Guess Who’s Naked?

theemperorsnewThe Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson is about an emperor who hires two swindlers to create a new suit. The emperor presides over a kingdom of prosperity and peace and is pretty concerned about appearances. The swindlers manage to sell him a new suit of invisible material that they claim is visible only to those worthy to lay eyes upon him. Once it is “finished” they drape him in pantomime and he proceeds to swagger naked amongst his minions only to called out by a child who says “the emperor has no clothes!” The moral of the story is that none of his loyal inner circle bothered to tell him he was naked. It had to be a kid on the street who didn’t have anything to lose to point out his folly.

In today’s age, the fable is a metaphor for those in HR who are unwilling to state an obvious truth to a higher up out of fear of appearing stupid, sacrilegious, or politically “incorrect.” They would sooner let a company’s reputation stick out buck naked than tell the truth about the company culture and reputation. This is co-dependency with a superior who wants Yes-men, not accountable partners.

I arrived at this observation because I am always struck by the stark difference between what companies think their employees think about them and what they tell me when I interview them. I also am always shocked about what those employees will say on Twitter, Vault, and any other number of “pink slip” sites about these top-rated employers. I wonder if anyone in competitive intelligence, PR, marketing, or HR ever reads about the fallout of bad managers making bad decisions, including furloughs, reduced hours, wearing double hats, etc. When did having a bad reputation not count?

I’ll give you an example of something that happened to me at Wal-Mart. I haven’t recruited for Wal-Mart. Last week I watched a show on the Discovery Channel about Wal-Mart’s Super Store operations. They have onboarding sessions and songs that everyone sings that promote team spirit at Wal-Mart. They showed the droves of people who drove for miles to work there. Right after I watched the show, my iPod had to be replaced. Since I was too lazy to go to the Apple store, and I wanted it right now, I went to Wal-Mart. While I was standing at the counter trying to get this chick to hand me the iPod, she turns her back to me and starts complaining about her hours being reduced to another guy who is complaining about his benefits. I finally interrupted them and asked her to please hand me the iPod and take my money. I got home, got down to my iTunes work, and opened up my gmail account, and there was an email about boycotting Wal-Mart on account of some hideous thing that it did to bust a union. In the course of one week, I had some serious employment brand material in my consciousness.

What is interesting about the TV show, the store experience, the e-mail, and the press about Wal-Mart is that there is a level of chatter about its brand that is beyond their control. Wal-Mart feels it is well on the way to rehabilitating its image through a new logo and green Super Stores; yet, that doesn’t match my personal experience in that week. What can it do about Twitter, e-mail chains, at the store, in the news, and across the Thanksgiving dinner table, especially if one incident adds fuel to the fire?

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I chose Wal-Mart because well, that happened to me last week, and that is a fairly large target. I won’t be the first one to raise this reputation issue about them. Frankly, it probably doesn’t matter what people think about its “employee” brand because they employ groups of people who have limited choices and who presumably grow in faster and larger numbers than let’s say, semiconductor design engineers with PhDs. What is interesting is when all of those things collide and affect more vulnerable brands.

The war for top talent is going to get fought and influenced by Twitter, Vault, users groups, and former employees. And in a country like the U.S. where services and design are the only real place where job growth is, people know each other. Maybe some companies should consider cutting down spend on money for logos and Superbowl ads, and treat people better.

Allison Boyce is a senior recruiter/global field services at Cloudera. She is a former  international sourcer/recruiter at Guidewire Software.

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22 Comments on “Guess Who’s Naked?

  1. Magnificent piece – you have a real gift for telling stories and matching experiences. This really struck a chord:
    “What is interesting is when all of those things collide and affect more vulnerable brands.”

    I wonder if this has anything to do with why some “brands” insist on retailing their own products? Maybe brick-and-mortar shopping centers will experience a rebirth!

  2. Allison, good article and strong conclusion:

    “Maybe some companies should consider cutting down spend on money for logos and Superbowl ads, and treat people better.”

    Put simply, you’re right.

    This brings to mind 2 things for me:

    1. Organizations can outsource their brand management all they want. They can hire any PR firm they’d like to ‘spin’, ‘shape’, or ‘frame’ the online chatter. And while I find the irony of outsourcing brand management somewhat distressing, there is one huge elephant in the room: Authenticity. We know, consumers know, employees know, when a company is lying to us. Maybe the organization itself doesn’t even know it’s lying, however – maybe we know more about their brand than they do. This is true in many cases.

    2. Groupthink can be your worst enemy. When an organization has employees complaining to one another to the point that it becomes corporate culture, there is a groupthink problem that is extremely hard to deal with internally. I’m not trying to come down on Walmart, but I have noticed the same things you have – it’s a systemic problem that persists from store to store, town to town, state to state . . . and regardless of all the store-update investments they make, investing in morale doesn’t show too many immediate gains. There is little in the way of immediate gratification, hence the lack of programs and investments . . . especially if you see your workforce as expendable and highly replaceable.

    Great article – keep up the engaging writing 🙂

  3. Please share Allison’s article with your senior management team. It’s so easy to believe one’s own press and to think things are fine when you’re several layers removed from the day to day work experience of your front line employees.

    I think this article is important to share because it illustrates why it’s important to:

    1) Ask employees for feedback on what it’s like working for you….and then doing something with the feedback.

    2) Recognize the Employer Branding isn’t about finding the right “messaging” to convince employees you are a great place to work. It’s about FIRST making sure you are and…putting a process in place to keep tabs on this.

    3) Recognize that “Power May Bring Immunity From Feedback, But Not Reality” – This is one of my favorite slogans to share with managers. Just because an employee doesn’t say:
    – “When you do ____, it really ticks me off”
    – “When you do X, I lose respect for you”
    – “When you do X, it shows you don’t care… which makes me care a little less about you and what you think”

    …doesn’t mean disrespectful or inconsiderate behavior goes unnoticed and has no lasting consequence.

    If you want your managers to think about these things, you might want to share with them The Movie Scene Every Manager Should See

    http://www.humannatureatwork.com/articles/employee_morale/The-Movie-Scene.htm

    It describes a disturbing movie scene that is, in my opinion, the perfect metaphor for what happens when management doesn’t “get it” about how their behavior affects the workforce and/or makes it unsafe for people to speak up.

    4) You MUST Make It Safe For People to Speak Up – It is critical that you communicate “We want you to speak up; we don’t want you to just suck it up” when employees have to deal with counterprodcutive rules and procedures, disrespectful behavior, negative consequences of poorly thought out management decisions, and other obstacles to high performance and high morale. Doing this is especially important when onboarding new employees, who are less likely to speak up, because they feel vulnerable. Given how vulnerable many people feel right now, it’s important to do this with the general workforce, too. If you don’t, well… read the article or, you can listen to the story at:

    http://humannatureatwork.com/membersonly#scene

  4. Interesting article. It helps us better see how a company many not be in control of its brand, it is really about the customer experience. And if that experience is negative, then with social relationships, a wider audience can learn of your experience. And if they share the type of experience you had, they can chime in. Pretty soon, there is a groundswell of negativity. The real question is—when will companies realize this will impact their brand and change how they treat people. Whether it is internal customers (employees) or external customers (including potential employees), the bottom line is impacted. And if that cost to the bottom line is significant, then change will occur.

  5. This is a dithering post. At first, I thought it was another ERE article slam on HR professionals but reading on I realized it was a rant blaming another mega-organization on how out of touch it is based on hearing the complaints of two front line employees. The baseless slam on HR was the first turn off with the reference to a female Walmart employee as “chick” was the second. It was most unfortunate that this writer didn’t have the time to go up town and instead had to slum it at Walmart. You don’t have to be a genius to realize that Walmart doesn’t provide the bells and whistles experience you would get at a high end store. Ergo, ivy league alumni need not apply. If I was the HR Manager at Walmart and I heard this conversation going on in front of patrons, I would have given both of them a warning.

    Perhaps this writer should consider staying out of low end retailers to prevent further traumatic shopping experiences resulting in misappropriated blame; perhaps she should stick to on-line purchasing only.

  6. How many people view the “company message” as fully credible at this point? Corporate scandal, fearful employees and a painful economy have contributed greatly to lack of trust. The ability of companies to truly control a brand may be gone.

  7. I’m still waiting to run into that militant, HR employee with the fortitude to tell their executive leadership how out of tune they are.

    Wal-Mart has had a bad reputation for years. It’s no secret that they are anti-union and would be one of my first examples of where one should not seek employment.

  8. I think the real Naked Emperor here is the idea that seekers are getting a lot of information from Twitter and the vault. If you check out the traffic numbers on Alexa, you’ll see that the vault is so low as to be rounding error. As for twitter, the traffic numbers are high, but people aren’t searching for Walmart or reading all posts. So unless Ashton Kutcher or Oprah Winfrey tweats it, it probably won’t get read.

    The bigger issue here is that with an incredibly weak job market, and people losing their homes because they’re unemployed, they’re going to take the offer they get. People that work at Walmart aren’t usually juggling offers from Google and Goldman Sachs. And they aren’t going to be surprised when they end up working with a bunch of unhappy people making close to minimum wage.

    But why pick on Walmart? They, like Twitter, have a ton of buzz about them, but aren’t representative of the world at large. Everyone knows about Walmart because there are movies, news articles, protests and lawsuits. But they’re the exception. People don’t really know much about the work culture of similar companies, like OSH, Lowe’s, Best Buy, etc. And people in those jobs pick them based on pay per hour, commute, available hours and other considerations based on their specific situation.

  9. A good article. I believe that the concept of branding based on anything other than actually trying to be a good workplace with a good product/service has taken a very serious hit lately, due to a powerful tool and others like it:

    GLASSDOOR
    http://www.glassdoor.com/
    A free inside look at over 30,000 companies.
    Company Salaries, Reviews, and Interviews posted anonymously by employees.
    See what we have for your company or job title…
    Search Salaries Reviews Interviews

    Unlike the recently-mentioned Sidewiki, it allows individuals to submit ANONYMOUSLY,
    so theoretically every employee and job applicant in the country with internet access can describe their (prospective) place of work, it’s culture, environment, salaries, etc. Until GlassDoor (or similar sites) are “gamed” or shutdown, there’s isn’t a thing that can be done to prevent this kind of information (good or bad) from getting out- I understand that approximately 100,000 people learned about it this past week. So, even more than before, I’d suggest companies work to treat its employees and applicants with the Golden Rule.

    Cheers,

    Keith

    keithsrj@sbcglobal.net

  10. Interestingly, the thing here is the expectation of quality service from a “big box discount”. Sort of like expecting a white tablecloth and silver at a fast food joint. What is the WalMart brand really? Cost, cheaper prices, more for less. They have always hired those who for many reasons can not get a job anywhere else. Bad Service is irritating where ever it occurs but expecting quality service in a discount store is ignoring what their brand really is in the real world. At least you found a live body or two who were fussing about something. A trip to Home Depot is like a treasure hunt for somebody, anybody who has an orange apron. Maybe bad service is better than none at all.

    Standing in line at WalMart is a case study in listening to 20 people griping about their job and their benefits so perhaps their customer service fits their customers. 🙂

  11. Loved it!!!

    And you nailed it with this… “Maybe some companies should consider cutting down spend on money for logos and Superbowl ads, and treat people better.”

  12. Consumers that shop at Walmart, in my opinion, are there for the percieved savings not the customer service. So as long as Walmart is the cheapest game in town they will have a viable consumer base. It’s a product based relationship with the customer. As a side note, I’ve had several very good expereinces at Walmart in diffrent locales.

    As for HR providing more transparency, you are 100% correct! In my expereince I have seen a good many HR professionals that are unwilling to challenge the status quo for fear of not being percieved as a partner. Employees are one of the biggest assets that companies have. To mishandle or deminish an asset is as bad as any financial transgression a company can make.

    Bottom line is that the culture of the company will bleed across to the customer. All the branding work in the world is still not as good as word of mouth PR that a customer can provide.

  13. Although it is certainly not why I shop there, when I have, Walmart has almost always provided me with decent service. But I shop there for price, not service. To me, price is their brand. Having not seen the TV program, nor having worked for the company, I can’t comment on what effect song-singing and the like have on Walmart employees as a whole. I did work for IBM once, and in its history such motivational practices were also used. At one time (and maybe still), IBM was the world’s largest non-union employer.

    I question the validity of using Walmart as the example in your article. I understand the point your are trying to make, but when a low-paid employee of a low-paying company (Walmart)lets their bad attitude affect the service they provide you, that isn’t news. When a well-paid employee of a really well respected company (IBM) has a disgruntled employee and you get poor service from that employee, that’s news, and should be of much more concern to brand makers and company executives. Dog bites man, that’s hardly newsworthy. Man bites dog, well…

    And while we’re at it, what’s so bad about being non-union?

  14. In my opinion companies that care will hire good quality people and they will take care of their staff because it matters. It does not cost money to treat people with respect…it’s free. Bad managers create bad environments and atmosphere where there’s a lack trust, low productivity and unhappy workers. Furthermore, if a new employee came in the door with a bad attitude then HOUSTON we have a hiring problem.

    You can not have it both ways: preach value and saving money and then provide poor quality service and crappy products: that’s hypocritical.

    Case in point I puchased two pair of glasses at a low cost retailer (value/saving money). However, 6 Months after I purchased the glasses, one pair broke in half. The manager of the store said there was nothing they could do and then she had the audacity to say that I could purchase another pair (are you serious?). I WILL NEVER EVER shop in that store again. The reality is I was insulted, wasted my money and now I have to buy a new pair of glasses. A little respect and understanding would have gone a long way in ensuring I would be a repeat customer. In my book there is NO excuse. We all know that many big Giants have fallen in the last year.

    There are companies that offer great service, value and low cost ie Southwest Airlines and they get repeat business.

  15. There are the old adages, “you get what you pay for” and “if it looks like too good a deal to be true it probably or isn’t true”. I get a real kick out of watching the dear public. We all go for a deal. I am the world’s worst about buying all those “As seen on TV”. It’s a joke in my group when somebody says, “who would buy that crap”, then the group breaks up in hysterical laughter and looks at me. However when i find out that the super duper deal that is supposed to keep me from shaving my legs for the rest of my life is only good for removing the first layer of dermis and leaving anything growing out of it, it falls under the catagory of Caveat Emptor. I take the attitude that it was worth a try but i should know better so i don’t take it back and throw a fit.

    Walmart Brand might better be “It’s cheaper, it may not last, it may shrink but hey, at these prices you can buy another one and have spent less money”. I think Heidi that is what you got hit with. There is a sucker born every minute and i stipulate to being one of the finest when it comes to crazy deals, best for less and all that stuff.

    The thing i find interesting is that Sam’s in my area has much better customer service than any of the WalMart Super Centers and they are owned by the same company. I wonder why that is? If one tries to return faulty merchandise to WalMart it might be easier to get a Q security clearance. Take it back to Sam’s and pow, it’s done in a heartbeat.

    Inquiring minds want to know.

  16. Or maybe it’s like soap and water is really cheap, being clean doesn’t take much effort but a lot of folks still stink. Some people are just soreheads no matter how you treat them or what you ask of them.

  17. Allison- NetApp was ranked #1 of the top places to work last year because of executive transparency and authenticty.. Our average employee makes $130K/year and keeping them is harder than finding them(and that is not easy either!)..Our executives have to tell it like it is because there are a limited number of file system engineers or enterprise sales executives who earned $400K last year..
    I suspect the market is different to $10/hour employees attracted to the lowest-cost retailer in the world..

  18. A couple thoughts –

    “The war for top talent is going to get fought and influenced by Twitter, Vault, and users groups.”

    Walmart and like companies are not “fighting a war for talent” for store level employees. As mentioned above, Walmart attracts malcontented, lazy, and rude workers. The few good workers are in the minority and will eventually become discouraged in that environment (from the low pay, tedious work, and/or other negative coworkers).

    Negative employment brand is spread most thoroughly by old fashion word of mouth. Sure, maybe a few employees and customers spout off on Twitter, MySpace, etc. – but this is a very small percent compared to face to face griping that happens everyday about Walmart employees. To get published on ERE, is it mandatory to laud the influence or social media? Emperor’s New Clothes indeed.

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    Oct 26, 2009
    2009-10-26 11:53 PDT
    5.0

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    “NetApp – not perfect, but as close as I’ve found in 25 years working in IT”
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    Work-life balance: middle and senior management actually help make it more than a catchphrase
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    Training – good corporate support for staying current
    Pay and benefits: much better than most companies
    Corporate culture: again, a nice surprise – it really does exist, and really is as advertised!
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    “Hands off” mgmt could be hard for younger employees
    Annual performance review “system” is somewhat lacking
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    Oct 20, 2009
    2009-10-20 17:54 PDT
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    Experiencing some growing pains but that’s normal for most growing companies but overall this is a great place to work for.
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    Oct 4, 2009
    2009-10-04 15:12 PDT
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    Average age of employees is 38, which may deter some younger prospects. Also, should only be considered if you are interested in data storage.
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    Project Manager – Data Quality and Governance at NetApp
    Posted Aug 13, 2009

    3.0 Average Interview Overall Neutral Experience Interviewed and No Offer
    Interviewed Apr 2009 in Sunnyvale, CA (took 2 days)
    Recruiter contacted me based on LinkedIn Profile?Phone Screening was scheduled within 2 weeks?Phone screening conducted by another project manager?1:1 interview scheduled?2 individuals interviewed, but both were beyond the scope of the role explained earlier?4 weeks Later confirmed, I am not fit for the role.?Upon exploring both individuals’ profile on LinkedIn, found their past experience was not close to the profile they were interviewing
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    Member Technical Staff 3- QA at NetApp
    Posted Jul 23, 2009 — 1 of 1 people found this helpful

    3.0 Average Interview Overall Positive Experience Interviewed and No Offer
    Interviewed Jul 2009 (took a day)
    The interview started at around 11 a.m after an initial written round where 300+ candidates were reduced to 18. There were 4 rounds of interviews, 1 or 2 of which are full tech. 1 of them is HR and the other is more of an intelligence test and casual discussion.?Questions in the tech rounds are based on C, C++, Java, OS and networks. The HR round is typical of all MNCs. The other round I talked about has a lot of puzzles thrown at you. They really test the way you think rather than whether you can get the right answer. So think aloud, they like it.?The best part of the interviews was the fact that all the interviewers were very friendly and cool and effortlessly made the candidates comfortable. It was on the whole a priceless experience.?Finally 7 of us got to attend all 4 rounds, after which 3 were offered a position.?Make sure you know what you’re saying, be it in the tech rounds or the HR. Be well prepared for both.?All the best.
    Interview Questions
    Imagine there’s a developer and a requirements gatherer working in a team and a customer asks for a chip. The requirements gatherer(RG) tells the dev to make a 14-pin IC for the said purpose. The dev after initial designs realises that 14 pins are not enough, but sends the IC with a few functionalities compromised, nonetheless. The customer realises the fault and complains to the company. Now who is to take the blame for it. RG or dev?
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    Professional Services Consultant at NetApp
    Posted May 30, 2009

    3.0 Average Interview Overall Positive Experience Received and Accepted Offer
    Interviewed Feb 2007 in Irvine, CA (took a day)
    Internal recruiter found me on Dice. Contacted me to discuss opening and see if I was available. Set up a couple of phone interviews with others in similar role. Technical phone screens… discussing how things work, how to implement, how to handle certain customer situations. Friendly, lasted about 30 minutes per call. Then had a 1 on 1 interview with the Director which was quick and non-technical. Talked about business, role, and compensation.
    Interview Questions
    How would you go about sizing storage for a complex SQL environment?
    Answer Question
    Negotiation Details
    Got salary up a few thousand from where they started. Not a ton of negotiating room.
    Other Details
    I got the interview through a Recruiter and the interview consisted of a Phone Interview, a 1:1 Interview, a Drug Test and a Background Check.
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    Sales Analyst at NetApp
    Posted May 4, 2009

    2.0 Easy Interview Overall Neutral Experience Interviewed and No Offer
    Interviewed Mar 2009 in Sunnyvale, CA (took 1 week)
    I had a good phone interview with the recruiter and a 1:1 interview with the hiring manager about a week later that seemed to go really well. I spenty over an hour with the manager and was told I would hear back from NetApp fairly soon. However, it took an email to the recruiter over a week later to receive a response. I felt the manager and I had a great rapport and I definitely thought I would hear back from her and possibly come in to meet more people, but unfortunately that did not happen
    Interview Questions
    Which of the two positions would you prefer? After describing two separate positions that were not necessarily the position I came in to interview for.
    Answer Question
    Other Details
    I got the interview through an Employee Referral and the interview consisted of a Phone Interview and a 1:1 Interview.
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    Web
    http://www.netapp.com

    Industries
    Magnetic Disk Storage

    Size
    5000+ Employees, $3B+ Revenue

    HQ
    Sunnyvale, CA

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