This post is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center. 

In recent years, employee advocacy has become a buzzword that has captured the attention of public relations, marketing, human resources, and business circles. The concept of having employees voluntarily promote, recommend, or defend their organization has existed for a long time. However, the rise of social media and the fact that people place a significantly higher level of confidence on their personal networks over company messages, has increased the perception that employee advocacy needs to be seen as a priority by organizations. Among other outcomes, employee advocacy has the potential to increase a company’s brand awareness[1], influence its growth and sales[2], attract new talent and retain employees[3], and impact its overall reputation.

Naturally, these outcomes are highly attractive to a wide range of organizations. Thus, the natural question that arises is the following: How do we motivate employees to engage in or enhance these advocacy behaviors? Although there are a large number of factors, strategies, and tactics that can be used to promote advocacy behaviors (e.g., building a high-engagement culture, having a meaningful purpose, etc.), this article will focus on a practice that several organizations are currently engaging in: extrinsically rewarding employees to advocate on their behalf. Is this practice appropriate? Is it effective? Is it ethical? Does it reduce the authenticity of the behavior? If you’re looking for clear-cut answers to these questions, let me forewarn you that you won’t find them in this article. The purpose of this blog is to raise questions and generate a much-needed conversation on the practice of rewarding employees for engaging in these behaviors.

Employees will often advocate on behalf of their organization by recommending it as a great place to work on social media or company-rating websites. A few months ago, I read a fascinating article on the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) titled “How companies secretly boost their Glassdoor ratings.”[4] The site, which receives around 60 million users per month, plays without any doubt a powerful role in influencing potential employees’ decision to apply for the job. Not surprisingly, organizations are very concerned about the reviews that their employees are posting about their work experience. The article, which was centered on an investigation conducted by the WSJ that showed how Glassdoor scores can be manipulated by employers, stated that certain CEOs are instructing their teams “to enlist employees likely to post positive reviews.”

I think we can all agree that coercing employees to post positive reviews is unethical. What about incentivizing them to do so with money or prizes? The answer to this question will probably not be unanimous. Some of you will argue that rewarding employees to post reviews is unethical. Others, may not go as far as stating that it is unethical, but will argue that it is a mistake. Glassdoor, which warns companies against engaging in this practice[5], seems to agree with this perspective. On the other hand, there will be some who perceive that this practice is appropriate or state that it depends on the situation and the type of incentive. In 2017, a SpaceX recruiter encouraged employees to post reviews and offered free SpaceX mugs as an incentive. Based on this behavior, it would seem that this professional did not perceive that offering this type of incentive was problematic.

In addition to posting reviews, employees will frequently share job openings with their networks. In fact, more than one out of three U.S. workers landed their current job through an employee referral.[6] Ideally, organizations would want this type of behavior to be intrinsically motivated. However, a common practice among organizations is to reward employees for referrals; in fact, a recent study found that 42% of U.S. organizations pay out employee referral bonuses. Some of the most common rewards include cash incentives, prize drawings, company logo items, and time off/vacation days.[7] Most organizations with employee referral programs will include at the very least a small reward for engaging in this behavior.[8]

The fact that so many organizations monetarily reward employees for engaging in referral practices highlights that our society perceives that this is a fair mechanism to demonstrate appreciation for the employee’s contribution to the organization. Do we feel the same way about monetarily rewarding employees for interacting and sharing organizational content on social media? A number of organizations are currently engaging in these practices, and are offering swag, extra cash, discounts, free services, and several other prizes[9] to employees who engage in these advocacy behaviors. Is this behavior ethical? What impact does it have on the authenticity or the perceived authenticity of the behavior?

As I mentioned previously, this blog was not written with the intention of providing answers. However, I will say the following: Organizations need to ask themselves if their actions are intrinsically motivating employees to engage in the desired advocacy behavior or simply motivating them to get the reward? Additionally, organizations need to remind themselves that the main reason behind the power of employee advocacy is trust. We trust our friends. We trust our family. If we believe that the main motivating factor behind their recommendations or positive comments about their organizations are rooted on the desire to receive a reward, we may not be as trusting anymore. Hence, it is important to never lose sight of the fact that employee advocacy needs to be authentic, genuine, and reflect the employees’ true opinions of their organizations.

Patrick Thelen is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida and a research editor for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center. Follow him on Twitter @patrick_thelen

[1] http://www.econtentmag.com/Articles/News/News-Feature/What-Do-Your-Employees-Think-About-Content-Marketing-107801.htm

[2] https://hingemarketing.com/blog/story/research-shows-firms-with-employee-advocacy-programs-grow-faster

[3] https://business.linkedin.com/talent-solutions/blog/employer-brand/2016/4-steps-to-building-an-employee-advocacy-program-that-will-attract-talent

[4] https://www.wsj.com/articles/companies-manipulate-glassdoor-by-inflating-rankings-and-pressuring-employees-11548171977

[5] https://www.wsj.com/articles/companies-manipulate-glassdoor-by-inflating-rankings-and-pressuring-employees-11548171977

[6] https://hbr.org/2018/03/how-to-use-employee-referrals-without-giving-up-workplace-diversity

[7] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20140408141311-1987025-top-trends-in-employee-referral-programs/

[8] https://www.bamboohr.com/blog/how-to-employee-referral-program/

[9] https://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/how-to-include-all-employees-in-your-social-media-marketing/

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