Honesty is the best policy: how to stop worrying and learn to love social media

The ideas that drive employer marketing and internal communications are based on a 20th Century paradigm: we’ll define what we want people to think, and then find an interesting way of pitching that to them. And this came about because these ideas were appropriated from the world of consumer marketing.

When the web came along in 1993, nothing much changed, as early web content was still fundamentally people or organisations talking about themselves. What’s changed in recent years is the explosion of user generated content – unofficial people who share unofficial opinions with everyone they know and many they don’t, about everything they do and buy. And where they work.

This challenges the idea of “brand guidelines” or “corporate messaging,” as most of what’s written about you won’t be following these – whether it’s an employee tweeting that their annual review was a waste of time, or an unsuccessful applicant writing about their interview in a forum. And for most employers, the majority of applicants will be unsuccessful.

There are a substantial number of people in the world with an opinion about you as an employer, and most of them don’t work for you, and won’t ask your permission. It includes everyone who works for you, everyone who has worked for you, everyone who’s applied, and everyone who’s just thought about it. And many people who merely know one of those people well.

You don’t own the web, and you can’t dictate your brand.

Many employers find this a worrying trend, as it opens them up to criticism, which may be unfair. But too often these are the same employers who inhibit other people – the ones who work for them and are happy – from putting the counter-case by imposing tight restrictions. The more you encourage people to give honest and personal opinions about you, the more likely it is that accuracy will rise.

This does of course mean that you have to be ready for fair negative comments to emerge. No employer offers the perfect employment experience to everyone, but if people know what it’s really like to work for you, is that necessarily a bad thing? People who apply anyway will know exactly what they’re signing up to, rather than leaving after three months because the reality didn’t match the marketing.

This offers an unprecedented opportunity to change fundamentally the relationship between employer and employee, and between recruiter and target market. It’s going to be a very different relationship, and a far more honest relationship – and you’re going to benefit from that.

It’s easier than it’s ever been for you to really engage with your workforce – whether it’s understanding how they feel, fixing problems or generating ideas. Likewise, it’s simpler than ever to find out what the outside view is. Try searching for “I used to work at…” to see what people actually say about you as an employer.

It no longer makes sense to think of a small group of specialists and consultants defining the employment brand. The employment brand is defined by a huge collective of people who can’t and won’t be controlled. What you can do is match your official position with the best of what’s said unofficially, and do so in a way that’s authentic and verifiable. As to the ‘worst’ of what’s said unofficially, you could ignore it. But you could also take the opportunity to improve it, or perhaps even accept it and talk about it? Not everyone is looking for the same work-life balance, for example, and you’d give credibility to the positive things you do offer by admitting some unavoidable drawbacks.

A few basic steps

We think there are a few general principles to follow, although what you’ll ultimately end up doing about it will depend on what you find:

Understand your audience. You have a good sense of the technical or professional competencies you’re looking for, but you also need to understand behaviours, motivators and preferences. Start by establishing what makes employees thrive, then look for people like them.

Identify your EVP. It’s the honest, simple answer to “Why should the people we want to recruit want to work for us rather than anyone else?” If people do choose you, the answer exists.

Review your ‘customer’ experience. What does applying to work for you feel like? What happens when you reject someone? What’s the reality of the working environment? What do you do when someone leaves? All of these will be talked about when you’re not there.

Gain support. Actively engage everyone in your workforce in what you’re doing. People already doing the job will explain it most convincingly, and the way a recruiting manager conducts interviews will have a bigger impact than your careers site.


This article was published in HR Magazine.


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