This week's financial headlines in the U.K. had me thinking about employee advocacy - probably for all the wrong reasons. Major retailer and market leader Tesco PLC revealed a $400-million black hole in its profit forecast
; since then, business-news outlets on both sides of the Atlantic have been having a field day. What I saw was a business that, in times of trouble, hasn't had the public support of the people who matter most - its employees.
And that's when a little employee power can make a huge difference. Ask Monsanto.
Yes, Monsanto - one of the most under-fire corporations on the planet, on account of its role in the development of genetically modified crops.
In 2009, in response to a highly critical film about the company, a group of Monsanto employees launched a blog that offers an alternative take. Monsanto According to Monsanto
presents an employee's-eye view of life inside the business; unsurprisingly, it's almost exclusively positive - but it comes across as completely authentic and adds much-needed balance to the debate.
Contrast that with the response by Tesco employees to a social-media outpouring focused on their employer's plight:
Complete silence. Which reminded me ...
You Should Always Treat People Like People
I've said before
that organizations where people speak out on behalf of their employers are those that treat people as individuals, telling them as a matter of course about things that affect their employment and allowing them a say in shaping their workplaces. Given that employer-review site Glassdoor shows "Senior Management" and "Culture & Values" as the lowest-rated* aspects of working at Tesco, I suspect the company isn't in that category.
My point? If you expect your people to advocate for you, then build on solid foundations. Even the best thought-through employee-advocacy programs will fail if the basics of employee communication aren't in place. If your organization doesn't already engage regularly with its employees, whether face-to-face or via social media, then that's where you should start. Almost everything else can wait.
Speaking during the final session of the Employee Advocacy Summit 2014 in Atlanta, one of the panelists advised that, when implementing an advocacy program, companies should "never start with technology. Start with scenarios and outcomes."
Sound advice, but I'd take it one step further - always start with the people. It is they who will decide whether your program succeeds or fails.
Convince People That You Mean Business
Encouraging people to become advocates for your organization has a lot in common with reputation management. That, says Matthew Maxwell of the Reputation Institute, "is about truthfully convincing [stakeholders] that you're collaboratively working with them towards a common good ... when a key stakeholder sees you're working toward their goals, they're connected enough to share the good perceptions they have of the company
This doesn't mean that hitherto unsocial CEOs should suddenly morph into social-media fanatics, tweeting their every moment for the benefit of employees. Even if it were appropriate, a better use of a CEO's time is to champion the benefits of social media throughout the company, encouraging its adoption for business purposes. It's essential that there is enough C-level involvement to ensure that it's a case of "do-as-I-do," not "do-as-I-say."
Which brings me back to Tesco. The company has both customer-service and corporate Twitter accounts, a customer-service Facebook page and a corporate blog. None of them offers any news, opinion or comment about the financial problems, leaving would-be advocates - both employees and customers - in the dark about the company's take on the situation.
While you can't fault Tesco's response on traditional media - there has been widespread TV coverage in the UK - the leadership team has missed an opportunity to engage with a wider community via social media. That in turn leaves an information void that disenfranchises those who would speak out on the company's behalf. Given the real-time nature of these channels, the chance to attract the attention of those who might otherwise tweet or post positively and advocate for the company is already gone.
What's the Bottom Line?
If you don't engage with your employees, thus preventing them from becoming advocates for your company, it's almost certainly costing you money. But remember, you have to earn their respect and trust before you can expect advocacy to flourish - and that process starts at the top.
Tesco's CEO is new to the job, and he faces a monumental task to turn round a company that, not so long ago, was the shining star of the British retail sector. I hope his agenda for the coming years includes a far more inclusive way of communicating with stakeholders and a commitment to company-wide communication that is transparent in all respects. Then, he might enjoy the support of many thousands of employees, speaking out on behalf of an employer they respect and trust.
It's just a shame it will likely be several years too late ...
Do Your People Respect and Trust You?
Where does your organization stand in the respect-and-trust stakes? How good are your internal-communication processes? Would you employees speak out on your behalf in a crisis? We'd love to hear about your experience of employee advocacy - whether in testing times or under easier circumstances. Do leave us a comment with your feedback.
Beyond Engagement is an exclusive Social Media Today column published every other Thursday.