Rebuilding a Damaged Employer Brand

I have helped numerous companies improve their employer-of-choice brand image over the years. But recently I was asked about an interesting related issue: How do you rebuild a “tarnished” employment brand after a negative PR event? The question is a new one, in part because in the past it was relatively rare for a firm with a great reputation to lose it almost overnight. Unfortunately, since the dot-com demise, the stock market crash, and recent ethical challenges, long-term employer-of-choice brands can disappear faster than at anytime in recent history. A number of firms that formerly had a great employer of choice image have since suffered a tarnished reputation, including:

  • Cisco
  • Nortel
  • EDS
  • Citibank
  • Hewlett Packard
  • Jet Blue
  • Qwest
  • Lucent

The Impact of a Tarnished Employer-of-Choice Image

An employer-of choice (EOC) image means that your company has a well-known reputation among top talent as a “great place to work.” Because of that well-known positive image, every candidate considers you as a target firm for their next job. An EOC brand is built-up over time as a result of a planned effort on the part of the employment function. But a company’s great reputation can be lost relatively quickly as a result of problems totally outside the control of recruiting, including:

  • One or more major layoffs
  • An accounting or ethical scandal
  • A dramatic slide in the stock
  • The resignation of the CEO
  • A mismanaged or failed merger
  • Moving manufacturing (or the firm’s incorporation) offshore

Even one of these catastrophes can reduce the volume of a firm’s applicants by as much as two-thirds or effectively eliminate any applications from top talent. In some cases, these negative impacts on recruiting can be permanent, particularly if proactive steps are not taken immediately.

What Can Recruiting and HR Do?

Recruiting and HR can do very little to prevent these major catastrophes. But they can develop plans to minimize the damage these catastrophes have on recruiting and retention after the public finds out about them. There are many things that need to be done in order to reestablish your employer-of-choice brand image. At a minimum, the following steps should be taken:

  1. Involve PR. The first step to take is to involve your PR and marketing staff in the problem. Odds are that these departments are already working on improving the company’s product brands, so it makes sense to cooperate and learn from them. By coordinating your efforts you might both reach your goals faster.
  2. Benchmark successful turnarounds. The second step is to examine other companies that have rebuilt a negative recruiting reputation. Most turnaround teams first examine the “Tylenol case,” and then look at the lessons to be learned from companies like Dow Chemical, Exxon, and IBM.
  3. Coordinate your efforts. Improving your reputation requires a coordinated effort between the different HR functions. Form a task force and get professional advice in developing a strategy, as well as a mechanism for integrating the diverse (and often too independent) areas of HR.
  4. Figure out who you’re trying to influence. Although it might be desirable to change your image among the total population, it’s best to first identify those groups of people you most want to influence. Generally you start with current employees (for referral purposes), and then you focus on top talent who may become potential applicants (for key jobs) from within your industry.
  5. Assess the damage. Next, do some marketing research to identify exactly what both current employees and external people think about you. Start by asking applicants and those that hit the website what they think about your firm. Also conduct surveys and focus groups at trade shows and industry events. Unless you know precisely what others think about your company, there is no way you can change their perceptions.
  6. Set the message. Determine what “new” messages you wish to send. Start by making a list of your strengths and weaknesses, and then develop a message to highlight your strengths and to counter each weakness. Develop a “frequently asked questions” list with answers for each. First test your new message with employees; then use external focus groups and surveys to refine your message.
  7. Select your communication mechanisms. Rather than using every medium of communication, it is often best to identify which one is likely to have the most immediate impact on changing your target audience’s image of you. Ask employees and potential applicants what periodicals and media outlets influence them the most. Obviously, self-serving ads will have a lower impact on changing your image than glowing articles written about your firm by famous “neutral” parties.

Checklist: Other Steps To Help You Rebuild Your EOC Brand

In addition to the above general steps, there are many individual things that can be done to help rebuild your EOC image. You can’t do them all, so begin with the ones that are likely to have the most immediate positive impact.

Management Actions

  • Take responsibility, be upfront, and accept whatever blame you deserve.
  • Fire or punish those responsible in order to send a strong message that you won’t tolerate failure or unethical behavior.
  • Admit your errors, but show you know the causes of the problems. Most people listen more closely when you spend the time to identify not just what happened but also what caused it and how it can be prevented in the future.
  • Develop an advisory board, and get well-known individuals to help you solve your current problems and to over see similar future issues.
  • Seek out firms that have previously overcome a tarnished reputation in order to identify the critical success factors in reversing a negative image. Identify what works when it comes to changing people’s minds about a firm.
  • If your products are widely distributed, consider putting a note along with them explaining your side and the steps your company has taken.
  • Put the new “you” in your product ads by revising your marketing, company, and product look to send a message that you are now different. Where appropriate, change your logo, colors, or slogan to show that you are a “new” firm.
  • Consider an alliance with other impacted firms in your industry. Sometimes other firms are also negatively impacted (it’s known as collateral damage), even though they were not directly involved in the initial event. By working together, in some cases all firms may prosper.

Use Recruiting To Spread the Word to Other Professionals

  • Set becoming an employer of choice as your primary goal for the employment function. Allocate the budget dollars and time to reflect that goal.
  • Encourage employee referrals as a mechanism for turning every employee into a company spokesperson. Be sure to educate employees on the turnaround and then remarket the referral program.
  • Coordinate recruiting advertising with product ads to ensure both send a new, but similar, message.
  • Get on or improve your position on magazine best-place-to-work lists to help send the word that your firm is once again an employer of choice.
  • Identify other EOCs and do a side-by-side comparison to see what areas you are now (or need to be) superior in. Use that information to educate managers and employees about your superior people-management programs.
  • Teach your recruiters and managers how to sell the turnaround to skeptical candidates.
  • Increase internships to help spread the word on campus.
  • Revise your recruiting materials and strategy to reflect your new image. Increase your visibility at recruiting events and through advertising.
  • Ask your recruitment advertising firms for advice on how to turn around your negative image. You might also want to ask executive search and other consultants for help.

Use Employees, Shareholders and Friends To Spread the Word

  • Educate employees and others on what you have done to change, so that when they are asked by others about your firm’s difficulty they have quick and accurate answers.
  • Describe the turnaround in the annual report so that shareholders and employees will know what you’ve done.
  • Add a section to your corporate website on your turnaround so that all who visit the site can educate themselves and get answers.
  • Periodically send an e-newsletter to interested parties (such as current and former employees, customers, and suppliers) that highlights what you are doing. Include FAQs and references to online information.
  • Send executives and employees on speaking tours or to visit key customers (but be sure to give them talking points). Also have them write articles about the turnaround.
  • Work with your suppliers to answer their questions. Use them to help spread the word and rebuild your image.
  • Involve the union or your employee “affinity” groups in the turnaround process in order to get their help in spreading the word.
  • Encourage employees to use chat rooms, emails, and instant messaging to answer questions and spread the word through “viral” marketing.
  • Get re-involved in the community to reinforce your image and show that you are now different. Hold events onsite to bring the community back in. Be sure to include community leaders who have a stake in your turnaround (like your local chamber of commerce, teachers, career counselors, ministers, politicians, realtors, etc.)
  • Involve your employee’s families. Invite them to an event and educate them about the problem and the turnaround. Give them simple answers so that they too can talk about the turnaround.
  • Consider getting a local celebrity spokesperson to champion your turnaround.

Use the Media

  • Place a full-page ad in local papers thanking employees and customers for their support during the troubled times.
  • Ask for help and advice from publications/media you regularly advertise in or have a relationships with.
  • Write a book or articles on the turnaround.
  • Appear on public service TV or radio programs to answer questions and to increase your visibility.
  • Use minority and alternative media, as well as billboards and radio, to spread your new message among all communities.

Solicit University, Community and Industry Support

  • Get a university to profile your firm as a turnaround case (you might try offering a faculty internship).
  • Write up your turnaround story and present it to editors and writers as a first step in getting your turnaround talked about in industry publications. You should also make yourself available for interviews.
  • Encourage executives and managers to speak at public, university, and industry events to show that you are now strong, and unafraid to talk about past errors.
  • Provide information about your turnaround at trade shows and job fair booths.
  • Offer scholarships and support local charities to increase your local visibility.

Metrics and Market Research

  • Do an ROI analysis to demonstrate the costs related to a negative recruiting image. Make a strong business case for investing in turning around your negative image.
  • Conduct periodic surveys and focus groups to continually assess what employees and potential applicants think.
  • If it was a stock crash or financial scandal that tarnished your image, send financial projections, outlines of business plans, etc. to bankers, analysts, the media, and shareholders in order to spread the word that you have a solution and a plan in mind for recovery.
  • Develop image metrics to chart your progress among each of your target audiences.


Although most recruiters know very little about employer-of-choice brand development, it is still important that they realize that traditional recruiting can’t be effective when a company has a negative image. Managers also need to be made aware that although the initial effort of returning to employer-of-choice status can be time-consuming, the impact on recruiting and retention (and perhaps sales as well) will be phenomenal.

Unfortunately, it is a fact that not all firms with tarnished images actually overcome them. But the smart ones do because they act fast. So don’t just sit around and whine about your image; seize the opportunity to lead the effort and take some positive steps immediately, especially after a major layoff or after your stock crashes. The steps and activities listed above will certainly make future recruiting a lot easier and they may also make you a corporate hero!

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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