Employees are often perceived as credible and authentic sources of information about their organization. As a result, how they communicate about negative experiences in the workplace can significantly damage the perceptions that external publics have of the organization’s reputation. This study examined how employees’ testimonials of negative workplace experiences can damage an organization’s reputation by leading external audiences to believe that the organization is hypocritical. Corporate hypocrisy occurs when publics believe that a company claims to be something that it is not. Therefore, when employees’ testimonials reveal a toxic work culture or unethical treatment of employees, the moral transgression of organizational practice can engender perceptions of corporate hypocrisy. Perceived hypocrisy, in turn, is argued to increase the reputational damage to the organization.

The study also examined the persuasive power of narrative transportation (a state of immersion into a narrative that leads individuals to demonstrate high levels of cognitive and affective engagement) and experience engrossment in the narrative. Specifically, this study proposes that employee testimonials can invoke increased narrative transportation. Further, for those who experience a higher level of transportation in employees’ testimonials, the effects of employees’ negative testimonials on organizational reputation are greater.

An online experiment of 367 participants was conducted. The experiment included one control group (N = 185) and one experimental group (N = 182). Participants in the experimental group watched a 2-minute video containing actual dissenting testimonials from employees at a real company. Participants in the control group watched a 2-minute video featuring a commercial. Respondents included 57% females with an average age of 34. Most participants were white (78%), and almost all participants had at least a high school degree (99.7%).

Key Findings

  • Employees’ dissenting testimonials created transportation among the people who watched employee testimonials.
  • Employees’ dissenting testimonials invoked transportation, which increased perceptions of organizational hypocrisy among those who watched the testimonials.
  • The more hypocrisy people perceived in the organization, the more they downgraded its reputation.
  • Those who experienced stronger transportation rated organizational hypocrisy higher than those who experienced weaker transportation.

Implications for Practice
Organizations should 1) pay attention to the negative role of a toxic work environment in inhibiting employee voices and concerns and 2) be aware of the damaging function of employees’ dissenting testimonials on organizational reputation.

Minjeong Kang, Ph. D., is an associate professor and teaches strategic communication courses at the Media School, Indiana University. Her research interests are understanding the concept of public engagement in various stakeholder contexts such as member, employee, and volunteer relations and its positive impacts in eliciting supportive communication and behavioral outcomes.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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