The power of the employer brand

Caroline Poynton looks into the subject of employer branding

Last summer, Amazon found itself under attack for its treatment of employees after a near 6,000-word exposé in The New York Times revealed a litany of complaints over working conditions at the online retailer. From treating warehouse staff like cattle to reducing office workers to tears through its oppressive scrutiny of performance and ‘purposeful Darwinism’, Amazon was portrayed as a pretty lousy employer.

Some might conclude that such negativity would be the precursor to a major review of the company’s employer brand, particularly as it is not the first time complaints about Amazon’s treatment of staff have been aired. The BBC’s Panorama produced a damning undercover investigation back in 2013. The truth behind the click claimed warehouse workers were expected to collect orders every 33 seconds.

But they would be wrong. Amazon did not embark on any major review or soul searching. It carried on unscathed and just continued to grow, surpassing American rival Walmart as the world’s biggest retailer by market value in July. Today, Amazon boasts more than 270 million active accounts.

So where does that leave employer brand? It’s a label that’s increasingly doing the management rounds, with some companies investing serious time and effort into developing a brand perception that attracts – and helps retain – great talent. Success is having a wealth of employee advocates who don’t just rave about what it’s like to work for a company, but reinforce a broader brand perception that appeals to consumers and prospective employees alike.

But when Amazon booms despite the negative press, some might be forgiven for thinking Why bother? For Paula Simmons, senior employer branding specialist at TMP Worldwide, this is missing the point. She believes an employer brand is about reflecting an honest view of what it’s really like to work for your business. ‘We define a great employer brand as one that makes it clear why the right people should want to join, stay with and help the organisation to succeed,’ says Simmons. ‘In other words, employer brands are about business performance.’

In Amazon’s case, the right people are likely those who thrive in a fast-paced competitive environment, who want to be at the forefront of technological innovation or are willing to embrace it for as long as it supports their longer-term career ambitions. And it has its advocates. One employee cited in the New York Times report described Amazon’s delivery system as ‘magical’ and ‘futuristic’.

Another seemed proud of the occasion she did not sleep for four days straight because she felt that the gift cards she was selling were her ‘babies’ and she wanted them to be successful. Others horrified by the sound of this culture would be disinclined to apply. Either way, people know what to expect. And if that choice helps attract the right talent to support Amazon’s goals – and they can secure enough of it – its employer brand is working.

‘If clarity is what an employer brand seeks to offer, Amazon certainly seems to provide it,’ says Simmons. ‘And I haven’t seen anything to suggest that recent media coverage has damaged their ability to hire.’

The example does highlight an important fact though: businesses – larger ones at least – have an employer brand whether they make an effort to develop it, or not. That’s not just because employees talk to friends and family, but also because today’s digital landscape enables them to publicise that view on a global scale.

‘There are many ways in which people can go and find out about a company, from descriptions on Wikipedia to employer reviews on sites like Glassdoor. These highlight things about your business that you can’t control and shape people’s perception of what you’re good at before they even get to you,’ says David Ferrabee, director at Able & How.

People are more likely to research this information too. ‘A company’s outward facing brand needs to balance with the internal brand because prospective employees are actively seeking out the brands and businesses they want to work for,’ says Ingrid Brown, a brand and marketing communications consultant at Emperor Design.

Laura House, head of people and purpose at H+K Strategies, agrees. ‘Brands exist across many dimensions these days, so what consumers believe about a company as an employer can really shift their relationship with that brand,’ she says. House highlighted a recent Mars advert in the Metro, which focused on one employee telling his story about what it’s like to work for the confectionery business. It may appeal to potential candidates, but it has further reach too.

This doesn’t mean that every corporate needs to rush out to find experts in employer brand. Certain sectors are more likely to focus on it than others. Ferrabee believes that those doing it well include service sector businesses, such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Starbucks, and professional services firms. These are businesses that need either a broad range of skills or are seeking colleagues with a particular background that’s harder to find. ‘Not everyone needs an active employer brand with design, maintenance and management,’ he says. ‘We don’t need one because we don’t struggle to hire people.’

Some businesses will be more naturally geared to focus on employee branding too. For instance, Annabel Rake, chief marketing officer at Deloitte, says that in professional services ‘your people are your brand’. Combined with changes in the workforce – ‘millennials seek to join organisations where they can have a true sense of purpose in their work’, says Rake – it’s little surprise that Deloitte has made considerable efforts to get its employer brand right.

For others, employer brand provides a means to change perception. ‘Everyone has an employer brand that has grown organically. However, this is not always the brand that the chief executive et cetera would like,’ says House. ‘Employer brand is always evolving and changing so you can influence the future of your brand through co-creation with current employees.’ Taking the leap to achieve this, however, raises a host of new challenges.

‘The first question is what is it that needs to be improved? For example, understanding what the issues are around your existing talent management strategy,’ says Brown. ‘Are you struggling to attract the right talent? Struggling to keep staff or seeing poor performance from existing employees?’

Such problems then need to be fixed as part of any new employer brand proposition. ‘If you want to promote the way that you look after employees, then you have to make sure that there are no management issues in achieving that – you need to ensure people are laid off in the right way and people are advanced in the way you promise,’ says Ferrabee. ‘Otherwise your brand will become toxic.’

Simmons agrees, giving her definition of a great employer brand in action. ‘Firstly, it’s authentic, because it has been developed with input from employees, who are the people closest to the actual employment experience.

‘Secondly, it’s inclusive – no-one with the right skills and attitude will be put off by a great brand, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or ability.

‘Thirdly, it’s responsive – it understands what its target audiences need to hear about it to engage and tries its best to tell them.’

At insurance group Legal & General, getting the approach right has been paramount. ‘We want to tell an authentic story to attract the right kind of people,’ says head of employer brand and people experience Lee Nicholls. ‘What can we really offer so that when people select us they know what they’re getting and we reduce the risk of losing good people?’

It’s not just about attraction, either. ‘We’re always looking for great people but it’s about getting the best out of them too – hence the people experience element of my role,’ he says. Nicholls believes it can take a long time, around a year, to do the groundwork properly. He describes the challenge as finding a way to ‘be true to yourself and yet still stand out in the market’.

This included speaking extensively to employees, assessing the gaps and challenges between their experience and where the company wanted to be and listening to the external market – what did people know of L&G as a customer and as a potential employer, and what do they think when they see the L&G name? ‘It’s really important that the proposition is authentic and that we’re able to tie it into our talent strategy,’ says Nicholls.

The broad remit is also reflected in the mixed positioning of the role. Nicholls has enjoyed a spell reporting into the firm’s chief marketing officer but is currently working in human resources, reporting to the department’s director.

While responsibility for employer brand often sits with human resources, it can include many stakeholders, including recruitment, corporate communications, internal communications and marketing. Emperor’s Brown is far from alone either when she says ‘endorsement from leadership/chief executive is critical’.

Nicholls is now tasked with bringing the proposition to life. ‘We are confident that the employer brand is robust enough to now be released into the organisation, amplifying what we do externally and getting advocates to spread the word,’ he says. This includes sitting down with business leaders across the organisation to ensure consistency across divisions while allowing for different ways of working across business units and locations.

The importance of flexibility is one that Deloitte already knows well. ‘High levels of enthusiasm from across our firm has meant there is a careful balancing act of empowering people to advocate our brand through their own ideas and maintaining the consistency needed to maximise our impact,’ says Rake.

In common with L&G, Deloitte’s overall employer brand proposition was built using views and experiences gathered from across the business. But it is the firm’s use of storytelling that has allowed it to tailor messages to different audiences.

‘The overall core proposition remains the same,’ says Rake. ‘But the way we tell the stories – in terms of where, how and to whom – is what makes it flexible.’

Frequent review will also help the firm flex the brand as necessary. ‘Our employer brand is never in stasis,’ says Rake. ‘Ongoing measurement of our people’s experiences, external perception and the impact we have on the success of the firm will shape the development of our employer brand for the future.’

Nicholls agrees. ‘Organisations are moving so quickly. An employer value proposition (EVP) never stands still – we will continue to have to make judgments on it.’

Employer brand requires a delicate balance of consistency versus flexibility. But employers probably have a certain amount of wriggle room to get this right – to try out different tactics and discover what works best in practice. What employers must not do, though, is peddle a lie. ‘While employer brands should be aspirational, they also need to be grounded in reality,’ says Simmons. ‘If they’re not, organisations risk attracting people with promises they can’t fulfil, at which point those people become disengaged and either leave, or stay but don’t contribute as much as they are capable of.’

‘The purpose of the employer brand is to attract a certain talent profile,’ adds House. ‘This of course means that the organisation in question needs to be clear about the kind of talent they need, and have a good understanding of what might attract that talent. So they need to do the work first. But if the employee experience doesn’t match up with the expectation that has been created, then there’s trouble.’

Not all employers need to work on their brand. And what appears to be a negative brand to some may well appeal to others. As long as you’re attracting and retaining the right talent, there may be little need to change. But more companies are likely to see the benefits of employer branding, not just to address negative perception increasingly highlighted by employer review sites like Glassdoor, but to boost a broader brand reputation with both consumers and employees.

But there is a clear warning for those who do go down the employer branding route. You can develop and flex your brand. You may even be able change everything you stand for. But no matter what, you better tell the truth.

 

TIPS FOR IMPROVING EMPLOYER BRAND

  • Internal research is critical. Companies need to understand what it’s really like to be an employee – a perception/reality gap will spell trouble.
  • Employer brand is best communicated by those who embody the brand – such as, an organisation’s people. They must be involved in the development of the brand proposition.
  • Good employer brand is communicated throughout the employee life cycle – from attracting prospects, through to the on-boarding process, on-going training and career development and the employee exit process.
  • Measuring the effectiveness of employer brand typically includes cost per hire, number and quality of applications/hires and the attrition rate. But it can go further to assess engagement levels with both external and internal target audiences via independent surveys/research. Glassdoor, exit interviews and candidate feedback can also highlight areas of strength and weakness.
  • Employer brand should involve stakeholders from across the business. And it needs sponsorship at senior levels – ideally from the chief executive.
  • Authenticity is critical. Those brands that do not live up to the promises made could risk serious reputational damage