There’s been plenty of discussion and printing dedicated to the topic of corporate reputation, with a few chestnuts emerging as common themes – such as the merits of building a “goodwill bank” and the quick and dramatic impact a crisis can have on reputation. There are also many consultants selling their respective solutions to improving or rehabilitating a tarnished reputation. In my observation many of these programs leave out the employees; too often the diagnosis and prescription is heavily (if not exclusively) focused on external stakeholders. (A popular evaluation metric used by the Reputation Institute looks at “workplace” as a key factor, but their approach is based more on perceptions of the employer brand than employee outreach or behavior.)
There are several reasons why activities related to corporate reputation need to fully involve employees:
- Companies intent on measuring and managing their reputation ideally need to follow the same steps internally they would with consumers or customers: assessment, gap analysis, prescription, outreach, progress evaluation, etc. On the assessment front…employees need to fully understand and embrace the desired reputation to effectively deliver on the brand promise, so evaluation of their opinions and ideas is critical. Making assumptions about what employees know, feel or want on any topic is a risky strategy. Employees are a key part of the opportunity (or problem) and the solution.
- Employees help form the existing reputation and need to buy into the desired reputation. Some would argue a desired reputation that is not relevant or credible with employees cannot become reality, so any reputation program has to consider the internal gap and include appropriate solutions to move the employee needle. In short, new reputations cannot be developed in a vacuum.
- Much like in broader change efforts, the more employees are involved in defining the solution/strategy the more likely they are to be fully engaged…so companies should consider how they can engage employees in the process of defining and enhancing the corporate reputation. At minimum, companies should think about soliciting & leveraging the ideas and best practices of their teams.
- With the advent of social media, employees are more likely to help shape and drive the brand identity and reputation of companies online – employees are potentially the most credible fans and advocates, but also the most devastating critics. (This goes beyond the occasional “rogue” employee that breaks rules and ends up on YouTube, like these guys.) In the social media context individual, peer-to-peer interactions often have more traction than traditional, generic marketing activities. So any reputation program should – at minimum – have a clear roadmap for how employees can help drive the reputation through their formal and informal online activities. (FYI – the external reputation analysis can confirm how much employees drive the opinions…good or bad.) Some progressive companies have taken this a step further and developed programs to fully leverage their employees as an army of online ambassadors and fans (e.g. Dell.)
- Whatever the gap between desired and existing reputation, employees must be provided with the direction, tools and support to help achieve the ideal reputation…after all they are the ones developing/delivering relevant products and services and shaping customer interactions. This can go well beyond communication into HR programs, training, recognition, incentives and so on.
- To give credit, many companies address the direct link between their employees and their reputation in their community outreach programs, but these are often limited, choreographed initiatives where employees are encouraged to participate in specific, company sponsored programs. I would argue these programs are almost seen as a price-of-entry for any company and provide limited reputation benefit unless they are seen as particularly noteworthy. Furthermore, I know from personal experience many companies don’t explain the purpose or importance of these outreach activities to their employees. In short…not good enough.
- The inherent value of an integrated, multi-audience reputation program is it helps ensure the program is focused & aligned across various stakeholders and internal teams. Too many companies fail to make clear links between their brand, reputation, vision/values, etc. and employees are left confused, so it’s important to have a holistic approach that connects the dots.
With all the effort and spending in the area of corporate reputation, it’s time to put further thought in the critical role of employees in the development, promotion and protection of company reputation.