How Coronavirus Responses Define Employer Brands

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

People are going to remember what your company did during the Coronavirus epidemic. John Elkington’s triple bottom line model of “People, Planet & Profit” could not be more true today. Now is not the time to focus on profit, and while planet is super important, it’s really people that should get an employer’s undivided attention in this crisis.

Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban was recently interviewed by CNBC and warned employers of sending staff back to work too soon during the Covid-19 crisis.

“How companies respond to that very question is going to define their brand for decades. If you rushed in and somebody got sick, you were that company. If you didn’t take care of your employees or stakeholders and put them first, you were that company,” he said in the interview.

Some of us recall recent crises and how companies responded, one that stands out is BP and the explosion on Deepwater Horizon and the subsequent oil spill in the Mexican Gulf. CEO Tony Hayward got it wrong by first of all going sailing during the early days of this incident, then once responding deflecting responsibility to sub-contractors and even telling an interviewer, “I would like to get my life back.” In this case, the boss got replaced, and BP did indeed do the right thing by cleaning up the sea and compensating individuals and businesses. The lesson here is that even if your company is doing the right things by employees, the upper echelons have to do a good job of communicating.

A more recent example is Buzzfeed, a company that announced it would cut 15% of its workforce via an email. This led to confusion, anxiety and inspired a quiz that current employees could take to figure out if they were safe or not. The company has made a series of layoffs and it sends a clear signal to talent; there is little job security at Buzzfeed, and management communications leave much to be desired.

According to a study by our friends at CareerArc, 87% of job seekers say they will be less likely to apply for a job at a company after reading employee reviews of poorly conducted terminations or layoffs. And that was before the Coronavirus situation.

The study also found that 64% of consumers have stopped purchasing a brand after hearing news of that company’s poor employee treatment. So not only does bad handling of this crisis lead to a damaged employer brand, but it also impacts the consumer brand adversely. 

It stands to reason that the employer that conducts redundancies or furloughs as well as it possibly could, will be more likely to get positive feedback from talent. Some outplacement firms actively monitor the sentiment from employees being laid off, as a way to ensure it’s being handled well. And, of course, if the company can retain staff through the crisis, perhaps by forfeiting profits, it will be remembered and probably lead to better retention levels in the years to come.

I appreciate the employer brand team cannot decide how the C-suite chooses to tackle a crisis of this magnitude; instead, the role here is to inform the decision-makers of the impact on the company’s reputation as an employer. 


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