Promoting a company or organization’s core values is being hailed as a competitive advantage as part of a movement in the marketing and human resources fields called employer branding (Ambler & Barrow, 1996; Foster, Punjaisri & Cheng, 2010). The motivation behind employer branding programs is improving employee engagement (Fleming & Asplund, 2007) with a focus on developing intellectual and emotional buy-in among employees to the point where they are committed to their employers, reflect the brand’s values and become brand champions (Mahnert & Torres, 2007; Thomson, Chernatony, Arganbright & Khan, 1999).
But are internal communicators aware of and embracing the employer branding movement, and if so, how does this impact their approach to internal communication? Do employer branding efforts focus on ethics, and if so, how are ethics communicated? These issues are discussed in the latest edition of the Research Journal of the Institute for Public Relations in the study “The Influence of Employer Branding in Internal Communication.”
I interviewed 32 internal communicators working in 26 different companies and organizations representing 11 states and the District of Columbia. The sample included employers with strong national and regional brands and well identified core values. Two of the companies/organizations in the study have been featured on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” 7 of the companies among the Fortune 500 and 3 among the Global 500.
Through this study, I found evidence that internal communicators are embracing the trend of employer branding, which is grounded in a focus on ethics and core values. In addition, employer branding is shifting the focus from communicating ethics from just a compliance perspective to a more culturally relevant discussion (Stevens, 2008), which is a commendable endeavor. Codes that “are embedded in the organizational culture and communicated effectively” are more likely to impact employee decision-making in contrast to those passed down as a mandate (Steven, 2008, p. 607).
One encouraging example provided in this study was a health organization, which changed its employee orientation from focusing on just compliance issues and benefits to more content about the history of the brand. In stark contrast was the example provided by the former employee of a financial institution that communicated externally about its commitment to ethics, but did not enforce the policies among employees. Similar to Enron, any ethics documents that may have existed were “an artifact that was separate from their culture” (Stevens, 2008, p. 604).
A few internal communicators (n=2) warned that employer brands need to be authentic and emphasize values that are “core to who you are” not who you aspire to be. These inconsistencies would be an example of a violation of the psychological contract with employees and lead to various forms of dis-engagement (Backhaus & Tikoo, 2004; Robinson & Rousseau, 1994). One brand in this study faced that potential risk when they emphasized collaboration, but traditionally had rewarded individual achievements. This new identity required the shift to more cross functional teams.
Both human resources and public relations have significant roles to play in employer branding. Public relations’ role is strongest in the areas of creating strategic communication plans and disseminating key messages. As strong writers and storytellers, they have a natural role to play in communicating the brand’s story. However, public relations practitioners tended to be less involved in employee recruitment and orientation, the stages at which employees are first introduced to the company/organization’s core values and ethics policies.
These findings lead to the following recommendations:
- Employers should communicate ethics in a culturally relevant way through employee testimonials and historical anecdotes.
- Employers should review their core values to identify any inconsistencies with their policies and reward systems and then make necessary revisions.
- Employers should review their recruitment and orientation materials for inclusion of core values and consistency with their employer brand.
- Employers should evaluate their existing ethics programs and determine if any additional resources should be added.
- Employers should conduct routine surveys to determine how employees rate the company/organization’s performance in regards to their core values.
- Employers should evaluate and reward employees who model ethical behavior through annual performance reviews and awards programs.
Due to their strong communication skills, public relations practitioners can make a significant contribution in the areas of developing promotional materials and videos to promote ethics and values, and they should seek to collaborate with human resources. However, their roles should not be limited to communication tactics, public relations practitioners also should pursue a seat at the table during the planning phase, which refers to when values are first identified and refined, and in the evaluation phase by conducting survey and qualitative research.
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Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Baylor University. She previously worked for almost 12 years in government and nonprofit public relations. Her research focuses on public relations management, integrated communication, and ethics. Follow her on Twitter @neillpr.