The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Employer Branding During a Pandemic

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Apr 13, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, company after company has sent out mass emails about their response to the virus with assurances that they are taking measures “to ensure the health, safety, and security of their employees.”

Chances are, you’ve dumped several of these emails straight into the trash without reading them, because ultimately, these emails are just formulaic words. In a crisis, you can’t hide behind what you say you do; you are judged by what you actually do. People want authenticity, and we can all smell insincerity from  100 yards away these days.

They say that you learn the most about someone when that person is put under pressure. The same can be said about an organization, and the coronavirus is currently placing pressure on every organization, regardless of industry. 

For years to come, how companies respond to this pressure will define their employer brand, dictating how current and future employees perceive them. So let’s take a closer look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of companies’ coronavirus responses.

By learning from what organizations are doing right — and wrong — you can not only survive this crisis but come out the other side with a more impactful employer brand. You may even look back at 2020 as the year you cemented an authentic foundation of who you really are, galvanizing a culture stronger than ever.

The Ugly: A Profits-First Approach

We’ll start with the ugly. Nearly every company says that they’re “people-first,” but some companies are just “profits-first, people-second.”

The absolute worst thing you could do for your employer brand right now is sacrifice your employees’ health and safety to protect your profits. Doing that tells your current — and future — employees that you do not care about them, and who wants to work for a company like that? Certainly not the talented individuals who drive company success.

A prime example of the profits-first approach is GameStop. While many businesses were closing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, GameStop remained open, asserting “essential” status. Full-time employees could use paid time off (PTO) to avoid coming into work, but the many part-time workers, with no such PTO benefits, were forced to make a hard decision between endangering their health or losing their job. 

Another example is Amazon, which is arguably facing a much more complex challenge compared to GameStop. Unlike GameStop, Amazon is truly an essential service, with their workers helping to provide food, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and other necessities. 

Amazon cannot simply close its warehouses, but it could better support and protect its workers at this time. Multiple Amazon facilities have had positive test cases for COVID-19, and workers are calling for safer working conditions, including better access to masks and gloves, as well as benefits like hazard pay and more sick pay.

One of the best ways to think about an employer brand is as a mutual value exchange of give and get — what employees must give to the company and what they get in return.

This value exchange brings both clarity and certainty for people to assess easily, “Is the give worth the get?” 

As a result of the pandemic, the “give” has changed for many employees, upsetting the balance. Many companies, like Amazon, are now asking for far more “give” — including risking one’s health — without providing additional “get.” The result is that an employer brand that was once adequate no longer is and what was once clear is now uncertain.

The Bad: Toxic Working Conditions

Ensuring employees’ physical health and safety is the bare minimum for companies during this crisis. Even organizations that are protecting their workers as much as possible are still making employer brand missteps. With social distancing and stay-at-home orders in effect, the nature of work has changed, moving online, and not all organizations have handled the transition well, resorting to either a complete lack of management or too much micromanagement.

In a time of change and fear, people want clarity, certainty, and authenticity — they want the truth, even when it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. By starting there, you can move forward together as one team, even when you have to ask more from your people under conditions that are far less than ideal for anyone.

The adversity employees face every day is usually swept under the carpet when it comes to attracting, engaging, and retaining talent, but it is the very ingredient to providing authenticity and bringing a real sense of the purpose, impact, and belonging we all require to sleep well at night and feel good about the contribution we make each day. By sharing their real challenges, organizations can bring people closer and encourage them to rally together.

In the absence of clear communication, people are left feeling isolated, under-appreciated, and undervalued. It is thus critical that companies properly convey impending challenges and what they expect from their people (the give), but they must pair this with the benefits and all that their people stand to gain (the get). Without both, the message will fall flat. 

An example is the message that The Wall Street Journal‘s managing editor Karen Pensiero sent to staff about what the paper expected of them as they worked from home. It was shared in a tweet by journalist Ben Smith.

Staff were told to “respond within just a few minutes to a Slack or Google Hangout message” and “keep your phone’s ringer turned on and answer it when it rings.” The general tone of the message was summed up by the closing statement: “Basically, because we can’t just walk up to each other’s desks right now, we need to be just as receptive and reachable virtually as we are when we’re in the office.”

While the message laid out clear expectations for employees’ “give,” it glossed over the real difficulties people are facing, like needing to care for children home from school. What’s more, there was no “get.” Working in an office is simply not the same as working from home. Employees must face and handle different challenges, and as such, they require additional “get” from the company for balance, like greater support and freedom, where they are not tied to their computer and micromanaged minute by minute.

The Good: Putting People First

Finally, we come to the good. The pandemic has offered a unique opportunity for employers, even those with less-than-ideal reputations, to redefine their employer brand.

A current criticism of many companies is the failure to provide adequate sick time, which forces people to choose between their health and their livelihood. 

To address this issue, Walmart and Sam’s Club, leading with empathy, clarity, and certainty, will start taking the temperature of each employee to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Those with a fever will be asked to return home but will still be paid. Walmart will also be making gloves and masks available to employees who want them.

Many other companies have provided additional PTO for employees or have committed to paying workers through the coronavirus shutdown. Goldman Sachs is giving staff 10 days of paid family leave to account for additional caring responsibilities. Apple, after first announcing it would be suspending some contractors in janitorial, bus driving, and other such fields, has reversed course and committed to paying them through the shutdown. 

Some companies, including Facebook and JPMorgan, have even offered bonuses to employees to help them through this time, and more and more CEOs and senior executives are announcing up to 100% cuts in their own pay to save the jobs of others.

These actions demonstrate that these companies are listening to what their employees need, and by taking action that people deeply appreciate, they are strengthening their employees’ sense of belonging.

What these businesses understand is that there are two major priorities to contend with right now: 

The first priority is your people. You must ensure their safety and lead with empathy for their personal situations. You must help them deal with change, the isolation of working from home, the difficulty of juggling family life and work, and their worries about loved ones.

The second priority is business continuity. You must maintain basic financial survival, face logistical challenges, and manage to run your organization under unprecedented circumstances.

It’s important to recognize that the second priority relies upon the first. The only way you will maintain business continuity is through your people. Your people are deeply invested in your company’s financial survival, as it is directly tied to their own, but the only way you will receive the “give” you need from employees is if you first provide them with an appropriate “get” — safety and empathy for their personal situations.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Workplaces are being put to the test as they look to support and protect their employees in this unprecedented time of need while balancing the challenges and business needs at hand. 

In the future, when you look back on this crisis, will you see an attitude of profits before people, or overwhelming evidence of mistrust and micromanagement that led to disengaged, unmotivated employees? Or will you see a company that took care of its workers and responded with clarity, certainty, and authenticity, inspiring its people to pull together and lead the business through the crisis?

Actions speak louder than words. People care far more about what you do and how you make them feel than what your employee value proposition says. Your actions now will not only dictate how well you survive this crisis but also define you — and the talent you attract and retain — for years to come. So for the sake of your people, your company, and your employer brand, act wisely. Put people first, and lead with empathy, authenticity, and clarity.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.
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