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Original article published at HR Daily
When an organisation has a very public industrial dispute its employer brand will be damaged, but the impact doesn't have to be long-term, says branding expert Brett Minchington.
Commenting to HR Daily on the potential impact of the Qantas dispute - which is not likely to be arbitrated until Easter 2012 - he said some brand damage is inevitable, and especially in cases where potential employees not only read about the dispute but are affected by it.
The relationship between the customer experience and the employee experience is "seamless", he points out.
But Minchington, who is the CEO of Employer Brand International, says that when a brand has "been around for a while" and has a high level of brand equity, "the long-term impact on its ability to attract and retain talent will be minimal".
Public perceptions differ
Potential employees who aren't "in the know" or don't have an informed view of a dispute will likely be persuaded in some way by what they read in the media, Minchington says, "but I think increasingly people are becoming more savvy to the unbalanced view of how media can report these types of things".
A dispute will "mean different things to different people", he points out, and it's not all negative.
"The strike was limited to ground staff, pilots and engineers - three pretty critical areas of the business - but on the flipside, Qantas has put out the stats saying 'We're losing a lot of money; our overseas operations aren't competitive, so we're going to take this direction to remain here in the future.
"The action they took, which was unprecedented, was probably quite a good strategic one. It's paradigm shifting. The media around it has really died down... They'll work through and weather the storm on this one."
Some people will see that as attractive, Minchington says.
"They think, 'I'll go work at Qantas because they've stood up to unions and they're changing strategy' - whereas other people, if they've got a choice between Qantas and one of the other airlines, might join another company."
Further, the position level and role criticality can affect a potential employee's view.
"For example, an executive might be attracted to work at the company based on the challenges of leading a company that is going through industrial action, as they may see it as a way to advance their career."
The biggest impact is likely to be felt at the critical role function level, for example where pilots and engineers are in high demand and can move to other airlines, he says.
"Rival airlines will use the dispute as an opportunity to attract talent (and customers) from Qantas, so it is important that leaders lead during a time of dispute and keep open lines of communication with their staff."
Brand disengagement doesn't necessarily affect performance
When a dispute is in progress it can't be assumed that employee performance will be affected, Minchington says.
"It actually comes back to the individual, and their pride in performance, and how they deliver service.
"If they're a disengaged employee it doesn't necessarily mean they're going to deliver poor service. I know from experience that a lot of employees are disengaged - in technical roles like ambos and firefighters and radiologists, for example - but their customer service is first-class.
"With the engineers, people might be thinking, 'If engineers aren't happy what's that going to mean for the quality of their work on planes?', but I think it gets back to pride in performance."
How to weather the storm
According to Minchington, the steps employers should take during and after a high-profile dispute to keep their brand intact include:
- Stay focused on the game plan. "This is not the time to change direction or appear to the staff that you are losing focus during the dispute. Your message to staff needs to be clear on what you're doing and why you are doing it (e.g. to prevent future job losses as a result of a decline in business, etc)";
- Maintain open and clear communication with internal and external stakeholders. "For internal stakeholders this may include a Q&A section on the intranet and regular staff meetings, and for external stakeholders it may include setting up a 1800 number or being accessible to the media";
- Show employees you care. "More than ever this is a time when you need to be open to discussing any concerns they have about their employment and the impact of the dispute";
- Ensure the CEO and executives are visible. "Failure of a CEO to front the media or employees in time of crisis is the fastest way to damage your brand and lose trust among stakeholders";
- Ensure sufficient resources are allocated to handle media queries;
- Brief and train internal or third-party recruiters to handle queries that come from candidates about the company's working environment. "Ensure they are informed and clear on what the company's employer value propositions are";
- Track, measure and respond to what is being said about your brand online and offline. "If appropriate, take corrective action where the feedback or reporting is incorrect. Understand that customers and employees will want to vent during a dispute, so have perspective on their feedback and how you manage your response. Above all show openness, authenticity and willingness to resolve complaints or concerns during this time";
- Continue to manage your strategy through the dispute. "For example, it would not be timely to launch a company-wide employee engagement initiative during a time of crisis. Qantas recently got caught out by launching a viral social media campaign that worked against it and was hijacked by bloggers and tweets making fun of the company's initiative and providing another opportunity to link the Qantas brand with negative criticism - poor timing for Qantas"; and
Be proactive. "Plan in advance the action you will take following the dispute to restore confidence and minimise long-term impact to your employer brand. Reputation takes a long time to build and a short time to destroy!"