The Employer Brand Dilemma

Feb 9, 2010

Picture 2Employer brand is the backbone of any great talent acquisition strategy. However, the advent of social media in recent years has complicated employer brand management. In his October 2009 article, “Revelation — Your Employer Brand Is No Longer Owned by Your Firm,” Dr. John Sullivan outlines how social media and other web technology has shifted the power in employer branding away from the organization to the masses. His article outlines very thoroughly how everything from text messaging to Twitter has affected this balance of power.

Effective employer brands are authentic reflections of a company’s culture, values, and purpose. Employer brand flows from the people of the organization, and it belongs to the people of the organization. To this end, employer brands aren’t created; they are discovered, expressed, and managed. While social media has certainly made the management of employer brand more complicated, in some ways, it has also made it simpler. The true impact of the tools outlined in Dr. Sullivan’s article is transparency. Employees have always owned the brand; they just haven’t had the tools to broadcast their opinions to large audiences as they do today.

Due to the transparency created by social media, it is no longer about simply discovering the brand and finding ways to express it through corporate and recruitment communication. Employer brand management has become a dynamic, full-contact sport that has broad implications for organizations. Embracing that the brand belongs to the people raises some sticky questions for human resources teams.

How much should your employees be able to use social media while working? If the employees own the brand and express the brand through their personal stories, how much access to social media should employees have at work? Those progressive folks among us advocate for the wide-open approach to social networking. “Give employees access to everything,” we argue. After all, social media tools are great tools not only for brand-building but also for learning and networking. The flip side of this argument is that these tools are also effective for wasting time, inappropriately sharing company information, and complaining to the masses about the company (brand destruction). Embracing social media and encouraging its use by employees will add tremendous power and credibility to an employer branding effort. Alternatively, blocking these sites at work would limit the potential of a frustrated employee airing their issues on the web in the heat of the moment.

Should the organization monitor what employees are posting on social media? Regardless of whether employees have access to social media at work, they have access to it at home and through their mobile devices. They are using it whether we embrace it or not. So, should we as employers be monitoring what’s being shared by our employees via those tools? This feels very “big brother” to most. However, how we feel about doing it may depend on what we do with the information. Do you monitor this information in order to “catch” people saying the wrong things? Or, do you monitor as a way of staying plugged into the pulse of your employees? The stream of information by your employees to the web via social media is in some ways an ongoing pulse of your employer brand that can be monitored at a very low cost.

Since employees own the brand, how much should you police the content of their social networking pages? Here’s where things get really sticky. How closely linked are the personal brands of your employees with the employer brand of your company? As an example, if your organization professes to be committed to inclusion and the celebration of diversity, how would you handle an employee who is a fan of several religiously oriented pages promoting that homosexuality is a sin and that gay marriage should never be legally recognized? What if this employee doesn’t identify himself as an employee on his page?

Let’s remember: we are talking about an employee’s personal Facebook page. Many argue that the company shouldn’t even be looking at these pages in the first place. On the other hand, this individual has friends on Facebook who certainly know that he works for your company and would make a value judgment about the company based on their impression of him. So, does this employee’s personal “brand” have a direct impact on the company’s brand? If so, what should the company do? Should this employee be asked to change their Facebook page? At what point would an employee be disciplined or even fired for content on their Facebook page?

What should you do when “the masses” are defining your brand in an unflattering way? Your employees (and the rest of the world) are going to talk about your company on social media whether you like it or not. There is no decision to make regarding social media — you must embrace it. Regardless of how great your culture or products, there are going to be people who will have complaints about your company, and they will air them on the web. You can’t stop this from happening, but you should have a strategy for how to deal with these issues. Since these issues are aired on the web in an open forum, the best way to respond to these issues is in the same way. Social media provides a forum to demonstrate to the world in an open forum how you respond to issues. The best model I’ve seen for doing this comes from the Air Force and is described here by David Meerman Scott.


Brand belongs to the people. And as we come to understand how social media is complicating the maintenance of a positive employer brand, our instinct might be that the “control” of social media is the answer. But, that is a battle than cannot be won. No matter what we do to block access at work, employees and others have access to social media in many other places, and there is no way to control what they say. So, what are we to do?

The only way to minimize the potential negative impact of social media on your employer brand is to work on the root cause and give employees less to complain about. What savvy companies are realizing about employer brand is that it is about culture more than it is about websites or logos. Once this mindset takes hold of your organization, your perspective on social media will change. Rather than trying to control and limit it, it will become something to be embraced as a way to get real-time, honest information about what’s going on with your culture and brand.

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