Why you need to ban stock pictures of fake employees

One of my pet hates when it comes to internal communication is stock photographs representing employees. Why? Because rarely do these bland, unimaginative images convey the reality of working in your company.

iStock_000059219712LargeThey’re out of touch, false, dated and need to be banned. Immediately.

How do you think employees feel when they see pictures of people in suits shaking hands or holding seedlings on your intranet or in your employee publication?

Why aren’t you using photographs they can identify with?

I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw someone carrying a pile of compost and sapling around an office… Can you?*

*If you work in a garden centre that question doesn’t apply!

It doesn’t have to be this way

Here’s a bright idea: why not use photographs of your actual employees? I’m sure pictures of your people doing their jobs conveys exactly the right image you spent time hunting through stock photo websites for – the reality of your workplace.

I’d far rather see someone I know represented and recognised in this way, than a staged, staid and stilted photograph that has little to do with the organisation or how you work.

Be honest. Look at the images being used to represent your company internally and externally. Are they your employees in the recruitment campaign or magazine?

If not, why not?

A word to the wise as someone who has championed this – you need to keep on top of it. If you use photographs of employees on your external website for example, see my mini checklist below.

Ensure you know the answers to the following questions, and review regularly:

  • Has anyone in the photos left the company?
  • Is anyone in the photos under investigation for something? E.g. bringing disrepute to your company
  • Has anyone in the photos since died?
  • Do you have their permission to use their image for this purpose? (It’s worth considering advising employees when photos are taken what you intend to use them for. You could have a release form, but I’ve found advising them at the time is sufficient. It’s easier (and cheaper!) to take one without a person or two than edit it later to remove them.
  • Is the uniform correct? E.g. Is personal protective equipment (PPE) demonstrated correctly? Or if you’ve updated your company logo or uniform, do all of your photos comply?
  • Are they balanced? E.g. are you showing male and female employees and are the images culturally diverse?

The PPE point is an important consideration for many organisations. When I worked in-house for the railway I lost count of the number of photographs I had to have edited in order to do up high-vis vests correctly. That opens up the conversation re: employees should know exactly how to wear their PPE, but that’s a whole other blog post about safety communications…

Keep it real
It hopefully goes without saying that you need to include frontline employees in your internal comms, but make sure it’s real. That means not always using the same person or small group of people in employee photos (I’ve seen this done numerous times! – If this is you, I encourage you to stop doing so. Today.)

Why not be transparent and appeal to employees? They could take their own photos and submit them as part of a campaign, or you could start a conversation on your enterprise social network to find the faces of your organisation – who do your employees think embody your company? The answer may surprise you. Go on, give it a go.

The reason this is all springing to mind is due to a PR campaign currently underway to publicise a new film. I think it’s genius. I certainly wouldn’t have been writing about it if the usual publicity shots were created.

The unfinished business of stock photographs

Unfinished BusinessVince Vaughn stars in Unfinished Business, which has just hit the cinema screens here in the UK. The synopsis? “What began as a routine business trip goes off the rails in every imaginable—and unimaginable—way.”

According to AdWeek, Twentieth Century Fox has teamed up with iStock by Getty Images to create a set of stock photos featuring Vaughn along with co-stars Tom Wilkinson, Dave Franco and others.

There are 12 available in the series and I’ve downloaded the first four. They’re available for free to use for Editorial purposes. You can see one above and the others below. They recreate some of the most iconic stock photographs and are sure to raise a smile – the actors have been photoshopped over the originals.

Further reading: Read AdWeek to see the original stock photos and their photoshopped counterparts featuring the actors.

Who uses real photos well in their comms?

SainsburysBack in March last year I wrote about Sainsbury’s and how they were sharing their story using employees.

Sainsbury’s is one of the UK largest retailers, it was founded in 1869 and today operates 1,106 supermarkets and convenience stores and employs around 157,000 colleagues.

They were running a campaign called Little Stories, Big Difference, featuring colleagues starring in the communication around how the little things they do as a company have a positive impact on the environment, communities, products they sell and how they work with suppliers.

Thomas Knorpp, @thomasknorpp, Digital Media Manager for Sainsbury’s told me at the time:

“Rather than use actors, we scouted the country for colleagues who’d be up for a bit of fun. We provided scripts, storyboards and a professional crew, the colleagues gave things their personal angle and style and had a great time doing it.”

Read the whole article to find out more.

Do you have a story to share? What do you do to ensure you’re featuring employees in your internal comms?

If you’d like to write and tell my blog readers what you’ve been up to, please check out my guest article guidelines and get in touch with your idea.

Here are the photos from Unfinished Business…

Thank you as ever for stopping by,


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Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on All Things IC blog 11 March 2015.

Picture credits: iStock by Getty Images.

Further reading and your feedback:

First published on the All Things IC blog March 2015. Updated November 2017.


  1. Good post, Rachel

    I worked in-house at a UK construction business and was for a while the company photographer, so all the points about using real people but ensuring you had ‘model releases’ and that people in photos were safely attired and not standing in a risky position all applied.

    As well as the often crass nature of much stock photography (when was the last time anyone wrote on a glass wall?), designers would sometimes present images that were clearly non-UK (US hard-hats often look quite different), or just too cliche’ed (multi-racial group in suits with clean, shiny hardhats consult blueprints and point at cranes while someone makes a call on his/her mobile).

    A further issue I noticed was the tendency for lazy marketers to use the same stock photograph. “cleanshaven man in crisp blue shirtsleeves and blue hardhat crouching down with laptop” featured on three different companies’ websites all competing in broadly the same market.

    More authentic would be “grizzled professional encumbered by scuffed and well-used safety gear tries to find wifi connection and view screen on a well-protected device on a bright sunny day.”

  2. Hi Paul,

    Yes indeed – I’ve not seen the glass wall writing!

    You’re spot on, I’ve seen the same photograph used numerous times to represent different companies. Love your description of the authentic one, too true – would be a ruggedised case and scuffed high-vis.

    Thank you for commenting and stopping by,


  3. Barry Rutter says:

    While I agree completely with your reasoning, I think you’ve answered your own rant with the list of things to watch out for.
    The reason so much stock photography gets used is budget, budget and, er, budget.
    It’s cheap, easily accessible and you never need to worry about whether the person in the pic has just been sacked for having their fingers in the till…

  4. Hi Barry, thank you for your message.

    Budget shouldn’t always be the deciding point in my opinion. It doesn’t have to cost the earth – encouraging people to submit photos and using opportunities to gather fresh images when situations occur e.g. recognition events, press events etc, should result in a constant supply.

    There are ways to be creative with real photos that don’t demand more time, money and effort – e.g. pics of employees wearing high-vis vests from behind for example, so your people but not necessarily showing faces.

    I’ve worked in places where I’ve been unable to use photographs of employees due to valid security concerns, but that doesn’t mean one has to resort to purely stock pics. It just makes it that much harder to keep creating fresh content, but I think it’s worth trying.

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