As corporate culture progresses, there seems a newly found notion that companies don’t ‘own’ employees as ‘assets’ as they perhaps used to. And likewise, employees are not ‘chained’ to their companies and are less fearful about speaking up should they not align with company values or actions.
During an interview with PRWeek last year, Edelman APAC’s employee engagement chief Adrian Warr told us:
"You hear that old adage: 'employees are our most valuable asset'. I think what they often mean is that employees are their most expensive asset and we should pay attention to them, whereas I think you've got to see employees more as customers, and certainly as humans. The dynamic has changed. It's not a master-slave relationship anymore. It's a product and customer relationship between employee and employer."
Warr added that the same way a company or brand might run a consumer-facing campaign to sell a product to its customers, a company should treat its employees with similar care and understanding.
However, not all companies feel similarly. Last week, Hong Kong beverage company Vitasoy was reported to conduct background checks on its employees and their families; these checks include personal information such as association memberships outside of work. Stand News reported that some employees who have worked at the company for over a decade said the new requirement has made them panic.
Rachel Catanach, president and senior partner, Greater China, at FleishmanHillard, told PRWeek that the social contract between employers and employees is changing as the boundaries between personal and work life become more and more blurred with WFH arrangements and social media.
Another example is Chinese ecommerce giant Pinduoduo which was on the brunt of a boycott earlier this year following the sudden death of an employee, allegedly due to burnout. Just days later, an engineer at the company committed suicide was fired after taking to social media to talk about the company’s culture of overwork. In this case, employees might feel a fear of retribution for speaking up against workplace practices.
The double-edged sword of social media
One major reason employer-employee dynamics have shifted is the proliferation of social media. Employees feel more empowered to speak about questionable workplace practices, especially as the advent of anti-capitalistic sentiment has led to increased awareness of labour exploitation. On top of that, divisive situations such as geo-politics and social issues have surfaced dissent among employees.
All of this have contributed to the rise of employee activism which Catanach said can be a powerful thing if the interests of the company and its employees are aligned.
“Employees want companies to stand up and be counted on important social issues, and many employees are voting with their feet if they do not feel that their values and those of their employer’s are aligned,” she said. “This happens most effectively when employees are asked to embrace a purpose or an initiative they truly believe in. Consumers are quick to spot when it appears employee ambassadors are not speaking from the heart so getting that alignment between promotion and purpose is critical.”
The challenge here is for companies is to establish clear guidelines for discourse and to ensure that the foundations of mutual respect are embedded into the cultural fabric of the organisation. To begin with, social media guidelines are a must and Catanach said that these guidelines must be communicated at the start of employees’ tenure at the company.
“Companies need to have clear social media guidelines in place and these need to be regularly and proactively communicated,” she said. “Companies should also clearly articulate their values so that employees understand the principles behind the guidelines and the wider context in which they have been formulated. At more senior levels, there are no clear lines between public and private, and most executives are advised not to use social channels to express personal views, particularly if they are political.”
Victoria Coplans Hope, CEO of Hope Communications, told PRWeek that the aim of social media guidelines is to ensure that employees use social media responsibly, understanding the effects it can have on their personal reputation and on that of their employer.
The most important aspect of clear guidelines is to ensure that employees understand that they are sharing personal views and not representing their employers. And of course, employees should also refrain from sharing confidential business dealings that could affect business dealings or share price.
“Social media is now so ingrained in our daily lives that we’re past the point where companies should try to limit their employees’ social media usage,” said Hope. “The majority of companies recognise that social media, when used properly, can have a positive effect on their brand and on their employees. The focus must be on helping employees use social media responsibly, safely and legally through a robust social media policy and access to advice from HR, legal and communications.”
Hope’s point about employees using social media positively is an important one as employees can also be a company’s best ambassador. She added that employee advocacy programmes, where employees are encouraged to share their company’s social media posts, have been found to improve social media reach, brand health, customer satisfaction, employee engagement and recruitment.
“But your people will only become ambassadors if they are engaged and believe in your mission, vision and values,” Hope added. “Employee advocacy starts with a highly engaged workforce who want to share how amazing their company is and how proud they are to work there. You need to make sure your employee engagement and employee experience are really solid before you introduce an employee advocacy programme.”
One way to drive company advocacy is to get employees involved in CSR activities, Hope added. If the energy is focused on environmental or social activities, it can help to build partnerships with the community and subsequently align with the values of the company and its employees.
At a Campaign Connect panel last year, Hermon Ghermay, global chief culture officer at IPG Mediabrands, summed it up nicely: "I worry when people aren't talking, quite frankly. I think that's when you're in trouble is when people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing.... especially in an industry like ours, where it is grounded and rooted in creativity, that is really crippling and paralysing. So I hope we keep listening. And I hope we keep talking.”