Trying too hard

Potential pitfalls when an employer's brand and culture don't align
By Cissy Pau
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/18/2016

Air Canada’s discount carrier, Rouge, launched with a splash in 2013. Staff were promised the “Harvard of customer service training” through the Disney Institute. They were outfitted with trendy uniforms and assured they would fly highly coveted international routes.

But days after the launch, the Internet was abuzz about lower wages being offered to Rouge employees and employees being expected to pay for a portion of the incidentals (such as travel, meals and accommodation) related to the training. The employer brand of Rouge took an immediate hit almost before it started.

Also in 2013, online retailer Zappos piloted “holacracy” with its HR team. A management system that eliminates traditional job titles and hierarchy in favour of self-management and self-organization, holacracy was fully adopted throughout Zappos in 2015. The company also offered three months of severance or one month for every year worked, whichever was greater, to encourage any employee who didn’t believe holacracy was a good fit to leave.

In the end, 260 employees — 18 per cent of its workforce — took advantage of the severance offer, according to Zappos. Some left because of holacracy. Others left because the offer was too good to pass up, they wanted to pursue other opportunities or because the timing was right. The average severance payout was 5.5 months of pay. Compared to an average annual turnover of 20 per cent in the two years prior, turnover in 2015 was 30 per cent.

So, were Rouge and Zappos ahead of their time or were they trying too hard to stay “on-trend” or ahead of the curve?

It is difficult to know what it is really like to work inside Rouge, Zappos or the dozens of other companies that are starting new workplace trends and very publicly touting “unique” workplaces. The employee experience is dependent on so many factors, including their role, their manager and their relationship with co-workers. 

But when employer brand and company culture are not aligned, the following pitfalls may occur:

Dissatisfied employees:

When the public image and the internal experience differ, employees can feel uncertain and confused, which could lead to lower productivity and efficiency, decreased employee satisfaction and higher turnover. Zappos first appeared on Fortune magazine’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in 2009, ranking #23. It went from ranking as high as #6 in 2011 to #86 in 2015 to not making the list at all in 2016. Does this mean employees are less satisfied? Not necessarily. But from the outside looking in, the public perception of the company is declining. It is easy, though perhaps not accurate, to put some of the blame on holacracy.

Increased public scrutiny:

For companies with strong brands, the hope is that the conversation is positive. However, when a brand takes a tumble, it is difficult to escape the public scrutiny and its negative impact on the employer brand. For example, a New York Times’ exposé on the difficult work environment at Amazon in 2015 created a traditional and social media firestorm, with current and past employees discussing their experiences.    

Decreased company credibility:

Doubt is created about the work environment. This doubt tarnishes a company’s reputation and diminishes confidence in the company’s employer brand which, in turn, can impact a company’s overall reputation. WestJet, for example, has created an incredible employer brand with its “owners care” philosophy and all employees being owners.

Unfortunately, over the past few years, there have been growing cracks in this reputation. WestJet has faced unionization drives by both pilots and flight attendants in 2015. More recently, allegations of sexual assault have emerged. 

WestJet may be a great place to work, but potential candidates may now think twice before submitting an application. The ability to attract and retain staff may become more difficult as the divide grows between public brand and internal culture.

Aligning the external employer brand and internal company culture is essential. The employee experience requires consistency for employees to be able to support and appreciate the company in which they work. If a new business approach sounds like the “flavour of the month” and doesn’t fit with an organization’s values, it won’t work. 

If a company is trying too hard to be hip and on-trend, but is really traditional and conservative, employees will see through it. Employees don’t want to feel like they are part of a social experiment or a guinea pig for a new idea — they want to know the company and its leaders are consistent, effective and demonstrate staying power.

To develop, communicate and popularize an employer brand that complements the company culture, consider the following strategies:

Be authentic:

Don’t make up a story of the ideal employer brand and convey this is what your company is like. The brand must be real and genuine and, more importantly, it has to be supported by employees’ experience there. Create an employer brand and initiatives that will support this brand by looking internally at what makes your company unique and an exceptional place to work, and build from there.

Originate, don’t imitate:

Just because Google offers a never-ending supply of gourmet food and snacks and employees can dedicate 20 per cent of their time to a passion project doesn’t mean this will work at every company. Employer brands cannot be copied and applied from one company to the next. Build an employer brand by being original and creative and finding out what works at your company. Don’t be a copycat. Don’t try to make the company something it’s not. 

Be realistic:

Every company has an identity, like it or not. If the company culture is unattractive, change must come from strong leadership who lead by example. Creating an exceptional employer brand and developing trendy initiatives to try to attract people who will change the culture to the ideal won’t change it. 

Instead, those employees will become disillusioned when the reality of working in the company doesn’t match the story. Employers should know where their company stands today and change the internal culture before spreading the word in the market about what they want to be.

A strong match between a public employer brand and the internal company culture enables an employer to attract and retain employees whose personal values and interests align with those of the company. 

When this alignment is off, skepticism abounds and current and potential employees start doubting the authenticity of, or lose trust in, the company. 

Disgruntled and disillusioned employees have immediate outlets available to share their experiences through social media channels and on employer rating sites. Negative ratings, unflattering anecdotes, cynicism about the company and jokes about unsuccessful company initiatives will tarnish a company’s reputation, both for employees and consumers alike. 

Whether these stories are true or not doesn’t matter. Perception becomes reality. Implementing a trendy initiative doesn’t make a company trendy. An attractive place to work is created when there is consistency, when the culture is authentic and when the story is real.

Cissy Pau is the principal consultant of Clear HR Consulting, a Vancouver-based firm that offers human resources consulting and downloadable HR solutions for small business. For more information, visit

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