Long reads

What are candidates saying about you online?

23 Aug 2018 By Louise Farrand

Your hard-earned reputation means little if your business’s name is dragged through the social media mud. But there are ways to proactively manage the way candidates view you

Reputation management in the 21st century can be a challenge, particularly for employers. No longer able to trade off your gold-plated name or stellar lineage, social media means your walls are effectively made of glass. And that has rewritten the rules of employer brand – the reputation you hold among prospective employees.

A series of poor reviews in a public forum – or even just one memorable stinker – can taint a company in the eyes of a talented candidate. Negative news or catastrophic events travel fast. And make no mistake, jobseekers are hungry for information: four out of five look at company reviews and ratings when making decisions about a job, according to Glassdoor. Seven out of 10 jobseekers would not apply for a role until they had researched their would-be employer’s online reputation, according to a recent UK survey from Indeed. The face you present to the world online can have a huge effect on the quality and availability of candidates, and not just in senior or management roles.

As Katrina Collier, founder of social media recruitment firm The Searchologist says, a great deal of energy is required to change jobs, so it’s only natural that people are doing their homework. “When we are booking a holiday or making a purchase, we go online and look at what we can find out. In the same way, candidates are looking at you as an employer. Are you actually worthy of their time?”

CEOs who contributed to Tomorrow’s Leadership and the Necessary Revolution in Today’s Leadership Development, an August 2017 research report by Professor Peter Hawkins for Henley Business School, spoke of “living in a goldfish bowl” and being “constantly in the public eye”. 

One head of leadership development described the pressures of maintaining ethical clarity at all times, mentioning the recent examples of Apple’s tax avoidance, Sports Direct and its pay and employment conditions, and the sale of BHS. The same report quoted the speaker and author Margaret Heffernan, who said: “You can no longer control your public relations and so you need to be prepared for anything you do going public in a socially contagious manner.”

The basic tenet of responding to such a democratised environment is not to exercise protectionism, but to open up your organisation and become more transparent – albeit that is often easier said than done. 

“When I work with my clients, we talk about the culture of the organisation being its brand,” says Carrie Birmingham, founder of an eponymous consultancy which specialises in ‘crisis HR.’ “Those two things are no longer separate concepts. 

“HR directors need to be straightforward with very senior people and remind them that if you want to improve your employer brand and hire people, you need to run a business they want to work in; your best internal marketing is your employees and what they say about you in the public domain. Your external brand is an inside job, basically.”

Robin Dagostino, the creative services and marketing campaign lead for software company SAP’s global employer branding team, agrees. “There is no better way than to empower your employees to be advocates,” she says. SAP, she adds, encourages staff to post using the corporate hashtag if they attend a great event, documents social events, and asks employees to write posts for its careers page. 

This may seem like a basic building block of employer brand, but it is seen by many as fundamental. Collier points to #lifeatdell, which Dell employees have used to post almost 4,000 Instagram photos of themselves enjoying lunch in the staff canteen, taking attractive outside views of the company offices or travelling to international conferences. 

Marketing teams can then repost the photograph from company social media feeds or even on the recruitment site, says Collier. “You get more of the passive candidates who would see this stuff rather than the active jobseeker,” she adds.

Blogging on the company website is another way to project a positive image, says Dagostino. “We have over 80 stories on our career site, and you can search for keywords like work-life balance, women in leadership or early talent programmes. We have real stories of these employees and what they are thankful for – for example, one person wrote about paternity leave benefits. It makes it more real when [new hires] are deciding between company A and B.”

To make sure you are putting your energy into the right projects, find out what prospective employees want to know. Dagostino explains that at SAP, the team spends a lot of time looking at analytics, keeping a firm grasp on what questions candidates are asking and what they are keen to learn more about. That informs the company’s content strategy. “We want to listen, know what interests them, and give them examples about why it’s great to work for SAP,” she says.

Recruiters and hiring managers need to think about their own reputations as well as the company’s, adds Collier. “If a recruiter in a company gets in touch with you, you are going to find out who your hiring manager is and look them up,” she says. “There needs to be more effort made on personal profiles. Put a photo on your profile and make sure you are sharing stuff. 

“I know an amazing recruiter, she is about to start at this company and the head of talent acquisition has a LinkedIn profile photo that’s a panda. She is like, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I want to work at this company if the head of talent management has a profile that’s a panda.’ I know it sounds trivial, but it’s not. Be sure to have a photo where you look approachable, plus some information about you and the company. It all matters now because we live in Google world.”

But employer brand is not merely about the image you project. It is also, increasingly, about the interactions you have and the way you react to various degrees of negativity. Online criticism, whether through Google reviews or sites like Indeed and Glassdoor, might make for difficult reading but it can provide amazing opportunities to learn, says Collier. “If you see a thread that is the same through all the reviews – wow. You can sort your company out. It is dynamite. Employers need to stop being defensive and start saying, ‘Look at this feedback, what can we do with it?’”

“We respond to all our candidates who ask questions on Facebook, whatever question they might have,” says Dagostino. “We do the same on Twitter, WeChat and all the channels we own and operate. It is really important to engage and listen because it makes us better. It helps us understand what they are looking for and to improve.”

This approach is tough, however, when it comes to reviews. Glenn Elliott was CEO and founder of Reward Gateway, an employee benefits technology platform, when his assistant first urged him to take note of what was being said about the business online.

At first, Elliott was daunted. His reservations probably sound familiar to most people confronted with responding to honest – and often negative – feedback online. “The review format is pros, cons and advice to management. So even in a good review there would be things that someone is pointing out.”

He struggled with the anonymity of the reviews when it came to writing replies. “I couldn’t get my head around who I was talking to. You feel so powerless – who are they, what department are they in? Who am I talking to when I reply – other job applicants, the writer of the review, people who work for the company?”

After a while, though, something clicked for Elliott. “I thought, ‘Hang on, this is somebody that you have employed, or still employ, telling you what they think. This is a really important person. Whether they work for you now or they previously did, they trusted you, you trusted them,’” he says.

“I started to read and respond to them, ignoring the fact it was an anonymous platform, ignoring the fact it was public, but responding to it as I would to an email. That made a world of difference, just imagining the person. Even in the most vitriolic, furious review, you feel: ‘Oh God, it really went wrong for someone, it might have been our fault, it might have been their fault.’ You say: ‘I am really sorry that happened.’ That’s how I started, and once I started, it became easier.”

From the reviews, Elliott was able to glean valuable honest feedback about how to improve the business, he says. Even the odd malicious review gave him the chance to write a friendly reply and correct inaccuracies. 

There are three pitfalls to dodge when replying to online reviews, he says. “The first is responding at the wrong level. The classic Glassdoor error is the recruitment manager responding. [As a reader] you just assume they are glossing over things because they are the recruiter. The response should ideally be from the CEO.

“The second is companies who only respond to the nice reviews. The bad ones are just left hanging. It makes you assume they must be true.

“The third mistake is that people think their job in responding is to defend the company. It’s not, it’s much bigger than that. You have to listen, try and understand, empathise, investigate – if someone says, ‘I had a really bad experience with X,’ maybe a change needs to happen. Maybe they are helping you by saying there is something wrong with your business and you need to say, ‘I am really sorry about it,’ as if you were talking to a friend. Fix things.”

When a company becomes the eye of a social media storm, that task becomes tougher. PR firm Bell Pottinger swiftly collapsed into administration when a story about how it stirred up racial tensions for a client in South Africa caused online outrage. WPP has reeled from the fallout of founder Sir Martin Sorrell’s departure. 

Birmingham was previously the HR director at News UK, whose “reputation was dragged through the mud, for very good reasons” by the phone hacking scandal that engulfed the News of the World, its flagship Sunday tabloid.

Social media, she says, has made organisations transparent. So while she advises “being mature, behaving properly and running good businesses”, when the worst happens, HR is vital in avoiding long-term fallout.

In a social media crisis, says Birmingham, senior managers are often being advised by experts with very different perspectives because of their differing audiences. “Your lawyers will say don’t admit anything because then we can’t be held up as guilty for it. Your PR person will advise you to say the minimum possible so that the company doesn’t have to comment beyond what is necessary. I, and any other good HR director, will say you need to stand in front of your staff and say we made a mistake and we are going to change.”

She adds: “My view is that staff will be ashamed and lose loyalty for a company where not only has something bad happened, but where the way you handled it is less than upfront. I advise and support senior people to sit in front of staff and say, ‘We made a mistake and are going to do something about that.’ Personally, I have seen that increase employee advocacy because when the going gets tough, you really show what you are made of.”

Birmingham’s experience is extreme – but many organisations with far lower profiles still feel online employer brand is too big a topic to tackle. Dagostino has some sage words of advice: “You don’t have to be on every platform. I am a firm believer in quality over quantity – doing a few things really well. Where is the target audience? Be there and do the best you can.” The worst will probably never happen. But there might just be an upside – a ready supply of talented, engaged and enthusiastic candidates who actively want to be part of your online story.

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