Organizational image (OI) can be defined as a construction of the public impressions of an organization created to appeal to an external audience while simultaneously interpreted by the organization’s members. Construed external images, projected images, and desired future images can be developed and transmitted by mass media, public relations consultants, and savvy marketers. Typically, these image consultants attempt to manipulate the public’s perceptions of a given corporation to help its top management achieve the firm’s strategic goals. One key goal, attracting and retaining high-quality talent, is requisite for continued organizational effectiveness and survival. Related perceptual concepts include corporate reputation, organizational identity, and brand image.
The importance of organizational image in career-related research has typically focused on investigating the relationship of organizational image within recruitment efforts. The logic that potential recruits will be attracted to an organization based on positive perceptions of its image is consistent with much of the staffing literature. Before potential recruits consider job-specific factors (e.g., starting salary, promotional opportunities) in job search efforts, they are believed to be attracted to certain employers based on their organizational images. Most of this research has studied novice job seekers or soon-to-graduate college students, while less is known about OI’s impact on seasoned job seekers, blue-collar workers, and current employees.
Organizational image has been identified as one of the key factors that can affect the likelihood of potential applicants choosing one employer over another. Companies that are considered good employers often seek a strong, positive image in the marketplace. Successful employers consciously manage outsider perceptions and employee experiences to impact the firm’s image. Top management seeks those coveted “Employer of Choice” awards and “Best Company to Work For” rankings because they can contribute to a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining talented employees, loyal customers, and satisfied shareholders. Research indicates that a positive OI can significantly increase organizational attractiveness and job pursuit intentions.
Organizational scholars have explained the formation of OI from several information processing perspectives. Early career pursuit begins with incomplete knowledge and a broad search for cues and clues. Individual image formation typically follows a phased sequence from exposure to stimuli to an attention phase to a comprehension stage, then acceptance, and finally retention. Social identity theory has also been used to explain how an employing organization can provide a key determinant of an employee’s self-concept and self-image. Seeking career opportunities with a specific employer is also an overt expression of a person’s value orientation, career expectations, and identity. Inferences and symbolic meanings can dominate individual decisions during an information shortage. Job seekers and employees create and adjust an employer’s attractiveness beyond measures of objective (i.e., job/organizational) attributes to include trait inferences, symbolic meanings, and internal/ external communication programs.
The construction and maintenance of positive organizational images are crucial to the attraction and retention of human resources in today’s workplaces. The power of a positive image simplifies individual career decision making by reducing the uncertainty of the potential employment outcomes in the eyes of the job seeker and employee. Images are adjusted and modified on an ongoing basis by organizational stakeholders both within and outside the firm. Employers that fail to develop and maintain satisfying images risk recruiting shortfalls and employee defections.
Researchers have found that the dimensionality of OI is as varied as the multiple audiences or stakeholders holding mental referents of the organization. Perceptions that an employer practices good corporate citizenship, follows progressive labor practices, and shows a proenvironment sensitivity would generally contribute to the formation of a positive organizational image. Beyond the social desirability bias of these employment-related perceptions is the need for thematic and symbolic consistency across the messages communicated to insiders and outsiders alike.
Other organizational image typologies seek to analyze and understand the construction, maintenance, and modification of employer images over time. One particular decision-making perspective has identified four key image types, which are organizational self-image (the common belief and value structure shared within the organization), trajectory image (future image goals on the organization’s agenda), action image (specific planning tied to each goal identified in the prior stage), and projected image (the resulting image from action image implementation). Another analytical approach identifies three main image forms: construed external image (employees’ perceptions of how outsiders perceive their organization), projected image (an organizationally constructed image to be communicated to various stakeholders), and desired future image (a visionary perception of the organization).
Strategic dilemmas like that facing Wal-Mart’s management team as it tries to repair its tattered organizational image as valued community partner and potential employer could be addressed by applying these analytical perspectives. Only by thoroughly understanding how its current image has been impacted can it hope to reconstruct a positive employer image for careers in retailing. Failure to manage its organizational images proactively has reduced it ability to recruit talent or to stem defections and lawsuits from career employees.
The construction and maintenance of organizational images has been found critical to attracting, developing, and retaining an employer’s talent pool. Individual career attachment decisions (e.g., seeking alternative employment, pursuing promotional opportunities) have been tied to public perceptions of a given organization. OI is best viewed as a dynamic and continually evolving representation of an employer in the eyes of a diverse public.
Image audits can provide one tool for understanding how a company’s Web site design communicates its attractiveness as an employer or how the stigma of bankruptcy might affect employee retention. Difficult-to-staff occupations such as public sector nursing or the military could benefit from a more conscious management of their employer images using such assessment methods. Employers trying to attract more racially and gender diverse applicants should assess any mediating effects that their OI can have within these groups.
Research attention on OI is just starting to converge across the fields of organizational communication, marketing, public relations, and organizational behavior. Corporate leadership’s responsibility is to harness this complex knowledge base to help achieve its strategic goals and agendas with employees and customers alike.
- Aiman-Smith, L., Bauer, T. N. and Cable, D. M. 2001. “Are You Attracted? Do You Intend To Pursue? A Recruiting Policy-Capturing Study.” Journal of Business and Psychology 16:219-237.
- Dutton, J. E., Dukerich, J. M. and Harquail, C. 1994. “Organizational Images and Member Identification.” Administrative Science Quarterly 39:239-263.
- Gioia, D. A., Schultz, M. and Corley, K. G. 2000. “Organizational Identity, Image, and Adaptive Instability.” Academy of Management Review 25:63-81.
- Lievens, F. and Highhouse, S. 2003. “The Relation of Instrumental and Symbolic Attributes to a Company’s Attractiveness as an Employer.” Personnel Psychology 56:123-151.