Is Your Company Culture Killing Employee Engagement and Advocacy?

I recently attended a Page Up regional meeting on the topic of Employee Engagement, and found myself surrounded by senior communications leaders who were passionate about Internal Communications. The conversation was robust, lively and centered on the shift from employee communications to cultivation of employee engagement and advocacy. We all agreed that for too long, internal communications has been relegated to the “boring but necessary” function, and an after-thought eclipsed by core functions like earned media and executive visibility, and the more fun, sexy social and digital lanes from content to influencer engagement. But that is changing.

Sure, we all say employee communications is important – but do we walk the talk? Why should we? Consider the following:

  • The US unemployment rate is hovering below 4%. To say that talent is in the driver’s seat is an understatement.
  • As Generation Z begins to enter the workforce, we know that they are seeking a truly customized employee experience. They want to have real impact, and expect to have more regular and one-on-one conversations with their managers and company leadership.
  • We know that consumers are increasingly voting with their values in addition to their wallets. How you treat your employees matters to your customers, and they rely on the employee ambassadors to shape those judgements. In fact, in MWWPR’s most recent CorpSumer™ study revealed that 81% of CorpSumers (people who make purchase decisions based on company reputation and values) place employer brand as their top criteria for evaluating a company and its products.

It’s no wonder that companies are scrambling to create Employer Brand campaigns and encourage employee advocacy but we’ve also seen employee advocacy initiatives backfire, where the very tools companies have provided to employees have been used to organize protests against their employer. We’ve seen it at Google over its work with ICE and Facebook related to facial recognition software and privacy.

Three important questions to ask yourself before you launch that employer brand campaign:

  1. Have you created an employee experience worth bragging about? How do you know? Before you pursue any initiatives designed to encourage employee advocacy, it is important to be honest with yourself about your culture as it is today…not as it was in its heyday, or how you hope it will be in the future. The best way to do this is to really listen to what your employees are saying and go beyond the employee survey. Employee satisfaction does not equal employee engagement or advocacy; a simple glance at any company’s Glassdoor profile will show you that there can be a big discrepancy between what employees share on an employer-sponsored survey and what they think and share online. As Gen Z enters the workplace, they will leave their mark on company cultures, with a shift from ping and perks to placing a premium on personal interactions and face to face conversations, despite being the iPhone and Instagram generation. Things that used to be differentiators, like diversity and inclusion, are becoming table stakes. Generation Z is so accustomed to diversity that they don’t even see it…unless of course, it doesn’t exist. One of the biggest challenges in building a positive employee experience is navigating the multi-generational workforce and acknowledging the difference in priorities among them. This highlights a need for the trend of customization and personalization of everything, to create individualized employee experiences because there is no one size fits all.
  2. Are you sending your employees mixed signals? So, you’ve created a brag-worthy culture, but somehow you still aren’t getting the kind of employee advocacy you’ve hoped for. An overly complicated or restrictive social media policy may be to blame. You trust your employees to represent your brand in their daily interactions at work – they may be interacting with business partners, customers and influencers routinely. If we entrust our employees with our brand and reputation as they do their work, can trust them to talk about their work. It is really that simple.
  3. Are you treating your employees like an earned channel? We’ve all heard employees referenced as an important, under-leveraged channel. But what kind of channel are your employees? Too often, companies approach employee advocacy as a birthright – something that employees owe their employer, as if they were an owned or paid channel. But employees are an earned channel, and they perform that way. (This was my aha moment of the afternoon.) Employee advocacy is earned, not owed. This means that the story you want then to tell needs to be authentic, relevant and true. Employees won’t lie for you on social media. Being an ambassador should not require giving up your personal brand voice. And since the whole point of employee advocacy is to reach and engage their personal networks, those fans and followers will sniff out and reject anything fake faster than you can hit like or share.

The power and opportunity of employee advocacy is clear, particularly in a not-so-new reality where employees will have multiple jobs and even multiple careers in their lifetime. Your employer brand becomes an important part of your employee’s resume – one they rely on as they chart their personal career paths. Employers, employees, and alumni all have skin in the game – it’s up to us as communicators to ask the critical questions and create the program to harness that power.