Our Employer Brand Is Crisis.

I can’t really say I miss my days in PR with any sort of nostalgia, nor do I think of it fondly – in fact, in retrospect, it kind of sucked. So, why do I bring all of this up?

Well, recently, one of my friends forwarded me an article in the Boston Globe with the kind of title that gives anyone in PR (or HR) nightmares: “Hubspot book is an unflattering portrait of Cambridge company,” the headline screamed. And, of course, immediately caught my interest.

The article reports on the recently released book by former Hubspot blogger-in-chief turned company whistleblower Dan Lyons, Disrupted: My Misadventure in Startup Hell, a less than glowing account of the culture and people practices of a startup widely hailed as a model corporate citizen and employer of choice.

The local media coverage followed closely on the heels of an excerpt that had run earlier in the week in Fortune, under the even more damning title: My Year In Startup Hell at Hubspot, which, let’s just say, was about as bad as press gets.

While his list of grievances are far too long to list here, at one point he compares this startup success story’s culture code, formerly a “PR coup,” to a sweatshop (only after lambasting it as a akin to a “cult of personality” centered around its enigmatic founder, Dharmesh).

Here’s Lyon’s description of the company’s people practices and their impact on the business’ bottom line:

“HubSpot runs at a loss, but it is labor-intensive. How can you get hundreds of people to work in sales and marketing for the lowest possible wages? One way is to hire people who are right out of college and make work seem fun. You give them free beer and foosball tables. You decorate the place like a cross between a kindergarten and a frat house. You throw parties. Do that, and you can find an endless supply of bros who will toil away in the spider monkey room for $35,000 a year.”

It only gets worse from there, but let’s just say Lyons 18 month stint as the oldest guy in the place – and an anachronistic anomaly in a company where the average age of 26 was half of his own – didn’t prove to be the PR or content marketing coup I’m sure they thought they were getting when they recruited him as a “marketing fellow” from his job as covering tech trends over at Newsweek. Seasoned reporter meets all-star startup. What could go wrong?

Turns out, a whole hell of a lot. The whole book reads like the world’s most damning Glassdoor review, with recurring themes of ageism, racial homogeneity, rampant favoritism perpetuated by inexperienced or inept managers, and so much more that it fills an entire book. I’m not talking like a 500 word company review in some online forum, or a Matt Charney blog post, but literally, 267 pages of the worst kind of publicity any company would receive.

This is not only a disgruntled employee airing dirty laundry, but it’s one that’s from a respected tech writer about a red hot company that’s just gone through an IPO – and the fact is, now that they’re public, this book has the potential to make a material impact on their business and bottom line. This, of course, scares the shit out of Hubspot, particularly because of the impression that, per their response to the Boston Globe, they see Lyons’ first person account of life as a Hubspotter “as a financial threat to Hubspot, its share price, and the company’s future potential.”

Well, no shit.

That statement right there, by the way, is why they pay PR the big bucks – state the obvious and smile, even if everyone knows you’re screwed. And trust me, Hubspot knows it, which is why they tried to suppress the publication of the book, leading to both a federal investigation as well as the sacking of their longtime CMO (and marketing “guru”) Mike Wolpe. Of course, not every negative review is going to be as public or as damning as this book – but the fact of the matter is, every bad review from an employee is a potential threat to your company – and if you don’t know that yet, then it’s time you finally snapped back to reality and woke the hell up already.

To the Wire: When PR & HR Collide.

Allow me to throw down some statistical evidence and bring out the big guns of big data to prove my point here. According to an article on what they’re terming “The Glassdoor Effect,” writer John Carlson suggests that while less than 20% of consumers or candidates believe information provided directly by employers on their career sites, fully 92% reporting trusting the company reviews of their professional peers and personal network.

Now, think about that number for a second. That’s what we’d call a ‘statistically significant” difference, to say the very least. We’re not talking about someone maybe turning down an offer after having second thoughts. Nope, we’re talking about negative reviews pretty much determining whether or not that candidate even applies to a job or company in the first place.

In a recent Glassdoor survey, 60% of respondents reported they’d never apply to a company who had a rating of one star (or less, which we can assume is probably limited to maybe Zenefits and a meat rendering plant in Joliet).

Of course, while three out of five are already consulting the now ubiquitous employee review site, Glassdoor’s steadily increasing traffic and exponentially expanding database of reviews and employers mean that the negative impact of a bad review on your employer brand is only going to grow over the months and years ahead.

I know. If you’re in recruiting, I’ve probably sufficiently scared you shitless. But seriously, think about it for a second: what would you do if what happened at Hubspot happened to your company?

I’d imagine your first move would involve some sort of meeting paralysis so you could start planning how to retain your workers while stemming what’s sure to be an exodus of people whose resumes lost as much value as your share price. You’d try stuff like “meet and greet lunches” for departments, and probably some sort of stupid team building exercise, company retreat or maybe even one of those stupid rewards and recognition systems that are like the gold star system for adults. I’d imagine you’d also pony up for a paid Glassdoor membership, too.

Next, you’d likely regroup and start developing some company initiative to game the review system and incentivize or institutionalize positive employee reviews to bury your legacy problems under new results, a volume game carrying with it the faint promise that eventually – maybe – all this shit would disappear.

Then come the perks – stuff like unlimited PTO (which, Lyons points out, is actually a ruse so the company doesn’t have to pay out accruals when an employee “graduates”), mentorship programs and, of course, the ubiquitous hiring of some douchebag “employer branding expert” whose only experience in marketing came while working some shitty staffing job at a second rate provider. But hey – he knows Facebook and stuff, and everyone knows that’s all you need to turn the tides of public sentiment. Some highly paid consultant who can’t find a real job probably told you so.

These strategies are becoming codified as more or less the standard playbook for employer branding based crisis management, and, in aggregate, seem to be a pretty good approach if you didn’t really know the first thing about PR, brand marketing or word of mouth reviews.

You might not know any better than to play by these simple and straightforward rules, but let’s face it: that shit doesn’t work nearly fast enough to stop the hemorrhaging of top talent while effectively bringing new high potential recruits into the organization.

By the point you hire the EB guy and invest in some agency whose retainer is more than the rest of your recruiting budget, you’ll realize in HR what PR would have known a long time ago – this superficial stuff is too little, too late. These tactics not only have limited potential to make any sort of impact, but actually have the ability to backfire, further damaging your brand equity and employee morale.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Why SEO Is Your Employer Brand.

Of course, Hubspot ostensibly knows more about the average recruiter about what marketing success and building compelling customer communications entails, so let’s take a look at their actions in the aftermath of the book’s release. First off, they fired everyone even remotely associated with the book, which can only be interpreted as a scare tactic to suppress any internal dissenters and preempt them speaking to the media, or even weighing in anonymously online or being quoted by the press, even without attribution.

I seriously can’t say I recommend these strong arm maneuvers unless you’ve got a boatload of lawyers and an airtight NDA on file for every employee in your organization. But hey, with shareholder value at stake, Hubspot took drastic steps to stop the bleeding.

But here, my friends, is where things get interesting, at least if you’re a total marketing and brand nerd like me. Rather than provide an explanation (or rebuttal) of Lyons’ accusations, they decided to pull the classic PR hatchet job, and cover up the story to the best of their abilities – and even incorporated this into the company’s brand marketing strategy and go-to-market messaging.

Hubspot used its inbound expertise to pretty much outbid everyone else for any search results related to Hubspot careers, jobs or working at Hubspot, and further ensured that candidates would never, ever see the other side of the coin by more or less booting Lyons’ book out of Google’s organic rankings, as if it never existed.

How did they manage to pull off this nefarious scheme, you ask? The question, it seems, was to monopolize search results by launching a brand spanking new, comprehensive careers site with over 250(!) different pages, all of which incorporated video, dynamic content, a blog about life at Hubspot, and pretty much every trick in the employer branding playbook.

They cranked out page after page of copious (and specious) careers content to sufficiently dominate SEO results, and – I’m sure coincidentally – decided to launch this new careers site and online rebranding effort just days before the book was scheduled for publication.

This can really only be interpreted as a strategy to suppress and silence the truth through SEO – a tactic that would make Big Brother proud. In our new Orwellian world of doublespeak and doublethink, the one thing job seekers wouldn’t think twice about is Lyons’ book. It’s buried so far down in search results that most candidates probably will never know that it even existed.

Now, here’s the craziest part (I bet you thought I’d covered that, right?): I don’t think they really changed anything internally. Not one fucking thing. This snow job on company culture fit was instigated by PR and led by marketing, instead of partnering with their HR and talent teams to actually address the fundamental flaws in their culture and working to actually make Hubspot a better place to work.

Nope. They didn’t hire some employer branding agency to come in and talk to them about the importance of corporate social responsibility, perks like unlimited PTO or some other crazy compensation scheme designed to stifle dissention and buy the silence of their current workforce or at least give them a living wage for one of the most intensive and demanding jobs in one of the most expensive cities in America to make sure they stayed around.

Instead, they went all Beast Mode in marketing and went after search results instead of substantive, meaningful change. In doing so, they implicitly agreed with Lyons’ allegations – if they weren’t accurate, they would have no need to go on an all out offensive like this to silence this heretical former coworker turned corporate saboteur.

And when you think about this strategy, really, it’s actually pretty brilliant.

Lies, Damned Lies & Landing Pages.

When Google defines our truth through the algorithm that controls PageRank and the authority needed to drive certain pieces of content to the top of search results, you’ve just got to be smart about SEO, or at least, smarter than the other guys. And when the company that invented inbound marketing decided to suppress this story, they didn’t really have a hard time figuring out how to flush out any bad results and replace them with glowing employee testimonials and slick landing pages focused on Hubspot culture and careers.

If you think about “employer branding,” all it really is, from the outside looking in, is a game of arbitrage of Adwords and an arms race for top performing pages on the most commonly used search terms. No candidate can see the incremental or internal changes that are actually making your company and employer of choice worth choosing. Nope. All they know is what they see when they type those keywords into Google – the place fully 85% of candidates start their job search. SEO and SEM are the most efficient, effective employer brand plays out there – Adwords beat unlimited snacks, competitive salaries and career site collateral every day of the week.1

If you’re wasting time and money on employee videos, social media, “talent communities” or any of that other crap employer brand “experts” like to sell as part of their spurious service offerings, you’re seriously missing out on the only thing that really matters: the relative truth, as told by Google and paid for through SEO and Adwords spend.

Those speak volumes more than whatever “Day in the Life” thing you threw up on YouTube – which, should job seekers see it, we’ve established they wouldn’t trust anyway.

Our Brand Is Crisis: When PR & HR Collide.

This Hubspot debacle highlights underscores the shift we’ve been seeing for years as marketing and recruiting collide, and serves as definitive proof that marketing is winning, hands down. Let’s face it, there’s a whole rule book marketing can use to play the game recruiters just can’t – so what can a recruiter do to “fix” a bad review without a full on campaign of suppression and hundreds of pages of fresh career content?

What power does an individual recruiter have to deal with the inevitable moment they get saddled with a shitty review instead of nefariously plotting some scheme for a week in a conference room before rolling out some stupid perk or horseshit honorarium.

Here are a few things recruiters can think about doing that, as a marketer, I’d recommend putting into action, first. So let’s start at the very beginning. It is, after all, a very good place to start.

  1. Invest time in your Glassdoor page.  Don’t give me shit about “I don’t have to do it because everyone does it.” You do, and you should. Glassdoor already figured out SEO for “your company name reviews” – that’s why venture capitalists are throwing cash their way via 6 rounds of funding totaling $161.5 million dollars. Give up any remaining fight – they’ve already won.
  2. Next, you need to create a page on your own site to feature reviews about working for your company. No, it won’t instantly index as a top search result and it probably won’t ever come up as the first result for your company. But it is there and you’re setting up the candidate to look because it’s a natural progression. We know that 50% or more of job seekers look at reviews before applying. Take advantage and put the reviews you want them to see on your career site.
  3. Have an SEO “expert” take a look at your career site. I say expert in quotes because I don’t know that there are any experts – unless they work at Google and know what’s coming next. Ask for referrals in your network, use company contacts or hell, use your recruiting powers to source them. Look for reviews about them. Work with them to understand the keywords you’re currently ranking for and what content you need to create. Keywords are not dead and anyone who tells you that is full of shit. Proof.
  4. Post your blog posts as part of a blog, not pages that expire. When content posts then disappears before Google can even get a good look at it – you’re wasting content. Post it on a WordPress blog and just update the post when you’ve hired the role with a link to a similar role or other roles they might be interested in. That keeps people on site, creates indexable content and puts backlinks in. I realize most of you have no idea what I’m talking about but let’s just simply put it as “SEO goodness.”
  5. Use free keyword research tools like Google’s Keyword Planner or Trends tools to make sure you cover your keyword bases. Job titles evolve and change. The easiest way to figure that out without spreadsheets and digging into analytics is to go to these sites and simply see if the search volume for your keyword is trending up or down. It will also suggest similar keywords and show their volume so you can avoid saying “Account manager – sales” 1,000 times in your job description. You need to tap into the volume behind each keyword instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.

I’ll even throw in a bonus tip, because what I’m recommending isn’t recruiting – it’s 100% a PR play. It’s pretty simple – if you get caught in this sort of situation, actually do something to help your employees, not just protect your brand. Say something nice to them, and give them something positive they can share when they’re asked about working there after a friend or family member comes across a negative review.

Most of which, as we hate to admit, have some degree of truth to them – and if you look at any Glassdoor page for any Fortune 500 company or big brand, for example, you’ll see certain irrefutable trends and topics begin to surface over time, all of which point to problems we’re too busy suppressing to focus on and fix.

If you know that you have fundamental problems with people or with your company culture, actually do something about it. Investigate, ask questions, talk to managers and workers across levels and functions. Listen to them. Hear what they really think about working at your company, what it is you can do better and do what you can – anything you can – to start making incremental changes.

Acknowledge the truth, don’t bury it.

Remember: you can run, but you can never hide.

Read more at Recruiting Daily.

2 Comments on “Our Employer Brand Is Crisis.

  1. “If you know that you have fundamental problems…” and don’t do something about it, and, instead use all those tools to suppress the truth, I wonder just how long it takes before it all blows up. What will we see at Hubspot? Great case study. One thought while reading the early paragraphs was this: Today’s fresh grads seem attracted to start-ups as a means of delaying the inevitable death of youthful exuberance. In years past, I (and others of my generation) spent six years in grad school working for nothing as researchers in pursuit of ideas almost as fanciful.

  2. @ Matt Charney – What horrible employers are doing is NOT change their practices but whitewash their Glassdoor page and reviews. They are pushing current employees and SEO firms to post fake reviews and increase their rating. There are plenty of companies who are doing it. J.T.O’Donnell was recommending this few months back. Awful.

    Employers are the new ‘church’ and senior executives are the ‘pastors’ who can conduct employee abuse (child molestation) without any fear or repercussion. If an honorable person like Dan Lyons takes courage and exposes them, then ‘blame the messenger’ that ‘s/he was a cultural misfit’. Then they hire a PR firm and continue abuse.

    I have followed Dharmesh Shah’s (CTO & Co-Founder of Hubspot) LinkedIn posts for almost 4 years. Please read all his previous posts. He has been advocating abuse all along like asking prospective employees to come and work for free. Now he is going defensive.

    SEO and Employer Branding is not the answer. When are HR influencers going to take leadership (and join you) and speak that companies need to reform and absolve their sins. By saying that ‘shift the dirt under the rug’, do they think that makes them a ‘thought leader’. Wrong.

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