HR Administration

The Last Word: Tapping Social Workers

By Ronald Alsop

May. 12, 2011

Ford must be a good company because my neighbor likes working there.” That comment about Ford Motor Co. came from a respondent to a corporate reputation study I was the editor of a few years ago. Though it was simply put, the statement impressed upon me just how powerful employee word-of-mouth can be in forming favorable—or negative—perceptions. Indeed in a later reputation study, my colleagues and I found that 84 percent of respondents considered word-of-mouth messages from employees credible, compared with 75 percent for media coverage of a company and 70 percent for PR and advertising spiels. Only an individual’s own personal experiences with a company carried more weight than the words of its workers.

As this month’s story on employee “brand ambassadors” shows, companies can try to shape word-of-mouth messages to work to their advantage. They can encourage workers to become ambassadors of sorts to burnish their reputation as a good employer and corporate citizen, and to tout products and services. Of course, employers can’t be heavy-handed and dictate what people say.

But like PepsiCo Inc. and IBM Corp. in our article, companies can provide communication tools and suggested messages to enable employees to spread positive information to friends and family. And these days, employees’ reach can extend well beyond their inner circle as their tweets and posts ripple through the blogosphere and social media networks.

Yet, because of the untamed nature of social media, companies increasingly view employee communication to the outside world with more wariness than eagerness. They worry that workers are more apt to gripe about them than glorify them on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

A recent study by Forrester Research Inc. indicates that, unfortunately, employers’ fears appear to be well-founded. The survey of 5,519 workers in North America and Europe found that critics far outnumber cheerleaders. When asked whether they would recommend a job at their employer to a friend or family member, 27 percent were classified as promoters; 29 percent, neutrals; and 43 percent, detractors. As for touting their company’s products and services, 27 percent were promoters; 24 percent, neutrals; and 49 percent, detractors. Forrester observed that, “It’s entirely possible that the struggling economy has kept disgruntled workers in their jobs longer than normal, artificially depressing scores.”

Which employees are most likely to sing the praises of their company? North American workers, senior managers, and employees in sales account management, retail sales, finance and human resources, according to the Forrester study. And in North America, technology mavens tend to be among the most ardent employee advocates. For example, nearly half of respondents who use social media tools for work were promoters, compared with only 31 percent of nonusers.

But it takes much more than technology to create employee evangelists. A vibrant culture is what truly inspires workers to crow about their companies. When I wrote my book The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation: Creating, Protecting and Repairing Your Most Valuable Asset, I found that the most revered companies understood the value of a distinctive culture and clearly defined mission in engaging employees and making them their reputation champions.

At FedEx Corp., committed workers proudly brag about the “purple blood” in their veins (a reference to the color of the corporate logo) and their dedication to customer service. Similarly, enthusiastic employees helped make Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. world famous for its culture of social and environmental activism and a playful workplace atmosphere.

While researching my book, I also discovered that some companies tried to promote positive word-of-mouth long before corporate intranets and social media existed. In fact, a century ago Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. posted signs throughout its offices and factories with the simple dictum: “Protect our good name.”

In an advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post in 1915, F.A. Seiberling, then president of the tire maker, vividly described how the company’s reputation was linked with that of its workers: “Stripped to the waist, his huge torso streaming with sweat, a workman swings the heavy iron core to an iron table, and wrenches off a tire, which has just come steaming from the heater. His eye falls on the legend over his head, and he smiles. Our good name is also his good name. The two are intertwined. He will protect the one, while he subserves the other.”

Workforce Management, May 2011, p. 50Subscribe Now!

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