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How to create a better employer brand

01 Jun, 2020 Internal communication, Marketing communication

Establishing a sound employer brand is a key way to successfully recruit and retain good employees. An employer brand is defined as the perception of the organization as a great place to work by both current and potential employees. Basically, it comprises perceptions of your organization as an employer. An employer branding program includes strategies for enhanced talent attraction, engagement and retention to strengthen the organization’s employer brand.

A strong employer brand is an important way to keep an employer ahead in the staffing stakes – to become an ‘employer of choice.’ It is the perceptions, feelings and associations in the minds of employees about their employment experience. It covers the whole employee life cycle from first contact through to departure.

People with top talent are most sought after

To attract the best employees, organizations need to be perceived in the employment marketplace as a ‘great place to work.’ It is worth pursuing such positioning because the best employees contribute the most to organizational performance.  A 2017 McKinsey report pointed to the importance of recruiting top talent, who are up to 8 times more productive than other recruits, but “many companies do an awful job of finding and recruiting them.” A 2012 study quoted in the paper found high performers are 400% more productive than average ones. Other studies of businesses found similar results, and also reveal that the gap rises with a job’s complexity. In highly complex occupations, high performers are an astounding 800% more productive. These were people in information- and interaction-intensive work such as managers, software developers, and similar.

Image: McKinsey 2017 report ‘Attracting and retaining the right talent.’

Big gap between employee experience at work and their organization’s employer brand

Once a person is on board, the employment experience should be reviewed in detail from that point. The important thing is to make the promises match the experience. Unfortunately, employers aren’t delivering on their promises. This can be a major problem because a new employee is likely to become disgruntled and start looking around for another job.

Image from PR Moment

Unfortunately, only 19% of employees worldwide agree strongly that their experience at work matches their organization’s employer brand, according to a global 2017 study by PR firm Weber Shandwick, who reported:

“Although the level of employer brand credibility is disappointing at 19%, our study finds that the terrain for improvement is wide open. Only a minority of employees (7%) resolutely disagrees that there is an alignment between what employers say about themselves and what they experience. The largest segment – 74% – falls in between. These are “marginally aligned” employees, and their employers have the opportunity to change perceptions by better defining and living an employer brand that employees recognize, believe and promote.”

The research affirms a strong business case for creating stronger alignment between employer brand and the employee experience. Closing the gap provides an opportunity for employers to more successfully drive recruitment, employee engagement and advocacy, and retention. An authentic employer brand is particularly critical in an age of extreme transparency where job candidates make reputational assessments with ease based on what an organization’s employees say online or through word of mouth.

Image from PR Moment

Support from the top

It is essential for your CEO or top executive to formally sponsor/support the employer brand internally and externally. ‘Top Brand’ companies are significantly more likely to have the CEO or President as the most senior sponsor of employer branding activity (44%), compared with ‘Other Brand’ companies (25%). Top Brands also have a more well-defined internal employer brand compared to Other Brands, as shown in this diagram:

Image: from Hudson report, “How to launch a successful employer brand, 2014.

The key action is to appoint a person with clear responsibility for the employer brand. If not, the full value of the brand is not fulfilled, and problems may arise:

  • Employer branding responsibilities are often given to an HR generalist or individual who has little to no experience delivering a complex employer branding project.
  • This person doesn’t understand how to create an employer brand strategy, or how to align programs to support the messaging or get sponsorship from top management to drive initiatives effectively through the organization.
  • This then creates the widespread perception that employer branding is not effective, which curtails continuing investments in employer brand initiatives.

If your organization lacks an experienced strategist or influencer who can bring teams together to craft an effective employer brand, then it is advisable to engage someone who can bring these messages to fruition.

A formal employer brand strategy can make a real difference: twice as many companies that have a defined and documented strategy for their employer brand succeed in having it well understood by employees.

Communication comes into play

Organizations must be serious about developing and conveying an employer brand that captures their value to potential hires. This is more than just an explanation of the company’s strategy, markets and products, although these are important. It is a valid, thoughtful expression of the corporate culture and work environment—why the candidate will want to engage with like-minded individuals in shared pursuits toward specific outcomes.

Communication function should be represented from the start with employer branding

Informal employer branding already exists whether you attempt to shape it or not. It is every contact the employee has with the organization – every ‘moment of truth.’ And communicators can shape many of those experiences.

Communication is involved in most of the recruitment stages. The first part of the experience is likely to be when a person first sees a job advertisement in a newspaper or in a career website. Just as likely these days is a referral from a friend or family member about a potential job. Job referrals are the most trusted source of recruitment.

The presentation and content of the job advertisement create an impression in the mind of a candidate. Communication staff should play a central role in creating the visual material and information content in the job advertisement. Your organization’s corporate identity should be clearly communicated visually along with a positioning statement in the job ad. Your marketing department may play a role as well with this.

Can a corporate affairs manager run an employer brand program?

If you are a strategic-thinking head of your organization’s corporate communication function, you may be interested in taking on the role of developing a strong employer brand. I took this approach with my organization’s  employee recognition program. When the subject of recognition was raised at a meeting of our executive committee, the HR manager implied he had no experience with employee recognition and didn’t want to take this on. The concept of employee recognition has a major communication component, and so even though I had no experience with this myself, I put my hand up and was appointed to run with it. Loved it! I initiated two recognition programs internally in two organizations and two as a consultant. Really enjoyed the  work and the very pleased employees whose workplace contributions had never been recognized before. One recognition focus group participant said it was the first time he had ever been asked for his opinion by the organization in 20 years!

Survey findings show the need to be authentic and consistent

When developing and communicating an employer brand to potential employees, certain building blocks are important to success. Survey respondents believe an employer brand has to be authentic (55%) and consistent with company practices (52%). It is also fairly important that the employer brand and customer brand are consistent with each other (36%). Other factors to consider when developing a brand include making it clear, believable, compelling and relevant.

Employee value proposition

Actions speak louder than words – an employee’s experience of your organization’s actions influences them much more than communication, but communication creates the linkages and can play a central role in many of those experiences to promote the employee value proposition (EVP). The EVP is the unique set of benefits an employee receives in return for the skills, capabilities and experience they bring to an employer. An EVP is about defining the essence of your organization – how it is unique and what it stands for.

Perhaps the easiest and most cost effective way to educate employees about the firm’s employee value proposition is to put the actual EVP statement on the screen savers of all employees’ computers. The screen saver is something they see every day and with that type of repetition, the message is more likely to stay top of mind.

The employer brand is usually considered the province of HR practitioners, but a large part of the employer brand comprises the formal and informal communication that takes place over the employee life cycle. Quite often HR practitioners haven’t taken steps to develop the employer brand, and so you can take the initiative in talking with them about systematically strengthening the brand and actively progressing its implementation. (Or, as suggested above, you might be interested in seeing if you can take responsibility for managing the whole program…)

Online recruiting

The internet comes into the employer brand and recruitment experience. Jobs can be promoted to potential employees via the corporate website or a special recruitment website, blogs, email subscription lists, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn. (Many recruiters use the web and now social media to verify the background of shortlisted job applicants by checking Facebook, LinkedIn and Google in particular.)

In addition, employers use external channels such as industry conferences, online forums, campus recruitment and visible branding in company locations to promote their brand as an employer. Forward-thinking employers are turning to their own employees to help communicate their employer brand internally. They use the company intranet, employee newsletters, internal conferences and events, internal emails, and CEO/senior executive presentations. These channels may be used to encourage existing employees to apply for an available position, or may be used by current staff to mention the opening to their own contacts.

Create a digital employer brand document that employees can download from the intranet. In it, link to employee testimonials and videos on your website. Give this document to new hires to help get them engaged in their new roles.

Here’s how you can strengthen your employer brand

What can you do to strengthen your employer brand, to close the gap between the promises and the delivery? In broad terms, you can work with HR to:

  1. Identify the attributes that you want to characterize your employer brand.
  2. Map all the contacts (actions and messages) that a potential employee has with your organization – the ‘moments of truth.’ Arrange to interview candidates individually or in focus groups you can run yourself, about their experiences and views of your organization.
  3. Compare the differences between the actual experiences and the ideal attributes you want in the employer brand.
  4. Do the same with new appointees. Find out the experiences in the workplace of a representative sample of newcomers compared with the ideal employer brand attributes. Survey them in their first week, and again after 1 month, 3 months, 6 months and 12 months. This may seem like a lot of surveys, but you will get a valuable ‘finger on the pulse’ on how your organization treats new employees and where improvements need to be made. It costs virtually nothing if you do it yourself.
  5. Seek to close the gap between the ideal and the actual by working jointly with HR to make changes, some of which will require some managers and supervisors to change the way they deal with their staff. By closing the gap, you will create more consistency between words and actions throughout the whole employee experience – and will create more engaged employees.

Ensure you report progress regularly to senior management in order to keep their support.

Results measurement

Key lead indicators of success include:

  • Your organization’s financial performance – profit per employee (per FTE)
  • HR process metrics such as candidate satisfaction, hiring manager satisfaction, offer acceptance rate and time to fill positions
  • Employee feedback such as if employees would recommend the employer to others, and satisfaction rates of new employees
  • Quality of applicants – evaluating candidates at first résumé screening, first interview, line manager interview, and final interview (if used).
  • Employee retention – at 3 months (or completion of probation period), at first performance review, and the retention rate of high performers.

Remember, many new arrivals leave before they have completed six months in the job. This adds significantly to overheads. By astutely using communication to help improve the employee experience and hence your employer brand, you will find it easier to attract candidates, you will become more of an employer of choice, and you will improve your employee retention rates.

Other measurement indicators

Hudson RPO reported in their 2014 paper,”How to launch a successful employer brand: Building on the practices of top employer brands,” that tracking true ROI on employer brand activities is difficult because other variables beyond employer brand programs affect retention and hiring data. For example, if retention rates move from 65% to 75%, the increase could be attributable to enhanced HR programs, increased consumer brand
advertising or new leadership, among other factors. Employer brand success is ultimately gauged by retention rates and how easy it is to put new talent into open positions.
However, measuring certain hiring data before and after an employer brand campaign can provide indicators of success, assuming all other variables remain relatively constant. Common indicators include:

  • Time-to-fill
  • Cost-per-hire
  • Retention rates
  • Job application rates
  • Changes in advertising spend
  • Cost of turnover and associated onboarding programs
  • Surveying people about employer brand proposition awareness

Good measures of employer branding project success are increased rates of completed job applications and survey results showing that people are more aware of the EVP. Nevertheless, it is important to keep one’s eye on the end game – the measurements most valuable to the business are higher retention rates and the ease of securing top talent.

What about this alternative?

In a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, authors Ken Banta and Michael Watras said the problem is most employer branding is disconnected from the corporate brand and the core drivers of the business. And: “It is typically managed by the HR department and too often becomes associated with superficial perks…In the United States alone, there are now more than 40 consultancies focused on employer branding, usually separate from any larger strategic purpose.”

As experts on strategic branding, they went on to say the employer brand should grow out of the established company brand. They advocate abolishing the ’employer brand’ label and focusing instead on building out a talent dimension as a key part of the corporate brand in a 3-step process led by the CEO and the executive team – “not delegated to lower-level HR or communications people.” Their suggested steps are:

Step 1. Create a talent framework that lays out the key qualities, behaviors, and motivations C-suite managers want to see in their work force, so the company can deliver on its total brand promise. “For example, an ophthalmology company sought to change its profile from ‘technical excellence in optics’ to ‘improving customers’ quality of life.’ “We helped its leaders revamp their key talent criteria from mainly technical skills to also include teamwork, empathy, and an external focus.”

Step 2. Validate the talent framework. Customer-facing workers have the best understanding of their needs and how work really gets done. Key questions in focus groups and on questionnaires for these employees should include:

  • “Does this capture capabilities critical to our success?”
  • “How do you think prospective hires will react?” and
  • “Do our values come across clearly?”

Step 3. Fully embed the talent framework into the business. This means incentivizing the right behaviors so that potentially abstract qualities, such as ‘teamwork,’ are assessed and rewarded. For example, a recent global technology client wanted ‘ownership’ to become core to the company; we helped drive this through behavior change, performance KPIs, and a culture campaign with a handbook centered on what ownership means for each employee.

“This work will be led by the brand team. But to make it stick, it must be owned by the CEO. As any good leader knows, their most important job is attracting, retaining, and advancing the best people. Integrating talent into the center of the corporate brand, rather than spinning out a separate employer brand, is the best way to do that,” in their view.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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