Why firms need to get serious about reputation management

Fear of being talked about negatively behind our backs is the square root of countless social phobias. We have a few defence mechanisms at hand – such as getting busy and ploughing on with our lives – but it’s a spectre that’s becoming ever harder to ignore, particularly given the ultra-tempting distractions provided by social media. Our profiles and output on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram provide complete strangers with at-a-glance hints of the kinds of people we are. While that may not completely cement a reputation, it certainly lays a lot of groundwork for people to build on.

Now, let’s go wider and consider the reputation challenges faced not by individuals, but organisations.

Clearly, the hurdles that a firm must leap to provide the outside world with a unified and – most importantly – upbeat image are immense. So many client relationships! So many different activities! So many potential choices of corporate branding! But perhaps a more crucial factor than any other: so many employees.

Rating and slating
Last month, HR specialists Lee Hecht Harrison Penna (LHHP) published some bracing research in the field of corporate reputation management, suggesting that firms must devote a lot more attention to it – as in, really ramp up their efforts – as time goes on. And that’s largely down to the influence of our young friends, the millennials. According to LHHP:

  • Negative comments or hearsay about a prospective employer would put off one third of 18 to 34 year-olds from accepting a job offer from that organisation. Just one in five 35 to 54 year-olds feel the same way.
  • Three quarters of millennials proactively seek out the views of existing or previous employees about a prospective employer before applying for the relevant role.
  • Almost 70% of 18 to 34 year-olds regularly scour the internet for reviews of prospective employers, compared to 47% of people in older age groups.
  • Millennials are twice as likely to share their true feelings about an existing, or previous, employer on the internet than colleagues aged between 35 and 54.

LHHP UK and Ireland chief Nick Goldberg said: “The opinions of employees are something employers have long been concerned with – yet what our research highlights is how that feedback is to become even more critical to managing an employer brand with the rise of social media, and in particular networks that specifically target a professional audience like LinkedIn and Glassdoor.”

Negative online ratings of a particular employer, he pointed out, can “seriously impact” that firm’s ability “to encourage the best people to join its ranks and stay there”. Those potential consequences, Goldberg added, should put enormous pressure on organisations to “future proof themselves” by implementing well-considered internal systems that will leave them with glowing reputations in the eyes of their staff.

So, what’s the best route towards effective reputation management? Well, for my money, it has always been to master the art of development.

Question time
Any current employee survey worth its salt would typically contain the question, “Would you recommend our organisation to a friend as a good place to work?”

Indeed, I’d argue that employee surveys should contain this question – on one hand because it shows a genuine interest in employees’ experiences, and on the other because it hints that the company in question is actually prepared to act, in the event that it ends up with a set of responses that aren’t quite what it was hoping for. The Number One stimulant that’s most likely to prompt staff to answer with an enthusiastic “Yes” is if they feel like they’re making some kind of progress; that the company is helping them to hone their skills and advance their careers.

If a staff base signals that it’s proud of where it works – and is playing a part in helping that firm acquire a great reputation – those people will invariably be working better, harder and smarter than less-excited employees at rival firms. In the reverse case, employees are more likely to have one foot out the door, treating the job as something to keep them ticking over until a better role comes along. That’s bad for the employee, and bad for their workplace.

I spoke to a millennial a couple of weeks ago who’d just received two job offers – each from a major financial institution – and he chose the one he chose because the firm offered a full-fledged development programme. He explored each company’s literature and concluded that one would be employee focused, with an interest in his success, and the other would be more concerned with its shareholders and clients. This is a prime example of a millennial taking the measure of a target firm’s reputation, and making the appropriate decision.

Tables are turning
Internal marketing is another area where firms have a golden opportunity to cultivate strong vibes about themselves – although it has changed a great deal in the past 10 years or so. Once upon a time, firms would use tools such as staff-focused magazines to nurture a sense that everyone was part of a happy, dynamic family and embracing the same culture. But those things tended to be quarterly – in other words, not nearly regular enough – and were a legacy hangover from the pre-internet days of communication.

In the online era, I would suggest that firms should take a “little and often” approach to using internal communications as a reputation builder. Activities and campaigns based around company intranets could definitely come into play here – as long as there is substance to them, and as long as they also focus on the development question, tapping into employees’ aspirations and providing them with evidence that those imaginings of future success can come to pass with the correct application of energy in a structured programme. Larger companies – particularly multinationals – would need to carefully consider how to allocate these online initiatives, to ensure that their messages permeate every part of their sizeable employee populations.

All in all, I’d say that this watershed has been a long time coming. Firms should realise by now that the trouble with this social-media thing is it cuts both ways. For years now, candidates have been reading spine-chilling, paranoia-stoking stories in newspapers and business journals telling them that hiring managers are regularly peeking at their Twitter and Facebook accounts to form judgements on their employability. Now, the tables are turning – and any employers who are somehow stunned that they’re now the subject of online criticism clearly haven’t nipped on to Tripadvisor lately to soak up morsels about the resorts they’ll be staying in during their summer breaks.

Simply put: if your firm is committed to doing something about it, then it won’t have anything to worry about.

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