The Honest Truth about Telling the Truth: It’s Scary

It’s the scariest thing in the world, telling the truth, because if you get rejected, you have nothing to hide behind. When you tell the truth and lose, it’s because your truth didn’t measure up. You can’t blame the lie; there’s nothing to soften the blow.

And because we all tend to carry our personal experiences into our professional lives, what’s difficult for us as individuals becomes difficult for the teams we join. Telling the truth becomes scary for our companies and creates all kinds of work challenges, some funny and others tragic.

For those of us responsible for developing a company’s employer brand, challenges in telling the truth lead to a very specific set of difficulties that can sink us if we’re not prepared.

3 Ways Fear of Truth Leads to Bullshit Employer Brands


Jason Seiden, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

An employer brand, at its core, is a creative expression of what’s true at a company. It is inherently scary the same way coming clean to your crush is scary: What if we show off what’s true about ourselves and the person we want to win over opts out? Companies often rationalize away the need for truth in their employer brand for the same reasons (and in the same ways) individuals hide the truth, by:

  1. Misinterpreting feedback to rationalize what they want to believe rather than what’s true,
  2. Making themselves look like others rather than embrace their unique qualities, and
  3. Moving with either trepidation or false bravado rather than confidence.

This all leads to poorly articulated EVPs, undifferentiated employer brands, and especially lackluster activation. It’s analogous to a high school boy putting on airs rather than being himself, and about as transparent: everyone who’s not the boy can see the gaping chasm between what he’s purporting to be truth and what’s actually true.

Bold Transparency: Why Successful Employer Brands Don’t End with Employee Activation, They Start There

The way to get to the truth—to make truth safe—is to start at the end and work backward.

The punchline of this section is a phrase I’ve taken to repeating for clients as often as I can: embrace bold transparency. You’ll see why (and how) in a moment.

What’s the end game of an employer brand? Generally speaking, it’s to make it easier for a company to “scale people” without losing its way. All the things we look at an employer brand to do, from helping candidates opt in or out based on fit, to showing customers a united front, to creating cohesion amongst current employees, roll up to this one goal. (Yes, there are other goals, but for simplicity, I’m treating this as the primary.)

So the question becomes, what would make it easiest for us to achieve this goal?

Start at the end, with activation: to get employees to confidently show off what’s true today means modeling how to tell the truth themselves and showing them the benefits of doing so. Bravado will turn them off, and trepidation will create confusion. Neither gives employees anything to model their own behavior off of.

Now move back a step: in order to model confidence, company leadership needs to embrace what’s true, even if (especially if) it’s different from everyone else. Any attempt to be like others will create uncertainty, the ultimate confidence-killer.

Finally: in order to embrace what’s true, we need to be willing to confront the facts… which requires an environment that makes it safe to share that truth.

Reading backward, and starting with activation, the need to make truth safe is obvious, even though when reading forward, it’s nearly impossible to see all the ways this process can go awry.

It’s Time to Shove “Should” Where the Sun Don’t Shine

Too many companies I talk with gloss right over how scary truth can be. “Look, it shouldn’t be,” they say, so they ignore it… and in so doing, damn their employer brand programs to a hell of higher-than-expected costs and lower-than-expected performance.

Here is a list of employer brand impacts that stem from a company’s fear of truth: research costs skyrocket; the time required to collect insights extends from a few weeks to months or even years; EVPs come to reflect what management talks about at off-sites rather than what employees talk about on the front lines; creative gets so watered down as to become indistinguishable from the industry average; internal communication campaigns turn into expensive, bloated affairs, social media activation winds up lame, and the disconnect between the company’s needs and employees’ needs grows so great that gamification becomes required to artificially close the gap.

In this world, based on my research, I expect companies to achieve employee engagement rates of 10-20%, albeit with a solid but short-lived pop immediately following gamified programs.

On the other hand, when employer brand development begins with making truth safe for employees, life gets sweeter. In my work I’ve seen employee engagement rates north of 30-40%, and as high as 80% or better when clients really nail it. There’s no magic to our approach. Our plan was developed over time, its only point of differentiation being that it aligns with human nature, and the reality that truth needs to be made safe before people—at any level—will tell it.

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