Flirting with Disaster: What to Do When Your Talent Brand is in the Toilet

October 15, 2014

When BP’s head of talent stood up at LinkedIn Talent Connect a few years ago, many conference-goers were surprised, and even impressed.

Jon Tait shared how his team shaped BP’s employment brand strategy in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon crisis. It proved a popular session, partly due to curiosity, but also because people wanted to learn how one actually could save an employer brand after a crisis of that magnitude.

We all know a crisis could happen to us. It’s certainly not the last story you’ve seen about a company with problems. What’s interesting is how some have been able to turn things around and improve the perception of their organization as a place to work. After all, if disaster does strike you still need talented people to work for you, perhaps then more than ever.

If you do find yourself faced with a company crisis, we’ve collected some best practices to help you find your way, from organizations that have been there and came out on top.

1. Ask, don’t assume

It’s natural for any negativity directed toward your brand to also impact your ability to hire. But as you think through any changes to your employment branding approach, don’t assume the market is against you in force – listen to what people are saying and find out for yourself.

Tait, now BP’s “most of world” recruiting director, did some research with target candidate pools and learned that public sentiment wasn’t as negative as expected, and many prospective candidates didn’t realize BP was hiring. His team used that information to help build a business case for investment in their employment brand, and to inform their candidate engagement strategy.

2. Play your employee card

Employees are your best talent brand ambassadors, and you’re going to need them. Let them know how you’re handling the problem and what the next steps are. Arm them with information and stories about your progress. Find out what they need to continue doing their jobs well, and provide it.

If you’ve already laid the foundation with a strong brand and corporate identity, it will provide a rallying point during tough times. Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally developed the “One Ford” concept in 2006 as part of a turnaround effort. The concept of one team, one plan and one goal: “an exciting, viable Ford delivering profitable growth for all,” provided a common vision for employees and was even outlined on a wallet-sized card they carry.

According to Forbes contributor Sarah Miller Caldicott, “the cultural shifts Mulally put in place impacted how Ford’s teams were structured, how collaboration was fostered, and how innovation itself ultimately came to flourish under his guidance.”

Even on the heels of the financial crisis of 2009 the company made a 2010 Best Places to Work list and continues to get high marks on employee-feedback sites.

3. Communicate, don’t hibernate

Although understanding market perception and empowering employees to evangelize about the company will serve you well, you should be communicating with your audience, too – even if you prefer to keep a low profile until things die down. If you’re not out there engaging and providing perspective, it doesn’t mean the conversation around your brand goes away.

Fighting head on is one option. After arguing against the release of its diversity figures for a few years, Google published them voluntarily, revealing a largely white, male workforce. As Laszlo Block, Senior Vice President, People Operations, explained in a blog post, “being totally clear about the extent of the problem is a really important part of the solution,” and directed readers to the company’s diversity page for information on how Google is working toward a solution.

Take a page from Google and make use of your owned channels. Share positive stories on your blog and social media sites. Humanize your company by celebrating achievements, spotlighting new hires, chronicling team-building events or showing groups at work on impactful projects. BP launched a “people-based” recruitment campaign post-crisis, including a series of videos in which employees explain how they are proud or inspired by their work, giving prospective candidates a positive set of visuals to balance the bad press.

If crisis does strike (knock on wood), remember that your company’s employment brand is a moving picture, brought to life by your employees. By taking an informed approach, involving your team and proactively crafting your employer brand, you’ll improve your chances of hearing an enthusiastic “yes” from that next great candidate. Just ask BP.

* image by addddee

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