When Employee Branding Hurts

by cv harquail on June 8, 2009

Employee Branding, done well, can be a great tool for the organization. The organization gets employees to behave in ways that are aligned with the organization’s desired brand message, and employees get a sense of connection to the brand and what it stands for, as well as a little bit of empowerment for making these promises more of a reality.

200906081206.jpg However, there are times when even the most carefully conceived and respectfully executed employee branding problems end up hurting the employees. In particular, employee branding can end up hurting an employee when the employee-organization relationship ends.

When employees end the relationship themselves, it can be difficult to say goodbye to a meaningful connection and to let go of that sense of themselves that was crafted through all those employee branding activities. However, when employees leave on their own, it is often to take on another role (at another organization or not) where their desire to be connected and to have a meaningful relationship with their work environment can be filled in the new way.

But woe to the “branded” employee whose separation from the organization is not voluntary.

We know that a lot of these involuntary separations have occurred (just look at the data on layoffs). For a large proportion of these employees, their relationships with their organizations were not ended because the employee’s performance was bad or because he or she no longer cared about the organization’s goals. Rather, the relationships were ended by the organization, for the organization’s benefit.

An involuntary ending of the branded employee’s relationship with the organization is painful, because it can feel as though the organization is rejecting the employee even after all the employee has done to serve the organization- – even going so far as to change her priorities, her behavior, and her “self”-expression.

Employee branding hurt s when employees who have contributed their skills, their energy and especially their sense of self self to the organization are abruptly (and sometimes even blithely) dropped by their organizations. (This is one of the reasons I dislike how quickly organizations resort to layoffs rather than alternatives.) At this moment, those “living the brand” programs , certificates and coffee mugs are seen for what they too often are– tools of the machine.

Consider this excerpt from a fabulous blog by an ‘ex-employee’, IttyBityCrazy. Describing her day at the “outsourcing consultant”, she writes:

… my ex-employer has not simply hired an outplacement firm and let them take care of us at their facility. Nope. My ex-employer had set up a special office for its outcasts, manned by (the outplacement agency) staff. But everything other than the staff is from my ex-employer. The cube furniture, the equipment, the fridges with sodas, the snack machines, the coffee makers. The coffee cups have my ex-employer’s branding on them! Way to help us move on!

(So the way this outplacement experience will work is:) I can drive for forty minutes, walk the silent corridors, sit in a soulless cube and, when I can’t stand that anymore, I can meet someone in the kitchen and, both holding our ex-employer-branded coffee cups, we can chat about the good old days. And about how we’re moving on up and moving on out. How it’s time to break free, and nothing can stop us.


After I let IttyBittyCrazy’s writing sink in, I imagined this ex-employee (who elsewhere describes many great things about her (former) organization/ job) standing there in the kitchenette. Struggling to find some hope after having been told that she must “let go”.

But what have they given her to hold on to? One of the very tools that her organizations used to bring her in more closely.

How’s that for a contradiction?


Aimee Day June 10, 2009 at 8:13 am

I love this article! It’s so important to preserve that goodwill when employees exit. The traditional outplacement services described above aren’t always the best option, and their not the only option available to employers! Let’s hope businesses start to explore alternative transition platforms so that all exiting employees have a tool that suits their needs and preserves their goodwill!

CV Harquail June 10, 2009 at 10:21 am

Aimee, thanks so much for your comment. You’ve got me thinking about how that story could have gone…not only what kind of transition platform but also what kinds of tools and swag might have made parting easier. Maybe a mug that says “Proud you were a part of Initech. Thanks for all you contributed!” What do you think? < grin >

Libby Sartaom June 13, 2009 at 10:55 am

I am not sure I agree with how the topic “Employee Branding” is characterized in this post. I don’t think many employers try to brand their employees, but rather, to deliver a branded work experience where the employees ultimately become brand ambassadors. Employers, in this day in age, should not attempt to brand their employees, but should brand the experience of working at the company at every touch point from a time hears about the employer as a place to work through the departure.

In my book (literally), it is “Employer Branding”. Employer branding is how a business builds and packages its identity, origins and values, and what it promises to deliver to emotionally connect employees so that they, in turn, deliver what the business promises to customers.

That includes understanding the brand promise made to employees which rarely would include a promise of lifetime employment. It is understood that business conditions may change, jobs may be eliminated. The goal is to have a brand ambassador beyond the departure.

That said, it seems that IttyBittyCrazy’s employer tried to create a branded departure process. They didn’t consider that the last thing Itty wanted, was to be reminded of where she worked.

In my 30 years of HR work, I have handled it several ways; completely in-house, completely outsourced, and a hybrid. Most departing employees were appreciative of the effort, but some were understandably bitter. It depended on their relationship with the employer prior to the layoff.

Libby Sartain June 13, 2009 at 10:59 am

After I hit send, I noticed I misspelled my own name…not good personal branding.

CV Harquail June 13, 2009 at 6:59 pm

Chris, Robin and Libby, THanks so much for your comments. I want to respond fully but I’m in the woods and my laptop battery is dying, so I will have to come back to this tomorrow. And, yes, this does give me time to mull over what you’ve raised . More soon.

CV Harquail June 24, 2009 at 8:18 pm

Libby, long time in getting back to you, b/c I ended up writing a post (up soon) to clarify employer vs employee branding..
I wanted to pick up on the idea of the brand ambassador beyond the departure… assuming that the departure was just, procedurally, and positive emotionally, there’s a good chance that an enthusiastic employee becomes an enthusiastic alumnus. Thinking about IttyBitty’s situation, I got back down to the coffee mugs and the ‘branding’ of the outplacement situation. I believe that it was by chance/default/lack of attention that the outplacement site used the employer branded stuff. But it made me wonder– what would an employee branded outplacement center look like? What would the mugs say? What would the layoff script be? Intriguing to consider…..

yinka olaito August 17, 2009 at 7:22 am

Thanks for this great piece. Without proper employee branding, the corporate startegy will be damaged.

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