Actions speak louder than words: Creating long-life employee advocacy
— September 3rd, 2019
Remember when you packed up your desk plant, a personalized mug and the business book you always intended to read, logged off for the last time and bid your much-loved colleagues ‘adieu’?
It’s been years since you left that company, those people. And yet, whenever a friend, family member or random Twitter contact asks, 'can anyone recommend...?’ that organization is the first that springs to mind.
And, moreover, you DO recommend them. Why? What drives us to pin our loyalty to a brand, years after the career association has ended? And how can organizations foster the kind of employer advocacy that lasts long after an employee moves on?
A distinction between advocacy, engagement, and pride
At a recent Internal Communication leaders’ event, the topic of advocacy was hotly debated, with delegates weighing up whether the terms 'advocacy', ‘engagement’ and pride' are distinct or interchangeable. The answer circled back to two definitions.
- You can be engaged in and proud of your company, but not feel moved to do anything extraordinary with it.
- Whereas advocacy pushes your feelings from passive into active, meaning you are more likely to actively associate yourself with your company and recommend them.
In our digital, user-generated and review-based world, surely, it’s advocacy that brands would pay through the nose for. Some leaders in the room admitted that they still point to companies far down their CVs as exemplars of great places to work with the best products and services.
Why is this? While the premise is simple, the reality must be hard to deliver, or surely everyone would manage it? Creating positive, memorable and valuable working experiences inspires employees, past and present, to say good things about you. But how can organizations truly bring advocacy to life effectively and sustainably?
“So, if it was that good to work there, why did you leave?” Let's be realistic, gone are the days of jobs for life. People switch roles for a multitude of reasons, and it's not just about dissatisfaction. We’re more comfortable moving on to move up. There isn't always an opportunity at the time you’re ready for it and driven employees don't want to risk stagnation when new opportunities aren’t forthcoming. It doesn't mean that they didn't have a stellar experience and that they wouldn't highly recommend the role, the company or its services to others.
Pride in the product
If you’ve ever found yourself singing the praises of your former employer’s products or workplace, it’s probably because something in their culture aligned with your own motivations or standards or exceeded your expectations.
We tend to remember fantastic service or quality and, even after we've moved on, we'll continue to recommend what we know works – after all, we don’t want egg on our face when we recommend someone! This is powerful brand advocacy because it sends the message: 'even though I no longer have ties with the company, I'm still choosing to recommend because, to me, it doesn’t get better than this.” In a nutshell, ‘there’s nothing in this for me, they’re just awesome!’
Sometimes, it’s not a specific product, but a general ethos of creating ‘delight’ and perception of going above and beyond that drives the best advocacy.
A classic example is where supermarkets give employees the discretion to offer vouchers to customers when a product is out of stock. It’s a simple business decision but one that allows the employee to make an on-the-spot judgment call to improve the experience. The customer feels valued and inspired to return. The employee feels empowered, involved and trusted, and has played a part in driving repeat business rather than feeling out of control in the situation.
The darker flipside of advocacy
So, we get the notion of positive experiences driving advocacy but what’s the alternative?
From the Jared O’Mara twitter resignation, we recently wrote about - to reams of negative Glassdoor reviews, there are plenty of horror stories about what can go wrong when organizations don’t manage their employee experience.
Not only will a disgruntled employee fail to champion the brand when they leave, but they can also actively damage it with their unique insider perspective. After all, people buy (or don’t buy) from people, and no matter how managed a brand looks from the outside, we all want the scoop from the shop floor.
Quick wins for long term advocacy
So, we know what’s at stake when it comes to employee experience. What are some key considerations when it comes to building employee advocacy?
Get it right at the start
The first days and weeks in a new job are a critical time and first impressions can be make-or-break. From the pre-start welcome card to the team lunch, office walk-arounds and clear, easy-to-digest induction information, the onboarding experience is a key opportunity to help newbies off to a flying start. And good experiences at this stage are often shared, as employees let their network know where they’ve moved on to.
Clear communication from the get-go
A good employee experience is about so much more than what greets you when you walk through the door. Once settled in, it’s equally as important that your employees at all levels of the organization, be kept in the loop. It’s about sharing the right content with the right audience, at the optimum time, through the most appropriate channels.
Striking the right balance is a challenge for new hires; we don’t want them drowning in content before they’ve figured out what they need and want to know. Think about your 30, 60, even 90-day plans for your freshest employees, and make sure you continually evaluate the process! Keep asking your people what they want to know and measure the impact of those communications for relevance.
Empower the people
Colleagues increasingly choose to work for organizations with which they feel a shared sense of purpose. And this is no longer a ‘nice to have’ - purpose-driven organizations see employee satisfaction levels of around 73%.
So, unpack purpose and the layers that inevitably sit beneath it, and give employees a tangible line of sight between what they do every day, and overall organizational success.
But more importantly, give them regular opportunities to demonstrate those things in action. Whether it’s through recognition, objectives or simply in the way you curate your employee voice – your purpose, vision, and values need to come through loud and clear at all stages of your employee experience.
Making sense of change
Can change negatively impact advocacy? Yes! So, we must manage it actively and mindfully.
I’m a big believer that people don’t dislike ‘change’. It’s actually change’s uglier, scarier sibling ‘uncertainty’ that really gets our backs up. Uncertainty is a threat, and our brain registers little difference between a true life-and-death situation and a nasty bout of uncertainty at work.
So how can we minimize the damage of organizational change and maintain good employee experience levels?
In times of change, we must provide context; the bigger picture. Voids and ambiguity allow the brain to fill the gaps - correctly or incorrectly - so share everything you can at regular intervals, including timelines.
And create social time for colleagues; stay attuned to the emotional state of colleagues in times of change and do it in a human, personal and honest way. The brain lights up at certainty and releases dopamine; our natural motivational drug. Remember that change is good for the brain and we like ‘new’, so big up the benefits of learning, development, and opportunity.
But don’t underestimate the physical and psychological toll change can also take on employees and build well-being and self-care into change programs. Consider resilience training; whilst some are naturally more resilient to change than others, it is a skill that can be learned and it’s useful in many personal and business contexts.
The value of opinion
Feeling listened to and valued is a vital part of a positive workplace experience. Whether in a small business or a global organization, people need to be encouraged to share opinion and give feedback. Having your say and feeling listened to can create a deep sense of autonomy - and in turn advocacy.
And yes, we all know the suggestion scheme can be a pain to manage well. However, some of the greatest product innovations happen when someone with a different perspective makes a suggestion. Make championing fresh thinking, from the shop floor upwards, part of your culture and you’ll see how your people jump at the chance to make positive changes they can shout about.
For example, British Airways launched an online suggestion box to help reduce emissions and cut fuel bills. The result? One unusual idea to reduce airplane weight by descaling toilet pipes ended up cutting annual fuel bills by $900,000.
Proof and pride points
Whether your organization was the first to harness a technology or has made a pledge to achieve an ambitious goal, tangible achievements provide ’reasons to believe’ and celebratory moment which employees can champion both in and outside the business.
For organizations where a product offering, price or service isn’t necessarily differentiated, the most effective USP the business can nurture, and leverage is the perception of its people. And making it easy for your people to remember your story and connect with your company’s proud moments is one of the strongest building blocks for advocacy.
Think ‘Whole of life’
From ‘onboarding’ to the ‘goodbye and thank you for your service’ communication, organizations with the strongest advocacy strive to give employees from the shop floor to the boardroom a consistent experience throughout the full organizational life cycle.
A seamless process of recognition from start to finish, celebrating all of the important milestones and achievements along the way, makes the employee journey even more memorable and creates a rich and positive experience on which to look back fondly, and recommend to others.