To be or not to be authentic? That is the question at stake. When company leaders discuss using employee photos or stock photos on the website, on recruiting materials, or even internally, I hear a collective sigh from talent brand practitioners around the world. We are authenticity advocates who plead, “Say no to stock!” (Or as Todd Raphael said once, "Stock Photos in Recruiting? Shame On You.")
Why? Because our goal is to share highlights of your company’s reality so that those who resonate with what you do, how you do it, and the way your company operates will recognize when they are a good fit and apply for a job.
Employee Photos Establish Credibility and Build Trust
Candidates who are pitched one experience during their candidate journey but then find a very different reality inside your company likely feel like it was a bait-and-switch offer. For example, it’s like a hiring promise of a remote position after an in-office training period and then saying, “Oh, well, you can work from home sometimes, but not every day.” Trust is the foundation of any meaningful relationship.
Here are some examples of stock photo usage gone wrong: a DEI report and a Marvel actor showing up in job hiring portal.
In 2011, a SHRM article quoted a photographer and social media and marketing consultant who advised not using employee photos saying, “It’s better to stay professional.” Even then there was probably strong differences of opinion on the subject. This advice was given over a decade ago. And a lot has happened in those 10 years. According to Pew Research Center data, millennials have surpassed Generation Xers as the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, and social media has become the go-to resource for news.
Think of what this means for attracting this talent. You are trying to draw in digital natives who grew up with a steady diet of reality TV and social media oversharing. They want the truth. In the Forbes post Authenticity: The Way To The Millennial's Heart, they explain, “In the age of social media, authenticity for Postmoderns is characterized by a consistency and continuity between their online personas and their lives in the real world.” And this was in 2014. It’s even truer in 2022. It’s time to embrace the “what you see is what you get” approach. Cisco did with their website redesign around 2017.
Does this really translate to images? Absolutely. Nielson Norman, a leading research-based user experience group, explained four ways a website can communicate trustworthiness. It aligns with the "comprehensive and current content" credibility factor which they expounded on with this example:
When evaluating cleaning services, people wanted to see not only photos of clean rooms, but also images of the actual cleaning process and who would be doing the cleaning. Especially for industries that require a large amount of trust from potential customers — you are inviting a stranger into your home, after all — users want to get a better understanding of whom they will do business with. Generic photos of already clean rooms or other end results are more likely to be considered filler images rather than useful content and thus ignored.
Though this information was written for a B2C audience, their guidance easily applies to recruiting websites. Recruiting translation:
When evaluating a job at your company, people want to see not only headshots but also images of the actual work different teams do — real employees engaging in their daily work, in their actual environments, and in the true manner which they function. Especially because it requires a large amount of trust from potential candidates to invest their career with you — you are inviting someone to invest a significant portion of their daily lives with your company after all —candidates want to get a better understanding of who they will work with and who they are entrusting to contribute and care for their current and future wellbeing. Generic photos are more likely to be considered filler images rather than useful content and thus ignored.
Employee Photos Create Connections
Trustworthiness starts with authenticity and translates to credibility which lays the foundation for connections. These are vital in the candidate journey. As a Twitter Business article noted...
“Today’s consumers want more than good deals and cheap products. They want real, human experiences that enrich their lives and align with their values. In fact, 90% of millennials say authenticity is an important factor when deciding which brands they like to support. And this isn’t just true of millennials: 80% of baby boomers and 85% of Gen Xers reported the same sentiment.”
Again, though it speaks to consumer behavior, it applies to candidates considering your employee value proposition (EVP).
In a world where marketing messages bombard us and many experience FOMO while scrolling through social media and seeing other people’s highlight reels, vulnerability stops us. It gets our attention and engages us. When it comes to recruiting, vulnerability looks like showing a true representation of your company. That means showing your office even if it isn’t remodeled or letting people speak who don’t have C-suite presentation skills.
If your company lacks name recognition, fake employees in photos and videos won’t likely provide the engagement you seek and may even hamstring your recruiting efforts. Consider the unintended messages you might send, for example ones about your expectation for perfection and an inability to embrace various types of diversity.
At our core, humans want to make real connections with others. We are attracted to vulnerability. Think about your employee resource groups. Their power comes from people sharing their experiences and finding others who resonate with them. That’s the soil of belonging, which, as this Gartner article notes, is “a key component of inclusion.”
This video from Indeed, offers a great sense of the office feel. Desks aren’t cleaned up for filming, and people are in clothes that they feel comfortable in. You get a very real sense of what the atmosphere is like on a typical day in that office. Researcher and author Brene Brown explains, “Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.”
Okay, so you’re convinced about the importance of using employees throughout the recruiting process but still have concerns wondering “What if they leave?” This shouldn’t be a problem if you obtain permission ahead of time. Just like you think no one will know that the stock person isn’t an employee, no one will know the person left. And if they do, what’s wrong with that? Unless one party is involved in a situation and could be harmed by the association, it’s okay to keep featuring the individual (with the right permissions of course). So what would those be?
Legal Considerations When Using Employees
Richard Rimer, founder of Initiating Protection, a law firm focused solely on brand protection, offers permissions guidance around three key areas when using employees in photos and videos.
- Consent. Make sure you obtain written consent from each person who is featured.
- Usage. Be as specific as possible as to how the image will be used and who can use it. Will the image be used on the company website, on social media, or in marketing materials, etc.? A catch-all provision is okay, but he suggests there is no need to rely on that if it’s not necessary.
- Duration. Spell out that the person consents to the proposed use for an indefinite period of time.
- Ownership. Make sure your company owns the videos and images. Be sure to state that the employer reserves all rights to the videos and images, and the employee would need specific permission to use these for any purpose.
In this highly competitive talent market, those who deliver authentic and engaging digital and personal experiences (coupled with compelling opportunities and perks) have an advantage in ultimately drawing in the talent they seek. Actors and stock photos won’t get you there.
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