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Guilty by association? How to stop an individual reputational issue becoming a wider company problem

June 2024
 by Barney McCarthy

Guilty by association? How to stop an individual reputational issue becoming a wider company problem

June 2024
 By Barney McCarthy

When does an individual reputational issue become a wider company problem? Barney McCarthy, head of our corporate practice, looks at the increasingly blurred lines between the two.

Despite societal progress over the last couple of decades in terms of equality, diversity and general attitudes in the workplace, the corporate world still has plenty to do to eradicate individual indiscretions.

While it could be argued that such misdemeanours stand out far more given they are relatively isolated incidents, rather than patterns of behaviour indicative of wider cultural company issues, it still doesn’t reflect well on companies if one individual steps out of line rather than 10 – especially if such actions are coming from the top of the tree.

Another reason that corporate misconduct feels more prevalent is the increased variety of channels disgruntled employees have to blow the whistle. Whereas previously, seeking resolution would have likely involved reporting behaviours to the very individuals conducting themselves inappropriately, now human resources departments take such allegations far more seriously and offer anonymised methods that protect the employee and their future prospects at all costs. The evolution of social media, blogs and citizen journalism also means that what used to be an in-house problem can go viral within a day.

All this means that if a professional hits the headlines for malpractice such as workplace bullying or conducting inappropriate relationships, it’s increasingly difficult for companies to explain it away as the actions of an individual they had no control over. Questions will invariably be asked around how long the behaviour was allowed to continue unchecked, when it was first reported, whether the company followed the correct legal protocols, whether other senior individuals knew of it and how the company culture allowed it to develop in the first place.

Even if a thorough investigation is conducted, processes are followed to the book and the individual in question is dismissed, it’s not easy to swiftly disassociate their name and that of the brand. For many people, particularly journalists looking to add historical context and accuracy to their reporting, the individual will long remain “disgraced former [name of company] employee” rather than simply a guilty individual.

Personal v corporate brands

So, what can companies do to avoid becoming guilty by association when one of their employees goes off message and risks ruining the company reputation by their individual actions? It may seem obvious with hindsight, but the first step is ensuring you conduct sufficient due diligence before hiring staff. Given the emergence of platforms such as LinkedIn and The Org, it is pretty easy to establish whether someone’s employment history checks out and contacting relevant HR departments can confirm the dates they were under contract.  It is also worth delving deeper to ascertain traits like personal character and management style, perhaps through mutual contacts.

Next, companies should be mindful of how much their strategic communication approach relies on one person. While it is natural for the CEO to serve as the main mouthpiece in the media, there is ample scope to develop a suite of spokespeople on different topics. This has the added benefit of giving more sense of the depth and breadth of expertise at a company. Not putting all your corporate eggs in one basket in this way means individuals are less likely to become indelibly associated with a specific brand as “Mr/Mrs [company name]” than if it’s just one person fielding media enquiries. Succession planning is also important here to ensure that if something untoward happens, there isn’t a vacuum while companies scramble for a replacement.

It is also worth ensuring that employees don’t frame their entire professional identity purely through working for your company. For example, while employees contributing thought leadership content to trade publications may have once been viewed as a way to showcase themselves for future opportunities, allowing individuals to develop their own personal brand in this way can actually be a useful strategy in the event of any future transgressions. The same concept applies when it comes to social media or personal professional blogs. The more an individual is seen as an expert in their field rather than simply an individual who works for your company, the potentially less awkward it becomes when you are attempting to remove the association if things turn sour. Thinking strategically about where you host any internal content such as biographies and thought leadership is also important should you need to remove any of it at a later date.

Future proofing your reputation

It can take years for a company or individual to establish a credible reputation and mere seconds to see it all go up in dust as the result of one ill-advised post on social media or seemingly throwaway remark to a journalist at an event. This is why it is important to think about your reputation proactively and holistically and don’t just try to put out fires once they are already fully ablaze.

Just as you strategically plan your communications and marketing efforts, you should also consider your reputation. Don’t just assume it will be covered in your communications plan.

Injecting resilience into your online search results with a well-coordinated blend of owned digital assets (such as corporate websites), using channels where you can control the narrative (such as social media platforms), and leveraging supportive third-party press means that any potential negative developments have less chance of damaging your reputation. Reputation management experts such as Digitalis are well versed in helping companies and individuals repair the damage from specific incidents – as well as removing unwanted associations. Why not assess your options before getting into trouble and stay ahead of the curve?

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