Unhappy customer asked to sign legal agreement not to write a bad review

After a major kitchen renovation, an Ottawa couple say the contractor has refused to reimburse money they’re owed unless they sign a legal agreement preventing them from publishing a negative review.

Wary of online reviews that can hurt or even sink a small business, companies are taking steps to protect themselves. But customers sometimes balk at what are called non-disparagement clauses.

Norma Domenech and her husband Bart Hos have lived in their home in the city’s Glebe neighbourhood for 15 years, and decided last year to overhaul their outdated kitchen.

They hired Ottawa General Contractors (OGC) based on glowing reviews online, but their own experience was less positive.

The pair said they had complaints about the length of time the renovation took, in part because some work was redone.

To appease the couple, the company offered them $1,000 as a “goodwill gesture” and agreed to compensate them for some of the financial headaches they encountered.

For example, workers made a cabinet too small for the kitchen sink, and the couple had to buy a more expensive sink to fit it.

In total, the homeowners said the contractor agreed to reimburse them $1,833.

But before OGC would write the cheque, the company insisted the pair sign a legally enforceable document.

“There was a clause that included a non-disparaging agreement, essentially blocking us from writing any negative reviews,” Domenech said.

“I thought, ‘This is unacceptable. I will not sign something like that.'”

In April, the kitchen still needed work, but the company said it wouldn’t take it on until the form was signed and the project was closed.

The company did return to finish the work in May, but has not released the promised cash.

Protection from false reviews

The document demands the couple refrain from all conduct that could “disparage or damage the reputation, goodwill or standing in the community of OGC,” including “writing negative reviews.”

A spokesperson for OGC declined CBC’s request for an interview, and said it would not discuss any specific project due to privacy concerns.

In an emailed statement, the spokesperson said the company is trying to protect itself from false reviews.

“It only takes one false review to go viral to scare clients away and do permanent damage to a small business,” the statement reads.

He wrote that the company did its best to satisfy its clients, but also noted it’s not uncommon for things to come up during construction that impact the schedule and cost of the project.

The intent of getting clients to sign an agreement not to disparage the company is to address the concerns of clients directly, rather than online, the spokesperson continued.

“Just like an individual’s reputation is important, the reputation of a small business is equally important and warrants protection,” the statement reads.

“OGC’s only policy is to satisfy its clients while protecting its well-deserved good reputation.”

When the couple refused to sign in April, a company representative emailed them to explain that the company’s lawyers “have made it mandatory to sign.”

Another email mentioned the company was looping its lawyers in on the dispute.

CBC has spoken to another OGC client who agreed to sign a similar agreement to get money the client said was owing from the company. CBC has seen that document, and has agreed to protect the client’s identity because of the worry  sharing the document may be in breach of the agreement.

A+ rating

Domenech and Hos feel the practice is unethical and may have skewed the company’s online rating.

The company has an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau. It also boasts 4.4 stars out of five on Google reviews, and an 86 per cent positive rating on the popular contractor review website HomeStars.

The founder and CEO of HomeStars, Nancy Peterson, said there should be no strings attached when it comes to getting a refund from a contractor.

“I think they’re being held hostage in this situation,” she said after hearing the claims of Hos and Domenech.

It’s unusual for contractors to require legally binding agreements like this, Peterson said, but clients do sometimes remove reviews from her site — usually because the business asked them to.

The review site has taken measures to prevent contractors from skewing reviews by lowering their score if many clients remove their reviews. The score is also lowered if the site learns of unscrupulous activity.

Meanwhile, the couple said they have tried to reach OGC about the money they’re owed, but haven’t heard back in weeks.

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