Managing the Message
Knowing what makes for a solid corporate reputation and how to protect it isn't easy in today's social-media age. But this year's Most Admired for HR designees offer some great insight.
By Mark McGraw
Before taking over as senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Cisco Systems Inc. in December 2010, Francine Katsoudas was a senior director and engineering partner for Cisco's engineering group.
In that role, Katsoudas met once a week with Pankaj Patel, Cisco's executive vice president and chief development officer, to discuss HR-related issues surrounding the San Jose, Calif.-based networking equipment company's approximately 28,000 engineers.
One item on each week's agenda was a rundown of some of the Cisco-related comments on Glassdoor.com, the popular website where employees and former employees anonymously post reviews of companies where they work or have worked.
"It was important for us to understand how we were being perceived externally," says Katsoudas. "But we had a hunch that most of the comments we saw were coming from current employees."
Their weekly review sessions were revealing.
"Sometimes, the quotes at the top of the list would be very positive," says Katsoudas. "Other comments maybe wouldn't be so positive, but they would tell you things that perhaps you wouldn't want to talk about as openly."
On the plus side, "what stood out were the many comments about our great people," she says. "[These types of remarks] confirmed for us that our employees are truly Cisco's differentiator."
Other comments, however, indicated that, "from a decision-making standpoint, we could be faster," says Katsoudas.
Those types of comments "changed the conversation," she says, "because they brought into focus the way employees were [viewing] our culture at the moment."
It's not easy to uphold a rock-solid reputation -- and sturdy employment brand -- in a corporate environment where the Internet, smartphones and social media can make even a single negative customer or employee experience worldwide news in a matter of seconds.
For this story, Human Resource Executive® spoke with HR leaders at a few of this year's Most Admired for HR companies to hear firsthand what they do to build and maintain positive corporate identities among the general public and, importantly, would-be employees.
In Cisco's case, its brand is apparently in good public standing at the moment, as the organization can be found in the No. 41 position on LinkedIn's "Most InDemand Employers: 2014" list -- based on the analysis of more than 35 billion interactions between companies and members on the business-networking site.
Led by Katsoudas, the part that Cisco's HR function plays in cultivating a strong corporate reputation has also helped earn the organization the No. 29 slot on HRE's 2014 Most Admired for HR list.
In addition, keeping a close watch on the company's brand via sites such as Glassdoor and social-media networks has helped Katsoudas and the company realize that "sometimes, it's easier for employees to say something in that type of forum," she says. "So that led us to create opportunities for employees to put their opinions and concerns forward internally."
For instance, the Cisco HR team encouraged employees to form an online community, which has since grown to include more than 50 employee blogs geared toward various topics and communities -- personal journals on work-related topics, project/team blogs and forums for C-level executives, as well as portals for external customers.
Those same executives also participate in live chats with employees at periodic company meetings, affording workers the chance to converse with the leadership team.
"At a given time during these meetings, you may have five or seven executives chatting with employees, collecting feedback, answering questions," says Katsoudas.
These types of opportunities help provide the company's more than 74,000 employees with a say on the company's direction as well as a hand in shaping their individual employee experience, she says. In turn, these employees act as Cisco's best -- or worst -- brand ambassadors outside the organization, depending on how they view that experience.
Every year since 2005, HRE has partnered with Hay Group to compile the "Most Admired for HR" list, culled from Fortune's annual "Most Admired Companies." (See sidebar for methodology, and click here to listen to a recent webinar on the topic.) And, in 2014 -- as in previous years -- the organizations and the HR teams making the grade "tend to have very strong reputations" resulting from exceptional corporate and employment brands, says Mark Royal, senior principal at Hay Group Insight, the survey research division of the Philadelphia-based Hay Group.
"As we look at cross-industry reputational rankings, companies at the top often have [brands and reputations that are] well-known and well-regarded," says Royal.
Finding the "It" Factor
Corporate character, so to speak, "can be sort of an intangible and amorphous-seeming concept," says Mel Stark, vice president and regional reward practice leader at Hay Group.
But an organization's ability -- or failure -- to maintain a sterling reputation has some very real-world implications, he says.
In compiling the 2014 list of Fortune's Most Admired companies, Hay Group conducted a survey of more than 800 executives. The poll found 51 percent of respondents saying half of their organization's market value is connected to reputation.
While "we don't have a mathematical equation" for determining the extent to which an organization's reputation contributes to its value, "part of it is that certain 'It' factor," says Stark. "Part of it is how 'sexy' a company is perceived to be, whether it's because of a hot product or rock-star leadership, as well as those leaders' abilities to keep steady hands when things happen that could affect the [corporate] brand."
Indeed, the individuals at the top of the organization seem to have the most bearing on how the company is perceived as a whole. In the aforementioned survey, Hay Group asked executives to name the biggest driver of a company's reputation.
"We found the overwhelming message is that quality of management is the biggest driver," says Royal. "We often say, 'If you want to see where a company is now, look at its financials. But if you want to see where it's going, take a look at the quality of products, quality of talent and quality of management.' "
Gretchen Zech, senior vice president of global human resources, and her HR team at Englewood, Colo.-based Arrow Electronics -- No. 43 on the list of Most Admired for HR companies -- have made a point of keeping the organization's leaders in close and frequent contact with Arrow's 16,500 employees.
In the past year, Arrow has deployed Microsoft's Yammer, the companywide, internal social-media platform, which enables Arrow employees around the world to interact online and share business information and best practices, says Zech.
The company also hosted a series of "Yam Jam" sessions, in which Arrow executives interact directly with workers at all levels, fielding questions and soliciting comments and ideas from employees.
"It's a terrific medium, that makes our very large company feel smaller and more connected," says Zech.
Using this tool also "furthers our brand and reputation among external constituencies, who want to in some way be part of our Arrow story," she says. "It provides a means to live our company culture from both the inside out and outside in."
In 2014, it's hard to underestimate the part that social media plays in affecting perceptions of your company.
"In today's social environment, the four walls of the organization have increasingly large windows," says Royal.
Hay Group frequently asks clients how newer communication technologies have impacted their abilities to monitor their firms' reputations, he says. "And we definitely get a sense from them that there's both risk and opportunity."
The aforementioned risks aside, embracing Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the like allows the organization to be "continuously connected to what stakeholders are thinking and saying about the company," Royal says. "That's scary. But it also provides a wealth of real-time information that companies didn't have in the past. And ultimately, that sense of opportunity in social media seems to win out."
In fact, Hay Group's Fortune survey found more than 50 percent of respondents indicating that technology and social media have actually strengthened the control they have over their corporations' reputations.
The organization can use social media to promote company events or announcements, such as new product releases or leadership changes, or to quickly react to a crisis, "rather than letting opinions settle and solidify, and then reacting," says Royal. "Companies are realizing they can manage the message as it's being created."
An organization's online cachet matters to job seekers, too.
In a 2014 Spherion Staffing Services survey, for example, 47 percent of 2,035 employed adults said they "strongly agree" or "agree" that, when considering new employment, a firm's online reputation is as important as the offer they're given. A recent poll of Glassdoor.com visitors found 69 percent of 1,000 employees and job seekers said their estimation of an employer improved when they saw an exexutive or a company representative respond to online criticisms.
The proliferation of social media has absolutely given HR another tool to use in shaping the organization's reputation -- and for reaching out to these social media-savvy job seekers at the same time, says Katsoudas.
Naturally, a company's recruiters are often the first point of contact for many potential job candidates, including "those who haven't raised their hands."
In July 2013, Cisco began requiring recruiters -- approximately 200 of whom have done so thus far -- to complete the Social Media for HR online mini-certification program. Part of the company's larger social-media training strategy, the program was created in-house and is designed to teach recruiters how to properly use social media to interact with external audiences, including passive job candidates. Course focus areas include using social media to generate demand, extraordinary blogging tips and how to create conversations, not advertisements, via Twitter, for instance.
"These are the things that make it compelling for our HR people," says Katsoudas. "They feel like they're moving with the industry."
Linking Recruitment to Reputation
The HR function at Accenture (No. 7 on HRE's list) keeps its employment brand front and center with potential candidates through nearly 100 career-focused social-media outlets, including more than 40 Facebook pages, 30 Twitter accounts and 20 LinkedIn pages and groups, says Ellyn Shook, the company's chief human resources officer.
In the past year, Accenture has hired approximately 80,000 people, including "thousands of people with deep expertise, such as Ph.D.s, nurses, web developers, digital marketers, data scientists and big-data specialists," says Shook, who notes that the global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company has more than 1 million followers across various social-media sites. (The organization has roughly 305,000 employees worldwide.)
By maintaining regular contact with these external audiences through social media, "we are able to share details about what it's like to work at Accenture, inform followers of upcoming local recruitment events and promote opportunities," she says.
Beyond social media, Shook and the HR team have also created the Accenture Interview App, which uses personalized text messages to introduce job candidates to their interviewers via the interviewer's LinkedIn profile, along with providing time-and-date details for the pending meeting and integrating Google maps, so candidates are equipped with precise location information in advance of their interview dates.
At American Express Co., a New York-based multinational financial-services corporation and No. 36 on this year's list, creating a personal, consumer-like experience for potential job candidates is critical to maintaining a strong reputation and employment brand, says Oriana Vogel, vice president of global talent acquisition at AmEx.
With these expectations in mind, earlier this year, AmEx launched a mobile application process in seven languages, using video interviews -- similar to Skype or FaceTime, says Vogel -- and is piloting a tool designed to connect job candidates to AmEx employees via their Facebook and LinkedIn networks.
"Instead of only having the option to search and apply to a job on our global careers website, now candidates will also have the ability to quickly search for AmEx employees in their networks and email their connection with a referral request for a position they are interested in," she says.
Such tools have "enabled more two-way communication with all of [AmEx's] stakeholders -- shareholders, customers, employees and the community."
She and the talent-acquisition team have also changed the way they promote the company's employment brand among tough-to-attract candidates such as software developers and coders.
For instance, Vogel and company recently launched a digital marketing campaign targeted at reaching talent with engineering, information management and programming backgrounds to fill positions in AmEx's global American Express Technology organization.
Featuring a series of YouTube videos and a new microsite, the "Powered by Innovation, Engineered by You" campaign is heavily focused on the mobile experience, she says.
"Technology has changed the way we recruit," says Vogel. "Candidates expect the application and interview process to be as intuitive as their experience shopping on Amazon.com or doing online banking."
Creating a digital recruitment experience with multiple online touch points "not only improves the candidate experience," she says, "[but] it also signals to our candidates that we are a technology-focused company," something AmEx considers key to its image.