wrote a rebuttal and tried to post it among the hotel’s reviews, but he said TripAdvisor told him it couldn’t be published because he wasn’t a guest. He asked TripAdvisor to take down the review, but no action was taken, he said.
Keeler then sought help from KwikChex, which used TripAdvisor’s private message system to contact the review author, said co-founder Chris Emmins. After warning of impending legal action, the review was removed in August, he added.
Keeler called his job loss “utterly devastating.” He lost his health insurance and has only been able to find part-time work that pays much less than his previous position. He was in the process of buying a home when he was fired, so that fell through when he became unemployed, he said.
The effects of the review still sting.
“It was just humiliating,” Keeler said. “All my co-workers saw it, acquaintances, friends, relatives. Anyone in the country, in the world, could go on that site and look at the review of Four Points by Sheraton and it says right there, oh, Fred the bartender is stealing.”
TripAdvisor has become an online powerhouse, with more than 60 million unique monthly visitors.
Many hotel websites – like the recently redesigned home page for Best Western – prominently feature links to guest reviews of its properties posted on TripAdvisor.com.
But the company has also faced questions over the integrity of the user generated reviews and allegations that the content includes “false and malicious” posts.
Recent complaints against TripAdvisor have had mixed results.
In February, the Advertising Standards Authority in the United Kingdom told TripAdvisor’s UK version not to claim that the reviews on its website are from real travelers, or are honest, real or trusted. The action came after KwikChex and two hotels questioned whether those claims could be substantiated.
In August, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by the owner of the Grand Resort Hotel in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., against TripAdvisor after his property topped the site’s list of the “2011 Dirtiest Hotels” in the U.S.
“It does not appear to the Court that a reasonable person could believe that TripAdvisor’s article reflected anything more than the opinions of TripAdvisor’s millions of online users,” the judge wrote in his finding.
Meanwhile, Keeler is hoping to get his job back. It’s a longshot, he said.