Updated: May 26, 2020
Every day, there are new books, articles, and posts on social media about how certain companies are leading examples of how organizations should operate. Nearly everyone reading this will have at least one company come to mind if they think about “world-class culture”, “a flawless employee experience”, or “the proper example of what an organization should look like”. In fact, I see daily posts on LinkedIn about just this. Your example may be different than mine, so for the sake of this article, I’ll just call this less-than-hypothetical organization, “Company X”.
As far as the rest of the world knows, Company X is the epitome of what an organization is supposed to be when everything is done right. Company X has explicitly defined core values painted on every wall, quoted in every book, and plastered on every webpage. They make incredible profits and have made every Forbes list. Journalists strive for a chance to write an article about Company X, hundreds of thousands of people try to get hired at Company X, and experts in the field of organizational design always refer to Company X as a prime example of how it should be done. This makes Company X look even better and the cycle repeats.
Reaching this status is the dream of many business owners. So, what’s the problem here? Now, companies do exist that are phenomenally successful and wonderful places to work, so there is always a chance Company X could actually be one of the greatest companies of all time. However, there is another possibility I urge you to consider.
Hiding the truth makes you believe the lies
Whether it’s a country, an organization, a product, or a celebrity, there is a rule which always proves to be true: “He who controls the information controls the truth.” Company X could be just as bad as every other company out there — potentially even worse. They might view every employee as replaceable and fire them left and right whenever they speak up, justifying it with, “They weren’t a culture fit.” They could regularly have massive layoffs, but carefully avoid legal stipulations and media fallout through loopholes and planning. There’s a chance they undervalue and mistreat employees, have rampant corruption and bias, and do far more harm in the community than the good they do.
Granted, if all that were true, you would think Company X would be world-famous not for being amazing, but for being monstrous. So, how is it that everyone would still think Company X was so great? The truth is, Company X painstakingly protects its public image through huge PR and legal teams, restrictive policies with severe consequences, and mandatory contracts that tightly control who can speak publicly about anything.
Company X might relocate to an “at-will employment” state so they can legally fire anyone without warning or reasoning. They could require new employees to sign contracts upon being hired preventing them from unionizing, speaking up in certain situations, etc. They might have all employees sign a non-disclosure agreement upon being let go before they can receive any sort of severance pay, which can often be practically mandatory for someone to be able to pay their bills after losing their job.
Now, it’s natural to see this and think, “That’s standard business procedure. What’s the big deal?” Well, first of all, “that’s how it’s normally done” is rarely a good way to approach anything. Secondly, tightly controlling the image of your company can quickly lead to several issues far more damaging to your company than the risk of bad news getting out. Worse, these issues start internally and build up until your company begins to hemorrhage people and profit, at which point there is so much disinformation that you won’t even notice you’re bleeding until it’s too late.
You see, by controlling the facts, the only information you see is the information Company X wants you to see. The media may only be able to speak to hand-picked and professionally trained people who say the same things in every interview. Local guests may only be able to tour select locations that have been carefully curated and organized to show an intentionally planned visage. This not only has an impact externally with the media but also internally with employees whose positions don’t give them insight into what is happening around them.
External PR affects internal morale
The stronger your company’s image and culture, the more careful you need to be to ensure what you’re creating is real. Often times, a powerful culture can create a dangerous self-defeating prophecy. Imagine Company X is known around the globe as a place where every employee is happy and loves working there. There are books, stories, and interviews all about it. This unintentionally creates an internal atmosphere where every employee is expected to be happy.
How an unhappy employee is dealt with determines whether your organization actually has a good employee experience or if they just want to be perceived as having a good employee experience. If Company X happens to just care about PR, what can happen next is that the unhappy employee is viewed as a strange virus. I mean, how could someone at Company X be unhappy?! In a culture that embodies happiness and appreciation, the unhappy employee will be ostracized and accused of no longer being a culture fit. They will be told to cheer up or be let go. If they are let go, there will be a nigh-mandatory NDA to ensure they don’t speak to anyone about why or how they were unhappy while at Company X.
The first instance of the company’s “positive” environment being weaponized will tip over a chain of dominos that is difficult to stop. As other employees notice problems, they will be afraid to speak up because of what happened to others before them. This will create even more unhappiness with employees and the problem will continually worsen. The entire time, Company X’s PR and legal teams will have to work harder and harder to keep any of their internal happenings from going public.
A great culture creates great PR
I bring these concerns up about Company X not because I want to stoke doubt and fear about all the companies you love or suggest your own company isn’t doing amazing things. Rather, I bring up this possible scenario because you should be aware of what is at stake if the image of your company unwittingly becomes more valuable than the employees or the business. Not even Company X chose to be flawless on the outside and corrupt on the inside … it just slowly turned into that over time. That’s why as soon as a problem is noticed, it’s best to acknowledge it and start working on it right away.
Here are some recommendations for ensuring your public image remains a realistic reflection of your culture rather than a construct used to boost sales at the expense of the long-term health of your company.
If you see an employee acting differently than they used to, perhaps even against your company’s culture, deal with it directly. In most cases, the most disgruntled employees are the ones who care the most about the company and are thus the most frustrated when it feels like it’s going downhill. You can both help one another improve the company by getting to the root of the issues and improving the organization so other employees don’t run into the same issues.
Be honest. It seems scary at first, but organizations will seem much more trustworthy when they are open about their mistakes and flaws. I’ve toured organizations where I was allowed to speak to anyone I saw about anything I wanted, and the conversations were intense. It only served to make me believe everything I had been told by the tour guide beforehand because it was being confirmed by every random individual I encountered without prompting. I was confident their culture of transparency and honesty was real because I saw it for myself.
Check how restrictive your policies are. Are only select people allowed to speak publicly about the company? Is their job title and pay directly correlated to how good they make your organization sound? If so, that can create bias and give them incentive to bury bad news and inflate successes. Likewise, what rules are in place for dealing with employees who speak ill of the company? Are they terminated for creating a negative vibe, or is their feedback welcomed in the hopes of improving things?
Thankfully, there’s an easy exercise to gauge the relationship between your external image and your internal culture. Ask yourself how comfortable you would be with a journalist or tour guest talking to anyone they wanted throughout the building. If that idea fills you with dread, think about where you can make improvements. What would need to change in your company for you to be confident that every employee would talk about the company in an overall positive light? It’s an audacious goal, but if you get there, you’ll have the world-famous brand you’ve always wanted.