Changing employer image: from questionable to preferable

Anastasija Zemdliauskaitė, Senior Consultant

It was New Year’s Eve. Outside the club, there were six of us: me, my good old friend, and four new acquaintances from the party, who had also stepped out to get some fresh air*. My friend, who is always straightforward in her lovely way, asked, “So what do you guys do for a living?” All started chatting about their current and past jobs, and someone mentioned a well-known large company. A collective reaction of eye-rolling, lip pursing, and muttering rolled through the faces. All signs of a bad employer reputation, which wasn’t formed by commercials, press releases, or management interviews – but by everyday conversations like this one.

What should be done about the negative image of the employer?

If the reputation wasn’t spoiled by poor advertising or lack of perks for the employees (it rarely is) – it would not be fixed through advertising and perks. To determine what needs to be fixed, we must first understand what caused the negative reputation in the first place.

If you ever searched for an image to illustrate “communication,” you most probably got 100 variations of an open mouth. But in reality, eyes and ears are the most important: all thoughtful action begins with listening.

To identify the problem with an employer’s image, a communicator’s eyes and ears are to be used. First – in their circle of acquaintances and friends, online and offline: talking to them is free and gives insight. Next – there’s the internet, specifically social media platforms where people freely express their opinions. This includes Facebook groups, individual users, and LinkedIn (even though sometimes it seems there’s just praise, observing employee silence or “unnaturally” praising posts about their employer can reveal some important information). For international and large companies, forums like Quora, Reddit, and Glassdoor reviews can also provide anonymous opinions.

Thirdly, the most proximate insight into the root of the problem comes from talking to the employees themselves. If they are colleagues, it is possible to become friends and have genuine conversations in person. However, this method may lead to bias and rumors, making it difficult to see the bigger picture if influenced by a few people. A more reliable approach is to conduct a research mix. This includes delving into HR’s research on employee engagement, job satisfaction, and other studies. Following this, organizing one or more professionally moderated focus groups can help uncover common attitudes and problems, as well as their underlying causes. Since at least 8 people participate in these focus groups, their opinions are more likely to be unbiased than during a personal interview.

It’s not the perks, but why they are provided

Organizations have various methods to increase employee engagement, motivation, and loyalty. These range from snacks, workations abroad, and physiotherapists, to amenities like sleeping rooms in the office and the possibility of unlimited remote work.

I have witnessed organizations offering abundant snacks and gaming, yet their employee turnover remained high, and those who worked there would prioritize their freelance projects. On the other hand, I have seen companies with zero extravagant perks, but with a strong attractiveness that can be felt at the very moment of entering their office and seeing people there talking to each other.

From what I have noticed, the fundamental difference between these two types of organizations lied in their attitude towards employees, coming from shareholders and managers. When the approach is mechanical, and concentrated on cost-saving strategies (e.g. providing food to prevent employees from leaving the office for lunch), it creates a ripple effect throughout the company. Managers pressure employees to work longer hours, and employees demand higher salaries. Ultimately, there is no energy left to address growth, purpose, or mission.

Organizations that don’t view their employees as tools for profit, but as partners in creating an important and meaningful thing, might offer food as well. However, the intention is not to rush employees to eat and get back to work but to provide convenience and a comfortable environment where all their needs are met in the office. Although the action itself is the same – ordering food for the office – the effect and the perception of the employer is different.

Changing employer reputation

It starts with identifying and addressing the root causes of the negative image. This process is challenging and requires change management skills. Communication can play a crucial role by being the eyes and ears that bring up these problems, provide clarity on how employees perceive them and help communicate the changes effectively from identification to implementation.

Sometimes, significant change is needed to recover the employer’s reputation. For instance, if the organization has a deeply rooted toxic culture, one option is to separate a department and form a new company with a desired culture and a different brand. Or saying goodbye to several managers at once. Or creating and growing new organizations with a different culture and a new product that reflects it.

Alternatively, softer actions like changing organizational traditions, resolving communication issues between departments, or improving business management systems can also be effective.

Change costs. But what is the benefit?

Major changes in organizational culture are expensive in multiple ways. The time of specialists and consultants can be costly, and the change itself may result in the departure of some employees, creating confusion and a temporary decrease in motivation within the organization. Additionally, there are risks that the culture will stay the same or that the process will take longer than planned.

So, why risk? What are the benefits of changing the organizational culture and employer image?

Firstly, consider the employee retention rate. Although it may initially decline during changes, it should significantly improve in the long run if the changes are implemented correctly. Some employers have employees with an average tenure of 15 years, greatly influenced by the welcoming organization’s culture. Studies estimate, that the cost of losing an employee (searching for a replacement, recruiting, training, retention, etc.) can vary from half to the entire annual salary. Losing top talent not only affects team morale but also hampers problem-solving abilities, innovation, and customer relationships. This is just one method of calculating the cost of having a poor employer image (or being a bad employer) for a business.

Another aspect to consider is more qualitative. Organizational culture can impact the desire and ability to create innovations, develop new products, and venture into new areas. Open, employee-friendly, and democratic organizations often experience faster growth and greater resistance to environmental changes. They can adapt more quickly and effectively. It’s possible to achieve these outcomes faster than anticipated since human psychology tends to overestimate daily accomplishments but underestimate annual achievements.

Therefore, my advice to employers is this: if you feel that your employer’s image is poor, don’t rush to advertise your advantages. Instead, delve into the root of the problem, address it, and communicate these changes and your rebuilding efforts. Effective communication can every part  of the process.


*You got it right, on the evening of December 31 people only go outside to smoke, but I didn’t want to normalize this ugly habit at the beginning of the article.