How to turn your employees into your company’s most loyal ambassadors
By Tom Martin
Executive in Residence, College of Charleston
I recently attended two different gatherings of communication leaders in which important new trends in the profession were considered. One consistent theme in the presentations at these conferences and the hallway discussions that followed was the growing recognition that an organization’s own employees can be—and should be—its most effective advocates. After all, they know the company, its products, and its culture better than anyone. They also have the most direct ongoing contact with its customers, clients, and suppliers.
It sounds so obvious. Why, then, are so many companies either overlooking, ignoring, or undervaluing this asset?
First of all, it’s hard work to develop this advocacy. It’s not as easy as simply asking employees to suddenly become ambassadors of goodwill. Employees have to believe in the organization at a fairly deep level. This belief originates with their trust that the company is acting in their best interests, or at the very least is fairly balancing their needs with those of other stakeholders, such as customers and investors.
Too many times, companies ignore employee concerns, fail to include them in important decisions, or keep them in the dark until the last minute when a big change happens. Is it any surprise that they don’t readily volunteer when the company needs their help?
In a growing number of cases, however, companies are discovering that one of the best ways to activate their advocacy is to tap into their own desire to become engaged in causes that are mutually beneficial. For example, Patagonia has become known for its strong stance in support of environmental issues, conservation, and sustainability.
In part, this corporate stand resulted from the desire of the company’s employees to be more engaged in these issues. It also makes sense given the company’s core business in selling outdoor apparel for hikers, fishermen, and others who enjoy active wilderness pursuits.
In some cases, Patagonia has made a good business selling its merchandise, such as all-weather jackets, emblazoned with other companies’ logos or slogans to be used as giveaways at corporate events. But recently, they have declined to bid on several valuable contracts for these potential customers when they feel the other company doesn’t share Patagonia’s values regarding environmental conservation.
Some organizations have faced a strong push directly from employees to take a stand. Google experienced this form of employee activism last year when more than 4,000 of its employees signed a letter protesting the company’s participation in an artificial intelligence project for the Department of Defense. Google ultimately chose not to renew the contract with the DoD based on these employee concerns. Similar actions took place at Microsoft and Amazon over the work these two companies were doing with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
These cases highlight the need for companies, of any size, to stay in touch with employees and pay attention to the issues and concerns that are important to them. Southwest Airlines, a company known for both excellent customer service and fierce employee loyalty, has developed an entire decision-making framework to help senior management choose the social issues on which the company elects to take a stand.
Ideally, companies should be able to enlist the support of employees to advocate on their behalf when issues do arise. But to do so, the organizations must keep employees informed throughout the year on all key developments, whether they relate directly to the issue or not. The company must also clearly articulate its position on the issue at hand, explaining all sides of the issue and why it has taken the stand it has. To make advocacy practical, employees must be given supportive materials in formats that are easily shared via social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
But achieving meaningful levels of advocacy goes much deeper than just preparing and sharing content. The organization must demonstrate in an ongoing way that it is an advocate for its employees as well. This includes how it compensates employees and provides for their well-being. It means supporting ongoing efforts to listen to their concerns and address the issues they raise in a timely and authentic manner. Companies have to understand that advocacy is a two-way street; if employees feel their company is an advocate for them, they are much more likely to advocate for the company.
We are experiencing an almost unprecedented period of competition for the best talent. Unemployment levels are at near-record lows, especially for critically needed engineering, software development, and project management skills. Attracting and retaining talent is harder than it has been in years. Combined with the prevalence of powerful social media channels that enable advocacy at scale, organizations have plenty of reasons to pay attention to this unmatched opportunity, if only they will.