Initially, I had intended to write this article about companies turning employees into brand ambassadors or brand detractors. While this will still be a significant aspect of this article, with everything going on, I felt it was more helpful to write something about why in this current situation, it is more beneficial for companies to take a path that may lose them money initially but allow them to show that they indeed are truly invested in the welfare of their employees. Companies need to understand that by showing genuine care for their employees now, they are fundamentally looking after the health and heart of their organisation in the long term. Giving them a stronger sense of unity and purpose to move ahead.
Over the years, I have seen many companies mistakenly talk about their brand/company as if it was a separate entity to the employees that work within their organisation. The pandemic we are currently facing shows something that I've always advocated, whereby for most businesses the absence of employees means that there is no real functioning company (obvious I know!). But yet, too many companies function on the notion that their employees should be grateful for their employment, expecting this alone should make them loyal brand ambassadors. This is something that is not only short-sighted of such companies but this attitude is one of the significant factors that push employees to become brand detractors. Too many businesses ignore the cold hard fact; that majority of companies can not successfully exist without motivated, happy staff.
While at home scrolling through social media trying to distract myself from all the panic and worry (like so many others in this troubling time), I came across a meme that, for me pretty much summed up the feeling of what I could see the majority of this country thinking right now.
Whilst this is an amusing meme, it also draws attention to something that for many of us was an initial concern with the growth of the current pandemic, "will my company have my back during this time". This concern wasn't just about keeping employees safe physically but also about supporting their mental health by showing how businesses would also try to keep their employees financially secure during the crisis. The answer before the government's intervention for most people was a straightforward and scary, "sorry, no. You're on your own for a while", followed by "actually great news, we've got you covered… well, for a little while." once the government announced their financial support for companies. Understandably, for many employees, this attitude left a very sour taste in their mouth. Even though many are relieved to hear that they will still be receiving 80% of their wages, there will be many people left feeling let down by the fact that after years of helping to build a companies profits and supporting their growth, they found themselves first on the chopping block as soon as things became difficult. Due to this, I can see a future where businesses are losing employees to rival companies that had more compassion for their people, as well as an uprise of detractor influencers with stories of heartless businesses and their unprepared reactiveness and employee mistreatment during such a troublesome time. I have already heard countless stories of people feeling let down by their employers. It has almost become a standard conversation feature amongst people (practically a top trumps of company employment mistreatment). We can only hope for a swift end to the current world pandemic, with so many people deeply concerned about their financial future and health, the businesses that show their heart and support for their employees now will undoubtedly benefit in the long run. There has been a wide array of tactics and strategies that companies have used to handle this crisis of which some are good and deserving of the praise they have and continue to receive and then others that have lost their way and their heart in respect to the people that represent the heart of their company.
Be like Arne
One of the brands I did observe living up to their company's ethos of 'employees are family', was the hotel giant Marriott. With Mr Arne Sorenson’s announcement that their CEO and executive chairman would suspend their salaries for the rest of 2020 early into the outbreak, matched with the heartfelt personal message put out across social media, they showed that they were willing to be the first in line to make sacrifices in solidarity with their employees. So when the government announcement came that they will be helping business pay 80% of their employees' wages, Marriott's employees felt even more secure within their company.
Even though many would argue that losing a years salary wouldn't impact Mr Sorenson in the same way as it would their 0-hour contract employees losing their working hours. I would be forced to agree, I would, however, say that this was only one part of a wider display of human honesty and openness, with not only his employees but also the greater public. Most may not have known that Mr Sorenson is currently fighting cancer; no one would have questioned him taking the time to focus on his health while letting someone else make announcements on his behalf. But instead, he chose to make a very personal and touching announcement himself (even going as far as making a joke about his post-chemo appearance). Seeing Mr Sorenson emotionally chocked up by the hardship that he knew his employees wild be facing just solidified why the Marriott employees are among some of the most loyal brand ambassadors I have seen. I can see well after this current pandemic has passed and the dust has settled, Mr Sorenson's employees will be even more determined brand ambassadors spurred on with the secure knowledge that the company has their best interest at heart. This is something their employees will remember for a long time, even those who had to leave their positions due to personal circumstances or just because they needed to seek other employment. The fact that Marriott’s executives and leadership showed such solidarity during the hard times will be something that will stay embedded within their association with the Marriott brand and will positively influence their opinions when speaking with others about the brand, making them brand ambassadors in the purest sense.
You can view Mr Sorenson’s original video here
Don't Be like Dick
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the executives and companies that seem to be determined to deeply sour their relationship with their employees (and the general public) by showing blatant disregard for the human mental and physical wellbeing. Former Wells Fargo CEO Richard (who also goes by Dick) Kovacevich who early into the American Covid 19 outbreak, went on Bloomberg news to voice his opinion that their employees should return to work as soon as possible, Mr Kovacevich said, "We'll gradually bring those people back and see what happens. Some of them will get sick; some may even die, I don't know," doubling down and stating "Do you want to suffer more economically or take some risk that you'll get flu-like symptoms and a flu-like experience? Do you want to take an economic risk or a health risk? You get to choose.". This blatant disregard for peoples safety (and lack of knowledge around the dangers of Covid 19) when weighed against dropping profits sends a clear message that he only cares about his own pocket and wellbeing for the few, to the point where they would happily let their employees die if it meant that they would make another Dollar. This attitude will taint not only his name and reputation but also impact any business that Mr Kovacevich has/is associated with for many years to come.
Even though the former Wells Fargo CEO's perspective could be considered the extreme end of the spectrum, many companies have shown an equal disinterest in their employees' wellbeing during this current pandemic. We have seen mass “letting go” of employees due to the slump in demand (especially within the hospitality industry with retailers, restaurants, hotels, theatres and pubs being particularly hard hit) with many being put on unpaid leave with much uncertainty with when or if they will be back in the workplace. Employers actions have significant influence right now, not just over peoples lives but also mental health and wellbeing. Employees wellbeing might not be companies primary focus, with daily slipping profits (I can hear company owners screaming "how can we look after our employees if we have no money!" at me right now). But money isn't the only way to support your staff. With the government initiative there is something that all employees can do to help their employees financially, but also just letting them know that they aren't in this alone and making efforts to show that you genuinely have their best interest at heart during this hard time makes all the difference. And if you need more profit-driven reasons to have a heart then there are some elementary ones below.
1. Sticking to your company ethos
Almost every company I've ever interacted with, within the first meeting someone will say something along the lines of "here, we're about more than just business, we truly care about our staff and their importance to the company". I've always said that words are frail when compared to actions. It's easy to tell your employees that you support them continually, but it's at times like these where you have to prove those aren't just weak words, aimed at convincing your staff to work harder for you. By doing what you can to financially support them, keeping communication open and consistent as possible, updating staff on the company's situation and plans to get things back to normal, you are making your staff feel like they truly are a vital part of the business and decision-making process.
2. Caring = good marketing potential
There has been a growth of brand advertisements recently from companies showing that they are supporting their customers through these hard times. Supermarkets ads are showing that they are protecting their employees with screens and social distancing rules while still staying open for their customers' needs. The "we're here for you" message is very prevalent right now. I predict that there will be a rise of "we were there for our staff" marketing messages after this has all settled down. This message isn't just a useful recruitment strategy, but as shown with Marriott brand, it can also give a sense of a caring, trustworthy brand that cares about more than just money, somewhere where customers can feel good investing their money.
3. Happier more productive employees returning to work
Again, employees that feel like their employer has their best interest at heart tend to work harder for that company building an emotional connection to that company as an integral part of their lives and personal growth. These are your true brand ambassadors—actively recruiting people to come to join their fantastic family. Businesses will see a rise in productivity when employees eventually return to work, higher morale and job satisfaction, all from merely showing them that you care about their future with your business.
4. This is a hard example of culture change
A lot of businesses mainly corporate and B2B found that when this pandemic hit, a lot of their day to day working processes weren't flexible enough to cope with a workforce that could no longer exist within the same vicinity, causing new problems for businesses communications. Once this pandemic has passed and employees are back at their desks, there will be a perfect opportunity to look at if their businesses are equipped to embrace rapid culture change and really understand how adaptive their day to day framework structure really is. Companies would be amiss to not learn from this current forced culture change along with listening to their employees to gain vital data on how to best support their workforce in their day to day work lives.
5. Use this time to connect to your companies Core Creative
Many companies are trying to work out how their organisation fits into a post-Covid 19 world. Businesses are trying their best to show the public that not only are they still continuing to operate but that they can demonstrate a level of resilience and adaptiveness within this challenging climate. Such companies are desperate to prove that they are more relevant in the mids of this pandemic. Essentially, companies are trying to show their true essence/heart and the Core Creative motivations to the public/clients. Businesses are in a position where they need to really examine how they can create better synergy between their brand employees and customers/clients. Using a companies Core Creative as a starting foundation for flexible growth can only strengthen strategies as we move through these turbulent economic times.
Caring is always a good strategy
So the message is a simple one, have a heart. Acknowledge that your employees are the beating heart of your business. Even though things look uncertain, there is a call for us all to come together and support each other. There has been an enthusiastic response from the public, trying to get past this pandemic as quickly a possible. Business and employers need to also do their part in helping keep the workforce feeling supported and secure in the knowledge that even though things might be troublesome right now, they are being supported by their employers who have shown them that they will help wherever they can, that there is still security during and after the pandemic has passed.
Whenever the world gets to take a long breath of relief from coronavirus and to truly reflect, employees will be faced with the decisions they made during this period to either support or alienate their employees, and this will have a direct effect on their brand perception. So the smart employers will be using this time to connect to their workforce and people to build plans based on a more caring and supportive business direction.
Author: Mark A Yearwood
Founder & Creative Consultant of Guru Creative Consultants