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The Grapevine Knows

Millions of dollars are spent each year by companies trying to find out information about their competitors. Business intelligence is big business. Reversing that concept puts the whole idea of knowledge management in a different light, “What do my competitors know about me?” More important than the aggregate numbers are what individual people think and say. Walls, firewalls and fences can’t stop people from talking with each other. In-house perceptions are probably more critical to business successes. Unlike an anthill where every worker knows the assigned task and never crosses the line into another work zone, companies are made up of thinking, feeling and talking people. So the question becomes one of not wondering about the competitors or wondering about their intelligence of us. What do we know about our own reputation, a.k.a. our internal culture as well as our external brand? It goes by different names, but the rumor mill, the gossip fence or the grapevine can usually know more about the cultural climate than human resources, public relations, or marketing.

How much is it worth to know about problems before they happen or to reverse negative thinking? Most companies will claim almost mindlessly that “employees are our biggest asset” and then do nothing to measure, protect and listen to them. Their voice outside of the walls of the company can say as much as the competitor’s influence to drive branding one way or the other.

Employee Surveys – Companies that profess to care will do employee surveys. Companies that really care will do it right. The two killers of credibility for these instruments are lack authenticity of content and failure to gain executive buy-in and action. Building a scientifically correct survey instrument must have internal crosschecks to validate data. The average HR generalist is not skilled in creating valid surveys. Any evidence of built-in bias or perception that “the right answer is missing from the list” defeats the purpose of finding out what is really happening. Failure to do anything with the results once they are accumulated also puts the final nail in the coffin. Results must be published no matter how uncomfortable it makes the occupants of the top boxes on the org chart. They must respond with something other than a “yes, but…” answer to finish on a positive note. External consultants often can bring objectivity into the process, but only if they are willing to risk their fee by firmly declaring, “Do it the right way or I walk!” This may be tough to find, but carries more value than you know.

Employee Exit Polling – One facet of the external world of opinion about the company are those who experienced the culture and are now somewhere else. People leave for a variety of reasons and it may not be dissatisfaction with the environment. Knowing the real reasons instead of the excuses is important. Interviewers need to have a level of empathy with the employee base and accurately record and report data back to decision makers. That is usually the end of the process, but there is more. Some people will be reluctant to burn bridges and that is where “Exit Strategy, Part Deux” gets its fair share of the limelight. Former managers, co-workers and yes, even time strapped Human Resources people, need to keep in touch. Company alumni groups on LinkedIn or in a separate company online forum can be a way to maintain a positive image and also be the source of new candidates for employment or new ideas.

Candidate Exit Polls – On the border between employees and the outside world are those who recently applied, interviewed, or arrived at the gates as a new employee. As an individual moves from candidate status to one of those other pools of individuals their thoughts and ideas can help to confirm practices or make improvements. We would expect those who did not get the job to be disappointed, but some will be on a “Number Two” list of people that should get a first shot at a next time. Cultivating that relationship can be productive not only as a PR gimmick but also as a means of keeping in touch with possible future talent. While there may be a debate about the ROI of improving the candidate experience, the overall reputation of the company and its products and services can be impacted by adverse comments and reactions.

Social Media Measurements – If the company really cares about what the grapevine is saying, listening means tapping into as many grapes as possible and squeezing all the juice out of them. Software tools such as NUVI, Raven and Trakur can be used to monitor a company’s online brand by listening in on public conversations over multiple platforms. Reputation management cannot be handled by guesswork. In order to fix a negative Google search engine impression, the facts need to be identified and active intervention generated to manage the brand’s perception. In a program to justify and expand social network branding, the accurate measurement, knowledge and reporting of results is crucial. The ironic opposition of some CEOs to actively participating in social media is the fear of “what will they say.” What if we told them what is already being said with no means to respond?

One final comment in conclusion is that turf wars over control of brands and opinions are counterproductive. A joint effort that includes HR, PR, Marketing and other interests is the only way to combat parochial infighting. A controlled approach at a consistent platform and message needs to also come with no party having veto power over another’s efforts.

Image credit: rtimages / 123RF Stock Photo (modified)


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