Organizational image refers to people’s global impressions of an organization; it is defined as people’s loose structures of knowledge and beliefs about an organization. Organizational image represents the net cognitive reactions and associations of customers, investors, employees, and applicants to an organization’s name. Accordingly, it serves as a template to categorize, store, and recall organization-related information.
It should be noted that there is no such thing as the organization’s image because an organization typically has multiple images. These multiple images result from various groups (also known as stakeholders or corporate audiences) holding different images of the same organization. At least, one might distinguish among the following organizational images. First, investors and executives hold an image of an organization as an economic performer. These investors typically rely on factual economic figures as a basis of their beliefs about the organization. Second, there is the image of an organization as a social performer in the general society (also known as corporate social performance). Third, customers or clients hold an image of an organization as a provider of goods and services. Fourth, each organization has an image as an employer among current employees and (potential) applicants (also known as company employment image or employer image). This is the image that is assessed in rankings such as Fortune magazine’s “The 100 Best Companies to Work For.” These multiple organizational images might not always coincide. For example, the firm’s image as an employer as held by either employees or job seekers might be different from its image as a provider of goods and services in the minds of customers or clients.
Organizational images typically develop over longer periods of time. They result from, among other things, media coverage, individual or group sensemaking, and communication on the part of the organization (as reflected in an organization’s advertising, sponsorships, and publicity). However, it should be clear that organizational images are not static. Specifically, organizations often audit their images. In these image audits, the aim is to carefully determine which factors make up the image among various stakeholders. Next, organizations aim to strategically modify the image held by these stakeholders. For example, this might be done by increasing an organization’s exposure or by highlighting specific attributes in advertising campaigns.
Components of Organizational Image
Generally, two components can be distinguished in an organization’s image. First, people typically associate some objective attributes with an organization. These attributes might vary from factual or historical aspects of organizations to organizational procedures and policies. For example, in terms of a company’s image as an employer, research has confirmed that applicants might have some knowledge about the attributes of the organization and the job that they might consider applying for. Examples include size, location, level of centralization, pay, benefits, type of work to be performed, advancement opportunities, and career programs.
A second part of people’s general impressions of an organization refers to trait-related inferences. Trait inferences about organizations are different from the aforementioned objective company-related information for two reasons. First, trait inferences describe the organization in terms of subjective, abstract, and intangible attributes. Second, they convey symbolic company information in the form of imagery that people assign to organizations. For example, in terms of a company’s image as an employer, research has discovered that applicants reliably and meaningfully ascribe traits to organizations. They refer to some employing organizations as trendy, whereas other employing organizations are seen as prestigious.
Similar results have been found in research on consumers’ image of the organization as a provider of products and services.
Consequences of Organizational Image
An organization’s image plays a central role because what various stakeholders know about an organization considerably influences how they respond to the organization. In fact, an organization’s image might have various potentially favorable consequences for the organization and its main stakeholders.
First, there might be effects on investment decisions. Specifically, firms with a good image might have a competitive leverage in terms of attracting and keeping new investors. Second, it has been found that an organization’s image exerts effects on consumers’ product choices. In this context, an organization’s image might serve as a signal of product quality and might enable an organization to distinguish itself from its main competitors. Third, an organization’s image seems to affect people’s attraction to an organization as a place to work. This is especially the case in early recruitment stages as potential applicants have only a rudimentary knowledge of the key job and organizational attributes. Hence, potential applicants mainly rely on their general impressions of the firm (i.e., image) when deciding to apply for a job. The general effect is that employer image influences the quantity and quality of the applicant pool of an organization in that organizations with a good image are able to attract more and better applicants. Apart from these general effects on applicant quantity and quality, applicants’ view of the image of an employer also has long-lasting effects on other recruitment stages. Specifically, impressions of an organization as an employer measured in early recruitment stages are strong predictors of applicants’ attraction measured in later recruitment stages, such as after a campus interview, which in turn is related to applicants’ final job acceptance decisions. A fourth group of studies have examined the consequences of organizational image on employees’ attitudes and behaviors toward their organization. For example, employees also uses an organization’s image as a mirror of how others are judging them. Moreover, an organization’s image has been found to be important to employees’ sense of self. If an employee holds the company in low regard, the person has lower job satisfaction and a higher probability of leaving the organization. Conversely, if the company is held in high regard by the employee and others, job satisfaction is higher and turnover intention is lower. In this case an employee also wants to be associated with the positive image of the organization and feels proud to belong to that organization. Finally, there is evidence that firms on the best 100 list enjoy organizational performance advantages over the broad market and a matched sample of firms. In other words, organizational image seems to enhance the competitive ability of the firm.
Organizational image is closely related to other constructs such as organizational reputation and organizational identity. However, there are also some differences. In particular, organizational reputation refers to people’s beliefs about the general public’s affective evaluation of the organization. Organizational reputation differs from organizational image in that reputation entails an affective component (a loose set of feelings associated with an organization), whereas image is mainly cognitively oriented (a loose set of knowledge and beliefs about an organization). Another difference is that reputation refers to people’s assessment of how others (the general public) feel about the organization, whereas image deals with a person’s own beliefs.
Another related construct is an organization’s perceived identity. The key difference between an organization’s identity and its image is that an organization’s identity is what insiders in the organization (employees) perceive to be the organization’s central, enduring, and distinctive characteristics. Conversely, image and reputation deal with outsiders’ (applicants, customers) views and feelings.
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