Just over a year ago, the CBI undertook its first public perceptions research on the reputation of business in the UK. Titled ‘Everyone’s Business’ it surveyed over 2,000 people from all walks of life on their views of business, and of business leaders.
Under the leadership of Josh Hardie, Deputy Director-General a number of us got involved as advisors to guide and play back on the findings, ably researched and analysed by Opinium Research.
It wasn’t entirely comfortable reading. The general public is somewhat suspicious of the business community, perhaps unsurprising in the light of the fact that media coverage features fat cat bosses and crashing high street retailers almost every day. 5.7 million businesses, employing nearly 28 million people in the UK and doing ok isn’t news sadly. Although thankfully it does generate enough tax revenue to pay for 1 in 3 nurses, as well as schools, hospitals, pavements and streetlights. But that’s another story.
Anyway, the latest wave of the tracker survey has just been published, and shows not just that people’s understanding of business improves their perception of it. It shows that the people who most influence perceptions of the business are the people within it.
In the first wave, ‘treating employees well’ was the most important thing that businesses could to do improve their reputation. In this latest wave it has been, perhaps temporarily, overtaken by concerns over data security and fake news, reflecting the coverage of the Cambridge Analytica debacle, GDPR and a growing understanding that digital platforms don’t always show it like it is. But the importance of employees to the health of companies remains. The latest figures show that ‘treating employees well’ ranks, at 59%, as the third most important thing companies can do to be well regarded.
As the CBI report states, ‘There is a clear link between the public’s understanding of business and how favourable they are towards it, with the public responding more sympathetically to businesses they know and understand.’ It may seem obvious to say that the implication of this is that companies should ensure their staff understand their business purpose. As Harvard Business Review* put it many years ago, in a quote I will never tire of repeating, ‘It is a truth of business that if employees do not care about their company, they will in the end contribute to its demise.” The bit that I don’t often quote is the next sentence, but it seems incredibly prescient, particularly in light of the fact that it was written in 2002. “And it’s up to you to give them a reason to care.” The reason it’s prescient, or perhaps proleptic, to use a word I learnt recently from Margaret Drabble’s gently beautiful novel ‘The Golden Child’, is that people feel more favourable to businesses, and business leaders, who speak out on societal issues.
As Josh Hardie acknowledges ‘Speaking out can be tough and firms will need to decide when and how they do this, but it’s clear there is public appetite to hear from them.”
So how should we respond to these thoughts, and what could we do?
First: stand for something. The CBI’s recommendation document, also out last week, takes this public appetite to hear about businesses contribution to society into 3 recommendations, one of which is ‘Make a difference’. Their first recommendation however is ‘Get the business right’. This is a direct reflection of views expressed in Omobono’s own recent research about the marketing behaviours of top global business to business enterprises ‘If you want a better brand, start with a better reality’. This thinking has echoes in the CBI report, which recognises that it’s essential to get the reality of the business right if you want to enhance your reputation. It’s no good shouting about how many paving slabs you’ve contributed via your UK tax contributions if the truth is that you’re running a business with dubious practices. As all brand practitioners know, people can spot a gap between perception and reality when they see one and don’t give you any points for it.
The third recommendation from the CBI is to ‘Tell your story’. Actively communicating is a critical way in which businesses can respond to actively manage their reputation. It’s obvious that you should tell your story externally, the public is hungry for it as we’ve already heard. But this also reinforces the importance of internal communication.
As previous studies have demonstrated that strong employee engagement remains the best way in which businesses can improve their reputation; so it goes without saying (but Ok, I’ll say it anyway) that telling your story internally is part of how the best businesses should be behaving. Combined with sources like Social Chorus and Edelman Trust Barometer who demonstrate that the people in the business are better connected, more listened to and more trusted than the CEO you can also see that communicating with your employees brings the benefits of their external connections. Always presuming they believe in your of course.
Greater engagement with employees can also make CEO’s seem less remote, according to the CBI data. CEOs (for which I’d actually substitute all senior management) need to be seen within the business. And there’s a big gap to be closed. Only 39% of businesses say their CEO spends time on this. Senior Leadership should look on this as an opportunity. It’s not just easier to manage people, as a client recently put it ‘you can’t tell people what to do if you haven’t been to their office for 6 months’ it’s also about driving morale. And, if you need further reasons to believe, better employee engagement has been shown to have a direct impact on perceptions of business leaders.
The final point to raise from this report is that the group most able to influence an employee’s view of their company is not the CEO, or the HR team, but their peers within their team. So it seems that business is indeed everybody’s business.
Ignore them at your peril.
*I should add that the HBR article ‘Selling the brand inside’ was written by Colin Mitchell, to whom I extend heartfelt thanks for putting so well something I feel so strongly.