Avoiding the dangers of reputation hangover (Guest commentary)

Know what people are saying about you

I have one good friend who seems virtually immune from hangovers. Not surprisingly, he’s also the least likely to practise moderation the night before. For me, almost any amount of drinking has consequences the next day.

But in the hiring world, the “hangover effect” of developing a bad reputation doesn’t just make you queasy at brunch — it can affect your ability to attract and retain the best staff for years to come.

I have a client that is a very dynamic company — a software company with an excellent reputation, an innovative product and a history of incredible growth. It has prime office space with access to a gym, mall and public transit.

And, at one point, almost no one would work for it.

There were a couple of problems. In the first couple of years of the company’s existence it was in startup mode. It was concerned about the bottom line, and was asking a lot of its employees when it came to development and new releases. Salaries were slightly under market and, while the company talked a good game about perks and flexibility, not a lot of these appeared in practice. In addition, a lot of the new hires were coming out of school — this was often their first professional job.

Hiring graduates can be great. They bring new skills, ideas and energy to a company. But there are downsides. They may not have realistic expectations of what’s required in work, or of what they’re “owed,” and many just won’t stay in their first job because they’re mobile and don’t want to be tied down.

So, for a bunch of reasons, people would leave. And when they’d leave, they’d talk. And talk. They’d talk to co-workers about all the things they didn’t like. And then, as rumours and gossip tend to, they spread. It became seen as the kind of place people leave. It got to the point where people in the industry wouldn’t even look at the company — it was like a switch turned off when you mentioned their name.

The second major problem was that the company simply had no idea this was happening. Because, let’s face it, almost no one is going to come out and say why they won’t apply to your company. They just won’t apply.

So what can employers do? In this case, the company realized it had to look at what its own staff were saying and why. It went all out — examining what it thought they did versus how the staff felt. And the changes the company made were remarkable.

It established internal systems to get feedback so staff not only report to their direct supervisor, but have a representative from an entirely different department who is responsible for making sure they’re on board and listened to. It reworked how it did overtime, so employees were rewarded for those times when a product release came out and everyone needed to pitch in. In short, it looked at all of the things its reputation said it was bad at and fixed them. The organization made what it said it did and what it actually did the same thing.

The company was upfront about these changes to staff and to external partners. This allowed hiring managers and external recruiters to challenge the assumptions people in the industry had. Suddenly, they could sit down and say, “I know what you heard. Now, let’s look at what’s actually the truth.”

The bad reputation took six months of solid marketing and a year to erase. But the results were amazing — the company went into a period of intense growth in being able to attract and retain some extremely specialized and rare skill sets.

There is a warning out there for businesses. This is an extremely candidate-short market. Every company needs to be better at attracting people. And in tight-knit industries, people talk. You need to know what they’re saying about you.

Rick Harcourt is an executive recruiter in the technical arena for Harcourt Recruiting Specialists, an Edmonton-based recruiting firm. He may be reached at [email protected] or visit www.harcourt.ca for more information.

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