How to get employee activism working for you

How to get employee activism working for you

Progressive firms have recognised the importance of employee engagement for some time now. An engaged employee will act in a way that furthers your firm’s interests. We know that firms with high employee engagement levels have better financial performance.

What is employee activism?

Employee activism is a step beyond employee engagement. If employees are engaged, and they make their engagement visible, they are employee activists. They will praise your firm offline and, far more visibly these days, praise the firm online. Your engaged employees will now interact with your brand on social media and write about their experiences in their blogs.

In the same way that social media interaction from clients can make or break your brand, what your employees are saying about you online can sometimes be even more powerful. Clients and potential clients will assign a lot of credibility to an employee’s ‘inside information’. Weber Shandwick, in partnership with KRC Research, released Employees Rising: Seizing the Opportunity in Employee Activism.

“This survey of 2,300 employees worldwide reveals a rising social movement ignited by the digital and social media era: employee activism. Employee activists are more than just engaged employees. They make their engagement visible, defend their employers from criticism and act as advocates, both online and off.”

The survey found a sizeable segment of employees – 21%, (i.e. employee activists) – who are all taking positive actions, from 12 possible actions, including “Recommended employer to others as a place to work”, “Encouraged others to buy company’s products or services”, “Voted for employer in a poll or contest”, or “Made positive comments about employer where others could see or read them”. For a workforce of 5,000, this means that approximately 1,000 employees are enthusiastically letting others know they stand behind their employer.

What drives employee activism?

The survey found that leadership is the number one driver of employee activism.

“Significantly, we learned that leadership is most important for influencing employee activism, but not to the exclusion of other organizational activities and characteristics. What this means is that leadership plays a critical role in driving employee support, from making the company an employer of choice to building a reputation of trustworthiness and demonstrating that it listens and responds to employees.”

Internal communication was the second highest driver of employee activism, followed by HR/Employee development, and corporate social responsibility. Unfortunately, the survey also found that employers severely underperformed on these drivers.

The power of social media in employee activism was also measured by the survey. There is a direct correlation between ‘socially-encouraging employers’ and employee activism. Employers who encourage the use of social media by employees have a higher level of employee activism.

“Although social media is not included in the driver analysis, its force can’t be ignored. Our survey found that one-third of employers – 33% – encourage their employees to use social media to share news and information about the organization. This sounds risky, but this social encouragement has an outsized impact on employer advocacy among employees. For example, employees with socially-encouraging employers are significantly more likely to help boost sales than employees whose employers aren’t socially encouraging (72% vs. 48%, respectively).”

What do you need to do?

  1. Focus on building employee engagement.

The key to a positive corporate culture is trust. Employees need to trust the leadership team and, equally, leaders need to trust employees to do the best job they can do. Employees need enough space to determine the best way to complete a task within a reasonable amount of time. The default position should be trust first, unless someone does something to lose that trust. Employees shouldn’t have to earn trust. If they are qualified, and satisfied all of the recruitment criteria, they should be allowed to get on with doing the job they were hired to do.

Ultimately, your engaged employees will deliver exceptional service to your clients, which, in turn, creates brand engagement and brand loyalty, so it’s worth spending time and money on developing and implementing employee engagement strategies and initiatives. A formal employee engagement program can create brand engagement and lead to increased firm performance.

  1. Encourage your team to use social media.

Instead of implementing policies to try to prevent team members from using social media at work, more and more firms are incorporating their employees’ social media enthusiasm into their marketing.

When your team is on social media anyway, it’s only a short step to encourage and engage employees in social media marketing and create new social media ambassadors for your firm.

As your employees promote your firm, values, and culture on their own social media accounts, make sure they are empowered to maintain their individual voices. Genuine posts are more important than marketing speak. Encourage them to be honest and portray the firm in a positive light as they add their own spin to a post or topic.

  1. Measure employee engagement and monitor sentiment online.

When conducting staff satisfaction surveys, or employee engagement surveys, companies often don’t ask the right questions. Surveys should be asking meaningful questions linked to drivers of engagement. They should be measuring the employee’s level of trust in management, satisfaction with their job role, and things like connection to the vision of the organisation. Surveys should be conducted frequently – annually, quarterly, or even monthly, and can be large annual surveys, covering everything, or quick snapshots in particular areas of focus. The outcomes should be quickly publicised within the organisation and areas of improvement acted upon as soon as possible, or investigated further.

To measure levels of employee activism online, you can measure social media sentiment. Some social media management tools offer algorithms or filters to make it easy to gauge sentiment. With social listening tools, sentiment analysis features will measure and report on the tone or sentiment of your social mentions. Some tools feature a level of detail to allow you to determine if they are employees.

Employees are already using social media platforms to express their opinions of you as an employer, regardless of your social media policy, so wouldn’t you rather they were positive comments about you and your firm’s culture? Creating a team of employee activists can have an even greater effect on your brand than your external marketing, so spending time and money to better engage your employees can be more cost effective than some external branding activities.

Leading with Empathy: Why do we Still not Believe?

Leading with Empathy: Why do we Still not Believe?


A lot of people when they hear the word “empathy” in a business context still think of it as soft, somehow lacking authority and conviction. That leaders who have empathy for the people they lead aren’t making the difficult decisions or commanding the appropriate respect.

We now have conclusive evidence this is not the case.

In her Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, The Hard Data on Being a Nice Boss, Emma Seppala cites research by Harvard Business School’s Amy Cuddy:

Leaders who project warmth – even before establishing their competence – are more effective than those who lead with their toughness and skill. Why? One reason is trust. Employees feel greater trust with someone who is kind.

Seppala goes on to cite studies by Jonathan Haidt at New York University Stern School of Business:

Jonathan Haidt at New York University Stern School of Business shows in his research that when leaders are self-sacrificing, their employees experience being moved and inspired. As a consequence, the employees feel more loyal and committed and are more likely to go out of their way to be helpful and friendly to other employees. Research on “paying it forward” shows that when you work with people who help you, in turn you will be more likely to help others (and not necessarily just those who helped you).

So, with these and many more studies, there is no reason to still be skeptical of empathy as a trait of a great leader.

Tony Norton, in his article Why the empathetic leader is the best leader, talks about Simon Sinek in his best-selling book on team-building.

Empathy—the ability to recognize and share other people’s feelings—is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox, Sinek believes. It can be expressed in the simple words, “Is everything OK?”

It’s what effective leaders ask an employee, instead of commanding “Clean out your desk” when he or she starts slacking off. It’s what you ask a client when a once-harmonious relationship gets rocky. “I really believe in quiet confrontation,” Sinek says. “If you had a good working relationship with someone and it’s suddenly gone sour, I believe in saying something like, ‘When we started we were both so excited, and it’s become really difficult now. Are you OK? What’s changed?’ ”

Sinek has been training himself to be more empathic by paying attention to everyday gestures, such as holding elevators for others or refilling the coffeemaker. Even small acts of kindness release a tiny shot of feel-good oxytocin. What’s more, “These little considerations for others have a building effect,” Sinek says. “The daily practice of putting the well-being of others first has a compounding and reciprocal effect in relationships, in friendships, in the way we treat our clients and our colleagues.”

I have no doubt that empathy will become further recognised as one of the traits of a truly great leader. Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the list goes on and on. As we recognise true leaders in history, and analyse what makes them great, we’ll come to understand the importance of empathy.

In the business world, leaders need to have emotional intelligence and the ability to truly listen and hear what their employees are telling them. True leaders in business will think about how management decisions will affect their employees, they’ll clearly communicate the changes, and will minimise any adverse effects.

When employees feel their leaders truly hear them, and understand where they’re coming from, they’ll feel more comfortable and trust that leaders ‘have their back’ and are making the right decisions for the organisation. This leads to more engaged, happier employees who are more productive.

I’m a believer.

Tell your magical brand story


If you are asked to describe your organisation to someone, in 2-3 sentences, how do you go? How will your employees respond when asked to do the same?

In some ways, branding can learn from the science of Anthropology. One of the primary ways we make sense of our world is through story telling. Stories are the way relate to each other and the way we make sense of who we are and what our place in the world is. Stories are shared in every culture as a means of education, entertainment, cultural preservation, and instilling moral values.

The same is ultimately true of brands. Brands are the stories that unite us in a common purpose, within the organisation, and connect us with the people we serve on the outside. Brand stories give meaning to who we are, what we do and why we do it.

The stories we tell inside our organisation, to our employees, shape the way they feel about the organisation and therefore shape the way they interact with clients and customers. The organisation’s brand stories become a key driver of employee engagement and a key driver of the business. If an organisation has a long history or a history steeped in tradition, this forms part of the brand story. Conversely, if a business is relatively young, but has experienced success early, this too will influence the story.

I encourage leaders to be very strategic about the creation and telling of the brand story. Think about the impact of various events along the way. If the organisation has won an award, or a number of awards, it’s just as important to keep celebrating internally, as much as it is to promote it externally. If employees feel proud of where they work, they pass on this positivity to clients and customers. Leaders can be very strategic about the words they choose, as well as how and when they choose to relay the brand story. It should start before the recruitment process. Employer branding becomes part of your overall brand strategy, so potential recruits know some of the story before they apply for a position. Then, when they do apply, they learn more of the story through the recruitment process and even more when they begin employment.

The brand story is continually evolving and, as the organisation grows, more chapters are added. Leaders should take every opportunity to reinforce the brand story and provide positive connections to it. Marketers and internal communication professionals should place the brand story, and the creation of brand loyalty via the story, at the top of their list of priorities. Brand stories should be created by skilled communications specialists and delivered via internal communications channels. Leaders deliver consistent messages (i.e. the same story) as part of the overall communications plan.

Disney is probably the best example of an organisation consistently telling its brand story, over many many years and with deliberate authenticity. Disney has developed its brand essence over the years and delivering a ‘magical’ experience is ingrained in their culture. They also continue to tell the story of Walt Disney and his mantra “We create happiness by providing the finest in family entertainment.” In fact, Walt Disney’s take on defining a company culture was based entirely around creating a genuine shared purpose that people would be proud to support*.

Create some of your own magic, by creating, refining and consistently telling your positive brand story, inside and out. You will create a culture within your organisation that will not only last, but become the very thing that leads to brand loyalty in your clients or customers. Engaged employees, working with a shared purpose, created and supported by the brand story, will provide a positive experience for clients and customers again and again and again.

*Source: “How Disney Creates Magical Experiences (and a 70% Return Rate)”, Gregory Ciotti.

Internal cheerLEADING™

How do your employees become brand ambassadors? How do they speak the language of the business at every single touch point, in unison, naturally and comfortably, believing in what they’re saying? How do they “live and breathe it” and feel passionate about it. In short, you need to develop a team of internal cheerleaders. Cheering for the organisation and cheering for the brand. They need to love what they do and be happy to tell everyone about it.

There are many different ways to engage employees, but the trick is aligning brand messages. The best way to do this is to create an internal culture which is synonymous with the external brand. Google do this extremely well. Google is the number one cited organisation for corporate culture. Google employees are called “Googlers” and being an employee means being “Googley”. This infographic illustrates their philosophy.

Infographic: Corporate Culture Mindset via

At Google, culture is guided from the top. The leadership team drive the internal employee initiatives. If they don’t believe it will add to being ‘googley’, and achieve results, they don’t do it. They also have a very solid foundation of trust. Trust in employees, trust in leadership and trust in the culture. Of course innovation is key and employees are encouraged to fail and try again.

A few things Google does:


  • Engineers are ½ of the organization. Engineers like to “do cool things.” After one year, an engineer can bid to work on anything they want to. “Popular projects” get more bids, less popular ones don’t. Project leads have to learn to sell/pitch their ideas to appeal to engineers.
  • “Innovation from Everywhere.” Innovation is expected at Google, in every segment of the business. You can use 20% of your time on anything – people vote and pledge their 20% time to projects that are seen as promising or cool. It’s “a license to pursue your dreams” says Marissa Mayer. “If I don’t have a good 20% project yet, I need one. It could negatively impact on my review.” Half the new products and features launched by Google are said to come from work done under the 20% rule.
  • Google is constantly building “dog food teams” – the groups who work to make all products better.
  • Google products are always in Beta. It is a Silicon Valley punch line that Google products stay in beta forever. Mistakes are celebrated. There was a product launch in 2009 that didn’t catch on – a big failure, externally and internally. That product launch team was celebrated, given a bonus, AND given a Founder’s Award (prestigious). Eventually that workstream rolled into what is now Google Plus.
  • TGIF – every Friday, Larry and Sergey stand on a stage and answer ANY question. People log on and ask and then vote on the questions they most want answered. They go through the screen and take every one on, candidly. It is common to hear someone say “I think you made a mistake with _______.” And they will come back with “Here’s why we did it.”
  • “Hiring is the most process-driven thing we do.” (Shannon Deegan, VP of HR). They have 2 million applications for 500 jobs. The screening process is rigorous – they will leave a role open a year if they don’t find the right fit.
  • All people decisions at Google (in fact, all decisions period) are based on data and analytics. Google VP Marissa Meyer once said “If a Google employee is meeting with Larry and Sergey to talk about users’ needs, they’d better come with more than their own conclusions – they had better come with data. Their immediate question will be “How many people did you test?””
  • Nooglers (new to Google) are given lots of on-boarding support. They are taught early on:
    • It’s fun to work here – have fun.
    • Think big and take risks.
    • If it’s broken, fix it or find someone who can.
    • Invent solutions not yet thought possible.
  • One of the most-asked questions at Google: “Wouldn’t it be cool if…..”
  • We take employee surveys very seriously. There is a 90%+ response rate (very high compared to most large organizations) and most people elect to reveal their identity, although they don’t have to. Recent changes from surveys:
    • Make it easier to find a mentor
    • Simplify internal mobility (transfer) process by making it transparent and user friendly
    • Provide more tools to help Googlers define, articulate, and plan for career development
    • Reduce bias during performance reviews
    • How closely does employee perception of the value of benefits, match reality?
    • Is employee networking valuable to the organization?
  • Create internal agility by putting in place only as much structure as absolutely necessary. Managers are RESOURCES not bosses. They work FOR the team.
  • Give people the tools to make innovation easy: New computers every 18 months. Also, lots of server space, 24 hour help desk, Radio Shack on-site.
  • Peer bonuses – anyone can log on and give someone a $200 peer bonus, no approval needed. (the person just cannot be in your direct team.) We have never seen it abused.
  • Everyone at every level gets stock on the day they start, which vests at one year.
  • Teams are responsible for the culture globally – all offices watch the Larry & Sergey TGIF chat on video and are accountable to create an office that “feels Googley.”*

I love these best practices, but what can we learn from them and actually implement in our own organisations? On top of trust, other key elements include staff benefits, rewards and recognition, bonuses, responsibility and accountability, on-boarding support, leadership, communication, and a flat organisational structure.

At the core of it all though are Google’s values or what they call ‘being googley’. I think this is the real key. Their values are ingrained, intrinsic to the organisation. It’s an expected way to behave. You don’t get a job there unless you behave this way and you certainly don’t keep your job if your behaviour is anything but ‘googley’. The meaning of being ‘googley’ is well communicated and staff can articulate it. It’s what makes Google Google.

I think you have to start with your core values. How you want your people to behave. Every single person in the organisation needs to subscribe to your core values and be engaged with them.

I think if we concentrate on defining ‘googley’ for our own organisation and focus on being ‘that’ everyday, through everything we do, we can build a team of internal cheerLEADERS™ and build an organisation achieving real success.



CheerLEADING™ 101


I’m calling it cheerLEADING™. I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but bear with me.

It means leading with encouragement and by inspiring others to be their best. It means leading with compassion and heart. Inclusion, rather than exclusion, and leading with integrity.

Interestingly, it works in much the same way as consumer branding. People buy products from companies like Apple, because of the vision of the brand, the brand attributes, and the personal attributes they feel by association. They also feel valued and ‘heard’ as a customer. They have a positive experience with the product (and/or service) and the brand.

There are some amazing examples of cheerLEADING™ in the world. In order to truly inspire people, a leader needs to embody the attributes that other people aspire to. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech is one of the most rousing, inspiring cheerLEADING™ speeches in world history. Barrack Obama does it well and Anna Bligh, former Premier of Queensland, showed immense strength of character during the Queensland floods of 2011. She kept people’s spirit’s up, with honesty and integrity (and a lot of communication).

Martin Luther King, Jr Delivering His "I Have a Dream" SpeechObama Campaigns Across The U.S. In Final Week Before Election  Queensland Holds State Elections

Give people a positive, attainable company Vision, which aligns with their personal values and vision for their own life, openly display gratitude and encouragement along the way, and they will be happy to come to work and give 100% to you as their leader.

I’ll explore this further in future posts, including the difference between men and women in leadership roles.

Achieving Brand Alignment Through Your Employees

Sasha Strauss talking about the theory behind this work. Aligning your internal messages to your external brand messages. Creating the story for your employees, so they are all talking about your organisation in the way you would like them to. Ensuring they are engaged with your brand, proud of the firm and proud of the work they do for clients.

Enabling staff at work and enabling teenagers at home

Ruby Red DotPeople need to feel like they have the power to choose what they want to do. Of course they do have the power to choose what to do, but sometimes you need them to choose one path over another. The path that has the best possible outcome for all.

I have twin twelve year old girls. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that I can easily draw parallels between enabling staff to do their best for the company and enabling and equipping your children with all the necessary skills to make the best decisions.

Communication is key. Making sure your children have your full attention, to always be able to tell you anything, without judgement. It’s difficult to do all the time, and it takes a lot of strength not to react, but it works. People who work for you are the same. They want to be heard, truly heard, and know that you listen to what they need and do something about it.

I’m really talking about two-way communication. When you ask for people’s opinions in your staff survey, you need to be able to follow it through with some changes. You also need to let your staff tell you about what is important to them, in a formal performance review process, and as an everyday practice, and listen and try as far as possible to accommodate or compromise.

It’s all about enabling

For me, driving behaviours through internal communication and internal branding is all about enabling. An enabled staff member has the skills, tools and mindset to deliver the best possible service to clients.

Providing staff with an internal social platform helps to enable them through connectivity. It helps to enable them to communicate better, collaborate with each other, and deliver innovative solutions to clients.

The internal communication platform also helps them to see beyond their day-to-day workflow and make the connection between their work and the contribution it makes to the client’s life. When they see others posting on an internal “wall” (like in a social platform – such an an Enterprise Social Network), they can see what others are working on for clients and think about the client issues that are being discussed.

It’s a great way to for staff to feel connected to the Vision and Values of the firm.

When you think about the key drivers of employee engagement, internal communication is at the core of many of them. Line of sight (knowing what the Vision of the organisation is and knowing that the leaders are implementing strategies to achieve the Vision), having all the information they need to carry out their day-to-day job, and knowing what is happening in the firm in general, are all achieved through best practice internal communication.

Engaging with the firm and its purpose is the first step towards delivering the level of service that strengthens the brand. Branding happens from the inside out and enabling staff to make decisions, collaborate and come up with better solutions, and be better informed, enables them to deliver the best possible service to clients.

Enterprise Social Networking

After implementing a targeted plan for increasing brand awareness externally, and a targeted recruitment campaign, we then developed, launched and implemented an internal branding campaign, designed to engage employees with the HLB brand and assist our firms’ overall employee engagement strategies. The campaign, called ‘Team HLB’, assists each member firm with employee engagement initiatives, and the key messages are extensions of the key messages used in the recruitment campaign and the external brand awareness campaign, and centre around teamwork and great people delivering great results.

We needed an internal communications tool to better communicate and collaborate across the Association. So, our latest internal communication initiative, and possibly the most radical ever for our organisation, was to implement an Enterprise Social Network. If you are unfamiliar with these, they are basically an internal social media platform, designed to increase communication and collaboration across an organisation. They use the best bits of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter – all designed for internal use.

Enterprise Social Network
We were seeking a system to enable collaboration and open communication across the Association. Because of our structure of independent member firms, we needed something to enable member firms, mostly our national divisional and industry groups, to converse more effectively and efficiently. We would like to see an increase in conversations and knowledge sharing at all levels of the Association, breaking down the traditional barriers of geography.

One of the Association’s major goals is:
“Fostering Improved Collegiality & Knowledge Sharing”
We decided that an Enterprise Social Network could help us do this.

We have bought and implemented tibbr

The main drivers of the project are to increase internal collaboration and communication between national divisional (service lines) and industry groups. The partners in these groups currently liaise via telephone conferences and email. Any documents are shared via email. No communication formally occurs between staff at lower levels. As a result, communication is disjointed.

Through an Enterprise Social Network, we want to accelerate innovation and spread of ideas, break down geographic and time barriers – speeding up communication information flow, and fostering improved collegiality and knowledge sharing. It’s also for increased visibility of our leaders, mostly our Association Chairman and the Executive Committee.

We have seen some really positive results in the first stages of our rollout.

Branding internally at HLB

The biggest branding challenge for us as a professional services firm is to engage our external market with our brand promise, by making it unique and distinctive. Professional services brands struggle with differentiating their brand from all the others, as our service offerings are usually very similar. Also, professional services organisations will often work extensively on their external branding and marketing, but neglect to include their internal stakeholders in the process. By “internal stakeholders”, I don’t just mean the partners, as they are usually involved in this process, I mean staff at all levels.

Home Team

At HLB Mann Judd, we started with the knowledge of what we were known for providing and what we thought of ourselves, through the use of external research and an internal brand auditing process. We recognised that, in order to stand out from the crowd, we needed to not only develop our own brand personality externally, but, more importantly, engage our staff with our brand and branding messages. After all, our staff are going to be the ones telling people where they work and what we are all about.

Staff also need to deliver on the brand promise. We are well known for providing excellent service. We have been finalists in the BRW Client Choice Awards, for Best Accountancy Firm (revenue between $50-$500M), and we won this award this year. We are working hard to win it again next year. This doesn’t happen without a clear understanding from our staff about what is expected of them as they provide our services to clients.

To help deliver our messages internally and engage our staff with our brand we developed an internal brand called Team HLB.

Team HLB as a vehicle for sustainable behavioural change

We wanted to develop an internal identity that would support the key internal messages, such as our Vision and Team Values (which are now consistent across the Association), as well as engage and excite our staff. Team HLB is essentially a marketing vehicle to assist HR in building real, long term employee engagement.

The Marketing & BD Team and the HR Team regularly collaborate on various internal engagement projects and use the Team HLB imagery and key messaging to assist. The Vision and Values are now included in recruitment, onboarding, performance management and throughout all that we do.

We also use the Team HLB branding for internal communications, internal events, team building activities, internal competitions and other fun and engaging activities.

We are surveying staff annually to measure the level of engagement with Team HLB and the Vision and Values.

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