Hundreds of Facebook employees recently sent an open letter to the company’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging him to address misinformation in political ads on the social network. The employees call out the company’s current position on political advertising as “a threat to what FB stands for” and propose a list of potential solutions.

The letter has dominated the news around the social network this week, even though only around 250 of Facebook’s 35,000 employees have signed the message. The letter was posted on Facebook Workplace, the social network’s internal communications channel, for the past two weeks. The New York Times calls the action “one sign of the resistance that the company is now facing internally over how it treats political ads.”

But it’s worth noting, the employees are taking this step because they do feel ownership around Facebook’s culture and what it ultimately stands for. The letter — which was obtained by The New York Times — opens with the employees stating:

We are proud to work here.

Facebook stands for people expressing their voice. Creating a place where we can debate, share different opinions, and express our views is what makes our app and technologies meaningful for people all over the world.

Also, Facebook recently came in at #7 in Glassdoor’s 2019 best places to work ranking, so clearly the company has a reserve of employee goodwill as this unfolds. Even so, this is a powerful example of how employee advocacy — or discontent — plays a substantial role in shaping a company’s reputation. Employees today hold more power over a company’s brand than they used to and they are leveraging this. Facebook is only the latest example, but we’ve seen this recently at Google, Microsoft, and Wayfair — just to name a few high-profile examples.  

'Values are 'co-owned' by everyone'

Michelle Herman, VP at Sisense, a software company based in New York points out that employees are “the vanguards of a company’s reputation” and likens them to customers. “Whereas a customer holds the purchasing power, employees hold the power with a single tweet to move a stock price; with a media interview to start a #MeToo movement; with activism to publicly picket their own employer to support climate change; and to disrupt/improve the workplace environment (depending on your perspective),” Herman says. “I see this momentum continuing because of clear evidence of both awareness and disruption but less evidence yet of true change.”

The importance of employees to a company’s reputation has risen in parallel to that of word-of-mouth as a marketing channel, says Megan Kessler, SVP of PAN Communications.

“Whether a company is in the market for new customers, new employees, even new investors or acquirers, the opinions of its existing employees play an important role in each audience’s decision making,” says Kessler. “Further up the funnel, employees present an opportunity to drive awareness for your brand by sharing news and successes externally.”

Of course, the awareness that employees drive can equally be negative if they are dissatisfied, putting increased onus on chief executives to do right by staff and society. Jennifer Temple, chief communications officer for Hewlett Packard Enterprise, says part of the reason she joined 18 months ago was a focus on “reinvigorating” company culture by CEO Antonio Neri  Recently introduced measures include monthly “wellness” days where employees are encouraged to devote time to meaningful pursuits outside of work; extended paid parental leave, and the option of part-time work for new parents and retirees.

Having made HPE a better place to work, the company took the decision to grow employee advocacy through EveryoneSocial, a platform designed to help businesses unlock the power of their employees as representatives on social channels.

Key to any successful employee-focused reputation or branding strategy is the recognition that the ‘employer brand’ and the core company brand are the same thing; they simply emphasize different qualities to different people. A recent Harvard Business Review article notes that employer brands as defined by HR or specialist consultancies are too often disconnected from corporate purpose, with “dismaying” consequences. According to its authors Ken Banta and Michael Watras:

We advocate abolishing the ‘employer brand’ label and focusing instead on building out a talent dimension as a key part of the corporate brand. We recommend a three-step process, led by the CEO and the executive team — not delegated to lower-level HR or communications people.

'Employer brand is part of the company’s overall brand'

“An employer brand isn’t the result of a survey or something that is created by an outside consultant,” says Nurit Shiber, Sisense’s chief people officer. “An employer brand is something that a company already has, originating organically from its culture, its people and its leadership.”

So who defines a company’s values and purpose? Shiber thinks purpose should always come from the top, while values are “co-owned” by everyone.

“Employees alone define an organization's values and purpose,” adds PAN's Kessler. “Every member of the team, whether an executive leader or an entry-level contributor, is an employee of the organization. I think leadership teams are really beginning to embrace their role in defining and perpetuating shared values.”

Therefore, if a company insists on giving form to a specific ‘employer’ brand, it should take cues from its employees, Kessler says. “There is nothing quite as powerful as an affirmation of brand values from one individual to another. [Everyone has] a personal story to tell about their experience with your brand” and these should form the foundation of what existing and prospective staff are exposed to.

While it is not always the place of the communications or the HR function to determine a company’s brand, both are responsible for ensuring employees understand it, and for channelling the energy of those employees to amplify brand and reputation externally. Like the various moving parts of the brand itself, they should be closely connected.

At HPE, Temple says efforts to create an environment that reflects staff values and fosters pride have been cross-functional, but she thinks that communications ultimately have a bigger hand in strengthening corporate reputation. At Sisense, involvement appears more evenly split.

HR’s role is to “unveil, crystalize and grow” an employer brand, which can turn out to be positive or negative, says Shiber. “Once unveiled, we can shape it together with our people and leadership to reflect what the company stands for. Communications is a strategic partner in this journey since employer brand is part of the company’s overall brand. A close partnership is absolutely necessary.”

She says last year, the two departments at Sisense held employee focus groups to understand perceptions, likes and dislikes, which helped draw the brand out. But she is prepared for it to be an ongoing process. “Like any brand, it will not be static, particularly in a high-growth technology environment,” she says.

At Sisense, HR conducts regular surveys both formal and informal, with the results used to update employee programs, develop company values and aid recruiting. Its counterpart then leads internal and external communications around those programs, developing assets, managing social media channels and enhancing recruiting efforts.

“HR and comms teams should review employee feedback regularly and recalibrate existing and new company narratives and marketing materials to ensure they are aligned with reality,” says Kessler.

She adds that HR should always be present in executive discussions and that “comms and marketing pros should consult with the HR team as they would their client success and sales teams” to understand and support their goals as effectively as possible.

And perhaps one lesson from the Facebook letter is this, employees are looking to co-create culture and values with leadership. The open letter ends with the employees looking to start a conversation with leadership to work “towards solution together. This is still our company.”