How to Recruit Amid Bad PR

 

By Lin Grensing-Pophal October 18, 2019
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​Companies work hard to protect their brands—primarily so they can attract consumers, but increasingly to attract employees. So what happens when a company is suddenly in the news for not-so-good reasons? What impact can negative publicity have on candidates' willingness to apply to, interview with and accept offers from companies that have been called out for willful environmental harm, for example, or sexual harassment, or controversial political positions?

Bad Things Can Happen to Good Companies

No company is immune to bad press, although those that rigidly adhere to strong standards of ethical conduct and transparent communications tend to fare better than others. In fact, companies that have strong reputations with internal and external constituents often weather rough spots well.

"Negative publicity can absolutely be very bad for a company, but if managed correctly, it can unite a workforce and help them focus and push on together with a renewed sense of purpose," said Alan Dunton, managing director with SHIFT Communications and a PR practitioner based in San Francisco. Dunton has helped many clients through difficult periods. During these times, multiple audiences must be considered, including current and potential employees.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Organizational Communication]

Should You Put Hiring on Pause?

"We're known to nurture an environment that supports sexual harassment, but we'd like you to come work for us anyway."

While this isn't the type of comment that recruiters, HR professionals or hiring managers would explicitly share with job seekers, this message may be implicit when companies facing negative media and public backlash continue to aggressively pursue candidates for open positions.

"To support the talent recruitment process, companies must first get their house in order," said Dunton, who recommends pausing recruitment until this has been done. "It's critical that they take a holistic view of both the threat and the solution," he added. Honesty and transparency are critical, and, in some situations, it may be best to put hiring on hold while weathering the storm.

Sometimes it's not a single issue that creates an employer's bad reputation. The drip, drip, drip of low-level but pervasive negative sentiment from inside and outside the organization can also take a toll, especially when anyone can air grievances online that can quickly go viral.

Monitoring Public Sentiment

Because social media has such an impact, continually monitoring and responding to negative feedback is important.

"Monitoring your brand online is one of the most important steps to take when a company is dealing with a bad reputation," said Chris Chancey, a professional recruiter and the founder and owner of Amplio Recruiting. Don't wait for the bad press to go away—be proactive in addressing negative comments and reviews, he advised.

And don't overlook the positive impact that digital channels can have on recruiting. "Use the right platforms to showcase your company culture and successful employee stories," Chancey said. "Don't be afraid to show what is happening in your company; giving people a 360-degree view is a great way to promote transparency."

While recruiting when your company is dealing with bad press is not ideal, as Dunton stated, sometimes it can't be avoided. In those cases, it's best to be upfront with candidates.

Addressing the Elephant in the Room

A candidate who has agreed to an interview is already interested in working with the company. Of course, it's possible that the prospective hire has not heard the bad news or is not aware of the company's negative reputation. In any event, Dunton advised being honest in conversations with candidates about the company—to the extent allowed under legal and HR guidelines.

Megan Paquin is vice president at Poston Communications, based in Atlanta, where she leads communications strategies for some of the world's most respected brands. "Recruits don't want to hear a company was unfairly portrayed," Paquin said. "Rather, they want to hear from an informed HR leader who can acknowledge the issue and reinforce the company's values as demonstrated through the actions it took to resolve that issue."

That requires, though, that HR leaders be part of the process of creating and implementing a communication strategy to address these issues. HR leaders "should have an understanding of the root cause of allegations made against a company and the actions the company will take to remedy such issues," Paquin said.

When bad news strikes, HR professionals can play a pivotal role. They should not hesitate to reach out to senior leaders and communications colleagues to talk about how negative coverage may impact the hiring process and to share their recommendations for moving forward.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

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