11th Jun 2021
3 Min Read

A storm that’s been brewing

Kate Went
Kate Went
Culture & Change

Disconnect between the external brand perception and the employee experience is no small beer.

In our age of citizen journalism, viral content is king, being at the cutting edge of breaking news is a master skill, and outrage is a valuable currency. So keyboard warriors always need to be treated with a degree of healthy scepticism.

But brands can be built, damaged, and in extreme cases, destroyed by the unchecked opinions of those who inhabit social media. And this is something we all need to take seriously.

The latest example spread like a digital rash.

Often touted as a democratic, edgy and creative place to work, BrewDog has fallen foul of the barbed wrath of online reviewers. An open letter to CEO James Watt, signed by 60 former members of staff, suggests that a toxic culture exists behind the scenes, and has the potential to undo years of reputation building.

Now, we’re not going to tell BrewDog how to respond to this. They’re dab hands at PR. But from an employee engagement perspective, it gives us a lot to think about.

Regardless of whether the allegations in the letter are true, it does show that it’s paramount that organisations align the external persona of their brand with the employee experience.

Brands should be built from the inside out, creating an army of advocates who become ambassadors, evangelists and the fuel for growth and development.

If this isn’t done, and the brand is seen as inauthentic from the inside, then there are few places to hide in the modern world. Whistle-blowers are only a click of a mouse away from Glassdoor or Twitter, and once the horse has bolted …

Authenticity, trust and transparency are all important to us now. But all are also fragile, and once lost, very difficult to get back.

If BrewDog, or any other brand criticised by employees, has a robust response that illustrates their internal culture is true to their external perception, they have less to worry about. But for any organisation that’s created a shiny façade to distract customers, investors and stakeholders from what is really going on behind the scenes, be aware – what’s likely to happen won’t be a barrel of laughs.

Spotting the red flags

Do you have a crisis of culture?

So, how does a culture crisis like this happen? And how can you come back from it?I asked my colleague, lead behavioural scientist Lindsay Kohler her thoughts.

Growing without listening

Rapid growth changes a business – sometimes for good, but sometimes with a heavy price tag. That price tag is often people and culture. After all, rapid growth requires a short-term focus which can narrow a founder’s lens to focus on the wrong things.

Leadership as a figurehead

Having a charismatic leader at the helm of a business is sexy, in a sense, and there are plenty of them in history. Jobs. Bezos. Buffet. But the trouble with that type of hierarchical leadership style is that the culture is dependent on the whims and drive of one person – leaving little flexibility for a co-created and inclusive workplace.

Ignoring psychological safety

Psychological safety is the ability to show your true self without fear of negative consequences on how others view you or your career. One of the reasons it’s so important in the workplace is that employees are often the first to spot if something is going off the rails. But if they don’t feel they can speak up to point that out to the powers that be, they’ll stay silent. The problem will persist. Then they’ll leave. And those pent-up frustrations can potentially spill over and create the situation BrewDog is now in.

Going forward

An authentic apology is the first step – and Watt has already made an attempt at doing so. Soliciting feedback and practicing active listening in a safe environment also needs to be a new business practice. And if the claims made by Punks With Purpose are true – take this moment to look hard in the mirror and ask yourself ‘what do we want to be famous for?’. If your conscience is clear, so will be the mirror.

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