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Reputation Management

Looking back at when COVID-19 first forced us into lockdown conditions, we can see in retrospect there were some areas where our response could have been better, especially regarding how much support we gave to our staff.

Everyone was doing what they could, but some employers had the ability to do better than they did, and in that, they missed the opportunity to promote their brand as employers, not necessarily of choice, but employers of, ok, let’s say character and decency.

Let’s take the tone of our message to staff that we were going to shut down and salaries would be affected. Some employers called a staff meeting to present scenarios in a face to face format before the lockdown, so that questions could be answered and solutions proposed as a team. Other employers sent a brief email which would be received only by those with email access at work (in some organisations support staff still have no email access), notifying them of the lockdown and what management had resolved regarding salaries. No staff consultation. Other employers only talked to the individuals they are closest to in the office, who in turn also shared it as privileged information with a select few, so that information about such critical issues trickled through the team from one favoured member to another.

The same approach was applied as we returned to work, where some employers again held a staff meeting to go over the safety protocols and generally touch base with staff on issues of mutual concern, such as work related changes, if any. Other employers did not have any level of consultation with their staff. 

What you did, what you said, how you did it and how you said it all contribute to the perception of team cohesion. The feeling of, this workplace is our secondary home, we belong here, we do our best work here, we support each other here for our mutual benefit of continued employment. That would have been the message you sent, tacitly, as the employer who consulted. But if you were the employer who was distant and “legalistic” during the crisis, what you communicated was, you are all dispensable, this is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation, each one for himself, take it or leave it.

Both approaches are entirely discretionary. As the employer, your approach is absolutely and entirely up to you. Except

that, many of us as employers have articulated corporate values that we display around the workplace, publish on our brochures and maybe even emphasise during staff orientation. The degree of discretion with which we can choose how to engage staff is then determined by our stated values. If we have said we are people-centric, we value ‘botho’, team work, consultation and similar, then we have to be guided accordingly. Whether a position we take is legal or similar to what several others have taken or not, we must take care not to violate the psychological contract we have with our staff.

There were social media posts about workers walking considerable distances because they had to serve at a time when public transport was not available. Why wasn’t the HR partner in those instances able to secure transport from the company pool? Would the same level of personal expenditure have been expected from a more senior officer – walk to work? Is this how we demonstrate team work and botho?  

Instead of being defensive as the employer, or the HR partner, I’d recommend that you take a moment to reflect on how your reaction to the COVID-19 restrictions and associated consequences contributed to the promotion or erosion of your brand as an employer, so that you can correct and salvage what you can today, and position yourself to do better in future. Invite feedback from colleagues, identify and admit gaps, and then resolve to close them. I can’t remember where I read something to the effect that, as employers, we must treat our staff the same way we want them to treat our customers, but, yes, let’s protect and promote our brand as employers because that is what we leverage when we move to attract the best talent. And it’s times like these that prove who we really are.

Please note that comments are welcome at Every effort is made to respond to individuals, and mail received is treated as confidential. Please note however that in cases of specific work-related grievances and disputes submitted, Shameela Winston will not pronounce opinions nor prescribe remedies. Thank you.

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