Are “Concerned Employees” Destroying Your Brand?

You think your reputation is excellent. After all:

  • Your recruitment video is top-notch.
  • Your “brand ambassadors” are the best on campus.
  • Your marketing materials are beyond compare.

But your news coverage is kind of…pesky. Employees “talking trash,” who never took their case to you before “spilling it.”

Consider these examples:

How can you avoid these kinds of disasters? It boils down to common sense, but you have to overcome your natural biases first. Follow these steps:

  1. Change the organizational communication paradigm from “mostly talking” to “mostly listening.” Reputation depends on perception, and if employees are saying negative things about your organization, you will be perceived badly. You’re better off if they say them to you first.
  2. Upend the hierarchy, and privilege input from the lowest ranks first. Remember that the employee closest to the action – i.e., the operational reality of the organization – is not the employee who makes the most money or has the highest status. You depend on these people as sources of intelligence. Do not be foolish and ignore or marginalize them because they don’t sit in the C-suite.
  3. Reward employees for reporting their concerns. Nobody wants to lose their job by being branded a troublemaker. Unfortunately, too often that is exactly the case – when people speak up, they get hammered. You have the power to change that easily, by establishing formal channels that reward people who provide information that helps to keep the organization functioning properly.

All of the above must be carefully considered. You don’t want to wind up with a free-for-all, an endless gripe session, or a negative work environment. But you do want to harness and leverage the most valuable resource you have – your employees.

Remember that people are your business and your brand. They have a stake in your success – it is their success. And they want to work with you to preserve it.


Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government. Photo by Art G. via Flickr.

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Mark Hammer

Many people mistakenly think that what is paramount is a flawless system for protecting whistleblowers. I liken that to having a health-care system with enough donors and surgical teams to provide heart transplants for anyone who needs them. Or having a crack team of people to close the barn door after the horse has left. A bit late in the game.

What every organization needs is a culture, and infrastructure, that makes whistleblowing *unnecessary*. Not IMPOSSIBLE, but as unnecessary as possible. And certainly the steps/approaches you outline go a long way towards that. I would add to your list the fostering of a workplace culture where admitting mistakes, accompanied by declarations of how they might be remediated, is permissible and viewed as such.

I’m sure there will always be employees with Quixotic notions of bringing down imagined enemies with the press, but the majority will simply be people who don’t understand why certain decisions are being made the way they are, and have no means available (or made known to them) to address their concerns, contribute to the decision-making, or simply better-understand the contingencies that the decision-makers are dealing with.

As always, I refer people to the excellent review of whistleblowing cases that the Merit Systems Protection Board published in late 2010. They noted a high proportion of disclosures dismissed by the courts as not being in response to wrongdoing, but simply “debatable managerial decisions”, and within the legal purview of the manager. The decisions (by the managers) may well have been plain old dumb, but they were legal. But when the employees don’t understand, or aren’t provided with, the rationale, or any means to either learn the rationale, or challenge it, “pesky press” is what you end up with.

Steven Ollek

Spot on Mark – I like the mantra ‘mostly talking’ to ‘mostly listening’, but you are right. Instead of investing in whistleblower and bellringer programs, we should be more accepting of faults and problems pointed out by peers and subordinates. Where’s the sense of empowerment when your ‘whistling’ is thrown over a fence, to an unnamed office, and never heard of again 9 times out of 10? Did even the whislebowing office or bellringer office even ‘mostly listen’ then? Thoughts to ponder this morning that’s for sure!

Mark Hammer

Thanks, Steven.
I think it also pertinent to note that, when a high proportion of disclosures end up getting dismissed (with the discloser ultimately legally unprotected), it undermines faith in the system, and I don’t think any public service can afford that. Like I say, it shouldn’t be *impossible* to bring errors in others’ judgment to light. And if it starts to *feel* impossible, you’ve got a problem on your hands.
Hopefully, the end result of fostering a work-place culture where mistakes or misgivings can be freely admitted and corrected, and perceived mistakes clearly explained, is that fewer things turn *into* disclosures of wrongdoing, and a higher proportion of what reaches that stage, are deemed supportable. So, more problems headed off before they become truly problematic, and the few things that do turn into problems satisfactorily addressed in a manner that breeds confidence in the system.
That’s win-win in my books.

Catherine Andrews

Change the organizational communication paradigm from “mostly talking” to “mostly listening.”– I feel like anyone in any situation, whether it’s workplace or personal, could benefit from doing more listening, less talking. Thanks for the reminder!