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April 22, 2015

The Era of Free Agent Employees

Summary:

In this era of free agent employees, companies need to stop their resistance and encourage employees to develop personal brands.

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Where does a company brand begin and end? Does it embrace the employees — people who are the brand — or suffocate them?

More and more, I’m being asked by people — in both the corporate sphere, among those trying to control the brand perception, and by individuals attempting to expand their own platform and network — what are the dimensions of personal branding, and how does it fit with the corporate brand? What is personal branding? How do you do it? What’s the real value of the “[insert your name here] Brand”? And how do companies use it to their advantage?

Unfortunately, official corporate reaction generally is, “Why should I invest in employee loyalty when they’re at work scrolling through LinkedIn contacts and job postings, attempting to leverage the corporate brand as they are looking for their next job?”

We have all become keenly aware there are fewer and fewer retirement parties and gold watch presentations these days. We are fixated on our next gig because — well, because, what other option is there?

The employer-employee relationship has changed dramatically over time. Any perception of reciprocal loyalty has evaporated, along with the time cards and company picnics. We are no longer searching for the job of a lifetime, instead, we’re in search of a lifetime of jobs.

A wisely led company should recognize that personal branding is an important issue for employees and should encourage it. A study by Brightedge says, “Companies that have a greater proportion of their employees on LinkedIn have more followers on their company pages.” This means employees will improve equity-brand trust by attracting other great employees, improving brand reputation.

That’s a good thing.

Sadly, many times companies fail to recognize the benefits. They don’t realize these free agent employees can be strong assets to their company if they are recognized as thought leaders.

How did this employee free agent mentality start?

Roots of an Issue

Capitalism is, intrinsically, a dynamic system of supply and demand. Financial and intellectual capital jets about these days faster than ever. Markets grow and collapse right and left.

Once upon a time, it was good advice to tell college kids to prepare for careers with multiple stops and regale them with stories of that slow but steady climb up the corporate ladder. Now we tell people of all ages: Prepare for multiple careers!

This change has created what I call the free agent employee model, which has caused a rift in company and employee relationships. Why? Because companies assume these “free agents” aren’t looking for long-term commitment (e.g., the Careerbuilder.com report that says 76% of full-time workers would leave their job if the right opportunity came along.) But how should employees think about job security and company loyalty, especially when facing the likelihood of downsizing, right sizing, re-organizing and lay-offs along their career paths?

Check out N.F.L. free agents, a large talent pool of players willing to join the team offering the highest bid. This “jumping ship” approach reminds me of the show “Shark Tank,” except it’s not limited to fledgling entrepreneurs or N.F.L. athletes — it’s now everyone.

Look at Millennials; they’re the ones who have seen their parents adapt to the aftermath of the recession, and they’re the ones who will continue this free agent way of thinking. Actually, 50% of the workforce will be made up of Millennials by 2030, according to PEW. Companies need to take note by putting an emphasis on employee engagement.

Employees Need Lovin’ – Even Free Agents

Companies that fear and want to crush the free agent mentality are missing important opportunities to capitalize on employees’ personal branding.

If employees feel a sense of fulfillment when working for us, which is employee engagement, and have a strong connection with their manager, which again is employee engagement, then they’re more likely to commit to our company and become brand advocates, which can help bring in more customers and new employee talent right to our doorsteps.

Remember, employees will stay for the right manager, not the right job – and will leave for the same reason.

When you think about it, it’s the front-line employees who are dealing with the customers every day. They’re the ones who help build the relationship between the brand and the customer. Who wouldn’t want to encourage that? And they’re the investment that represents the brand as much as the CEO every day.

However, executives tend to think their role plays a bigger part in the public’s eye than employees. According to a recent New Weber study, “50% of executives expect that CEO reputation will matter even more to company reputation in the next few years.” In fact, the Edelman Trust Barometer says, “Employees rank higher in pu blic trust than a firm’s PR department, CEO or founder. 41% of us believe that employees are the most credible source of information regarding their business.”

What if companies engaged and promoted their employees more? Would the numbers reflect it? Would companies focus less on CEO transparency and public and media relations and more on employee engagement?

Moving Forward

The post-recession way of thinking is here to stay – at least in the foreseeable future. If we want our employees to start being loyal, then we’ve got to meet them halfway. We have to embrace their free agent way of thinking. And we have to engage them. Then, maybe we can stop looking over employees’ shoulders, fearing free agency, and give employees a company they believe in promoting.

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About the Author

Donna Peeples is chief customer officer at Pypestream, which enables companies to deliver exceptional customer service using real-time mobile chatbot technology. She was previously chief customer experience officer at AIG.

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