Over the last few weeks, stories about the changing role of employees within corporations have crossed my desk a number of times from a few different sources. I’m reading a great book by Cheryl Burgess and Mark Burgess called The Social Employee, which shares insights from some of the world’s biggest brands on the evolving role of the employee within the corporation.
An increasingly popular buzz phrase used by marketers today is “humanizing a brand.” This is the practice of making a brand more relatable and personable in the social media arena, where consumers prefer to engage with people rather than advertisements and broadcast messages. Many brands have concocted elaborate strategies to convince followers on social channels that their campaigns and community management efforts are genuine, transparent, and authentic (the social media buzzword trifecta).
The Social Employee cuts right to the chase: The best way to humanize a brand is to have the people that represent that brand speak on its behalf. Employees, a company’s most valuable marketing asset, have the tools to engage consumers and establish a brand persona while they’re on the job (customer service, marketing, sales, etc.) and off (personal blogs, Facebook posts, LinkedIn communities, etc.).
Yet, marketing and PR spin masters control the “humanizing” efforts and employee social media policies, for the most part, remain punitive. With so much emphasis on the importance of being customer-centric in a social enterprise, why has so little effort been placed on employee-centric strategies? Can a business truly profit from the social economy without first being employee-centric?
The Social Enterprise: Employee- vs. Customer-centric Strategies
Chris Heuer wrote a very well thought out articled called The Employee Centric Corporation and the Birth of the Employee Agreement that makes a case for a significant shift in the employee agreement. He writes:
I believe it is time for us to go beyond the constructs of the employment agreement and begin to embrace a new vision for an employee centric corporation. A simple, yet profound movement in this direction is the creation of an employee agreement that makes plain the more important aspects of the employee-employer relationship from an employee centric point of view, instead of a liability limiting corporate perspective.
He goes so far as to call upon employees to spearhead the change by taking to blogs and internal forums and posting answers to the following questions: Who am I? What unique value can I contribute? What is expected of me? Why am I here?
Where’s the Heart and Soul of the Business?
What I found fascinating about Chris’ article was his historical perspective on the steady decline in value that corporations have been receiving from their employees. He recounts the dedication that employees used to devote to their employers, especially in company towns where an employer was the center of the community ecosystem. The corporation was the heart and soul of the community; the values and goals of the business were intrinsically linked to the values and goals of the employees and vice versa.
Be it through corporate greed, a troubled economy or the shift from manufacturing to a service-based economy, employees are no longer soul-partners with their employers. Chris reminds us that “over the past few decades, there has become an increasing understanding that we are each CEO’s of our own careers.” We look out for ourselves. In fact, more and more executives are taking their corporate education and training and turning to consulting or forging new start-ups.
Chris takes this one step further by suggesting that employees have “lost faith in the corporation as companies and their leaders have proven they don’t really believe ‘that people are their greatest assets.’ Worse, most leaders have created strategies and policies that prove they don’t trust their employees as far as they could throw them.”
Reclaiming Employee Value
Social media has provided corporations a platform from which to reclaim value lost from loyal employees, yet it’s also instilled a fear that may prevent them from realizing that value.
Ric Dragon understands the fear that business executives have when considering the effect of “social employees.” In a post for Sensei Blogs, he wrote: “With the social media revolution, leaders can be forgiven for waking up at two in the morning with night-sweats. The rogue tweet by the slizzard employee; the YouTube video by hygiene-challenged pizza cooks; and the marketing campaign-turned-Facebook boycott are only a few of the stories.”
Among other case studies, he references the Red Cross employee who accidently tweeted from the corporate account how happy he was that one of his friends found a few bottles of beer and that “…when we drink we do it right #gettingslizzard.” It might have been funny coming from the individual’s account, but post that same message from the corporate account and you have a PR disaster that directly affects the bottom line.
Yet, isn’t that “humanizing the brand?” Being human means you make mistakes and that you’re not perfect. Unfortunately, social media is a flash mob waiting to happen; an errant, off-color comment by a friend at a cocktail party can be forgiven but that same comment posted online by a corporate employee, even when not using the corporate account, is a PR disaster in the making.
Shifting Focus and Resources
This poses a serious challenge for businesses that understand the value of social employees and wish to enable them. They see the value, but they also see the risk.
Frankly, with consumers having so much real-time access to social networks and connected devices, corporations have had no choice but to embrace the medium and respond. Unfortunately few are doing it right. The key, as Cheryl and Mark Burgess point out in their book, is to unlock the power of the social employee.
I’d argue that, due to the business’ fear and focus on corporate risk mitigation, employee social media policies have become punitive in nature. “You can’t do this.” “Do this and you’ll be fired.” A cultural change is required that would see social policies created that would educate and encourage employees to become more social instead of spelling out ways one can be fired for saying the wrong thing.
Achieving this might require a retraining of Boomer executives and a culture shift within the corporation. It certainly requires a different focus for HR teams and corporate managers seeking to leverage the power of the growing Millennial population in their work forces. As Chris Heuer argues, based on his experiences heading up the social media practice at Deloitte, “regardless of what your thoughts may be on the recent Millennials at work discussion, I can tell you with absolute certainty that what they and all other members of our work force want is to be told the truth.”
A new employee contract is required but it requires corporations to be brave and place faith and trust in their employees. Humanizing a brand cannot occur while employees are punished for being social. Even with the risks, enabling employees to become the voice of a business will unlock the value that has been lost in the last few decades.
Will the value of employees ever become central to the corporation? Or will they remain a means to an end?
Will corporations ever trust employees enough to encourage them to freely act as advocates online?
Can employees truly advocate in the social arena as the voices of the brand? Are the risks too great?
Can a business profit from social media without empowering their employees to freely act as brand advocates?
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego
Image Credit: Crosby Burns, via Creative Commons