HR must be responsible for the employer brand

 The row between British Airways and in-flight caterer Gate Gourmet last summer is likely to go down in HR history as a textbook example of an industrial dispute gone wrong. But it’s also arguable that the media frenzy caused more damage than the wildcat strike itself.

What people are most likely to recall from the dispute are all the colourful bits (the sacking by megaphone, the striking workers barricaded in the canteen) without stopping to consider what was fact and what was fiction. But as a case study in industrial relations, it offers some pretty valuable lessons.

Gate Gourmet’s HR chief Richard Wells acknowledged as much at our HR Directors Club breakfast briefing last week as he attempted to separate the myths from the reality.

Leave the unions to their own devices, and they’re quick to issue fiery stories that make memorable headlines. That’s why it’s essential to have a crisis communications strategy in place, so that if a negative story breaks, an organisation has someone senior speaking to the media, and offering reassurances that the problem will be sorted.

But instead of seizing the opportunity to put its own side of the story, Gate Gourmet ended up firefighting the whole time. It was painted as ‘the bad guy’ while the public sided with the sacked workers.

Half of the HR team subsequently left, exhausted after six months of dealing with the aftermath of the strike. And Wells is only now able to start measuring the impact on the company’s employer brand.

Being the sum total of what staff (current, ex and future) think of your organisation, the employer brand is a difficult balance to get right. Yet Wells argues that the company’s profile has been raised to such an extent that he’s attracting new HR people to the organisation who are up for a challenge.

It’s a belated positive take on what has been a sorry tale. If Gate Gourmet’s spin doctors had swung into action sooner, it might have emerged with a bit more credit.

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