Monday, March 30, 2009

How to Protect Your Personal Brand When Your Company's Reputation Sucks

Just imagine, for a moment, what it must be like to be an AIG employee. Armed guards at the door. Your top executives threatened in horrific ways, even if they had nothing to do with the executive bonus debacle. Even AIG families have been threatened.

Dan Schawbel, a personal branding expert, says there’s no doubt that current AIG employees are going to be “tainted” by the “bad corporate reputation” of AIG.

“Corporate brands and personal brands can build or destroy each other because they are both associated with each other. When a reputation management crisis occurs, the individual, regardless if he or she is an executive or a new-hire, is tainted in the same regard,” Schawbel says. “Even if you quit your job and interview at another company, that corporate brand will stick to you like glue.”

One group of employees who may be commiserating with AIG workers right now are former Enron Corp. employees, who saw their own company go through a similar reputation nightmare in 2001 when the company filed for bankruptcy and some executives ended up in jail for financial misdeeds.

Franny Oxford remembers interviewing former Enron employees in her role as a human resource manager for a large Houston manufacturing and distribution company in 2002.

“Maybe they received some coaching on what to say, but every one of the people I interviewed who had worked for Enron immediately told me what their role was at the company, how they were not involved in what happened, and how they had learned from their experience,” Oxford says. “For the most part, I bought it.”

Oxford says she hired a number of former Enron employees, and “they did very, very well.”

“Enron was one of those companies that was very focused on the bottom line. The people were held very accountable for their performance, and they focused on excellence. They were independent, good leaders,” she says. “And they were grateful to get a job.”

Oxford, now a human resources manager at an air quality control company in Houston, recommends AIG employees looking for a new job should also use the same tactic as Enron workers: Outline your job, explain how you were not involved in the problems, how you learned from the mistakes made and what remarkable skills you can bring to a new employer.

Schawbel agrees. “There is no question that if employees interview for a new job right now and have AIG stamped on their resume, the discussion will come up. You shouldn’t avoid it and you can’t get away from it,” he says. “Instead, you need to be honest and open about it.”

Schawbel, author of “Me 2.0” (Kaplan, $16.95) also recommends that current AIG employees understand that they have the opportunity to remain authentic, transparent and ethical, despite their company’s wrongdoings. “They can admit their company is wrong, even if politically it’s not acceptable. These employees can escape AIG altogether – or work to build the image of the company back up,” he says.

At the same time, working for a company evoking such public hostility right now will take some fortitude, he says.

“Whenever you meet someone new, they will ask ‘What do you do?’ and you’ll start talking about your company. If your audience doesn’t know you and is disturbed by the bad press your company just garnered, then they may dismiss you altogether,” he says. “Personal brands can go through rebranding to shake the corporate brand, but it might take a while to reposition yourself in a new role, in a new company.”

And AIG employees may face even more issues as they try and adjust to a new role within the working world. Oxford says that she noticed some former Enron employees “almost had PTSD” (post-traumatic stress disorder).”

“They actually seemed to have problems working in a non-stress environment, especially those who stayed the longest at Enron, the ones who worked right until the very end,” she says.

In the end, Schawbel says AIG provides an important lesson for all workers and their careers.

“It tells us that the companies we work for have influence on how we’re perceived. We need to make good decisions on who we work for, not just because of money or benefits, but because they are a great place to work with a positive reputation,” he says. “We have to consider everything we’re affiliated with, from our college to our company to our club or organization and even the people who surround us. We’re constantly being judged, and to shape positive perceptions we have to surround ourselves with exceptional brands.”

What are some other steps you would recommend for AIG employees or anyone who has been hit with a company scandal?

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