Industry Thoughts

Dear CEOs: Your Own Employees Might Be Damaging Your Brand

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I’ve worked as a communications professional for far more years than I’d care to admit, but during the course of those years, I’ve gained valuable insight and perspective into both the comms and tech industries. Lately, however, I haven’t been thinking about the latest tech, but rather pondering what I see as the growing trend of poor outbound employee communication. Throughout my career, I’ve media trained my fair share of CEOs and have developed countless positioning and messaging strategies for both startups and mature companies. Perhaps, too much emphasis, however, has been placed on training company leaders and not the much larger pool of employees who interact the most on behalf of the companies for whom they work. In this case, I’m not talking about corporate messaging, but business etiquette and professional communication. In the face of global competition and the increased speed at which business is done, this is no small issue. We’re talking about front line employees who are communicating in ways that can negatively affect a company’s brand that most likely goes unnoticed, unchecked and unchallenged.

I’ve become increasingly dismayed at the discourteous behavior that I’ve experienced in dealing with companies both large and small; and with junior and senior executives. Perhaps, it’s due to my role in enhancing brand perception, that I’m acutely aware of the fact that negative employee communication and interaction has the ability to do the reverse, by silently tarnishing the perception of a perfectly good, well-executed brand. While methods of communication will always change, business etiquette never goes out of style. I might argue, however, that unprofessional business etiquette has often proven to be a valuable litmus test of an individual’s character and it’s aided me well in making wise business decisions regarding those same individuals. Among the many possible transgressions: Employees who believe that they don’t have to communicate with stakeholders, not realizing that the very absence of communication conveys a very negative message. More importantly, it’s one that can have business repercussions that can last well beyond the initial interaction of both parties.

So what do I mean by business etiquette? Failure to be responsive, communicate appropriately or be respectful of other peoples’ time (even if there appears to be little or no immediate benefit to you or your organization). This can, and does, occur within all types of organizations, but sometimes a power balance is to blame. Maybe it’s a large company dealing with a small vendor; a hiring manager or recruiter interacting with a potential job candidate; a service rep communicating with a customer.

Employees need to be far more sensitive as to what they say and how they act, because their interactions can slowly erode the positive perception and good will felt towards that brand. This is why foreign interpreters have such an interesting, important and potentially dangerous job: They understand that their skills as communicators are critical to diplomatic relations. Timing, tone, word choice, body language and subtle demonstrations of respect can either start wars or bring about peace. This absolutely brilliant, award-winning short film illustrates this point beautifully.

Seasoned communications people might need to step in here and create employee-wide business communications training, or best practices for outbound business engagement. Maybe we need to operate as the modern day “Miss Manners” in a world that communicates vastly more often and at greater volume; but with far less quality. This idea is not just aimed at millennials, who are accustomed to communicating in shorthand and have less business experience and personal perspective. No, I’ve found that senior leaders are often the worst offenders. Companies need to understand the long-term value of being responsive, professional, respectful and thankful to those with whom they’re dealing. What I’ve learned, particularly, working in tech, is that  “you see the same faces, but at different places.” You never know how people will play into your future destiny: what positions your business contacts will hold, what companies they’ll join, or how they can either positively or negatively influence your business, career or brand. Make sure that your employees are brand ambassadors and not little arsonists lighting tiny little fires and burning bridges they won’t be able to cross again, with your company and brand name attached.

Whatever the case, we all can be accused of the aforementioned. I’ve been guilty and I know that there are neither just sinners or saints in business. I’m speaking to the repeat offenders who think shortsightedly about business relationships and reputation. Although, I can cloak many examples that illustrate my point, I’ll leave well enough alone. As a good friend once told me, and I often tell myself, “It’s a small thing to a giant.” Have I spent hours writing handwritten notes to external teams with whom I’ve spoken for no more than 15 minutes? Yes. Is it because I didn’t know that email was faster and far less labor-intensive? No. Is it because I had nothing better to do? No! I expend the extra effort because I respect those who have taken the time to reach across the table and communicate with me about a common interest. It’s just old-fashioned respect operating in the modern world. Communications people and senior executives, we have new and important work to do.

Chief Alchemist