Employer Branding: Don’t Get Taken in By the Waffle

bpEvery few years our business lexicon gets invaded by a new cliche. Management speak like “big data” and “social hiring” … vague terms that no one can really define but are liberally trotted out typically by vendors, consultants, and conference speakers trying to impress you. The king of the management cliches at present and one that makes my skin crawl is employer branding. There. I said it — well wrote it — but I was cringing when I did.

If you ever hear someone wittering on about employer branding I dare you to interrupt them and say, “define employer branding.”

I bet most won’t give you a very good definition and will be suitably aghast that you even questioned one of recruitment’s current sacred cows, but challenge it you must. Prick the pomposity bubble that we get sucked into. I read one article recently that urged all companies to create a “compelling employer value proposition.” There were few details on what that meant or how to implement it. In short it was just waffle. Companies spend fortunes and waste thousands of hours (I know, I was part of one) designing internal value propositions to allow company recruiters to become “front-line brand ambassadors.” This is nonsense. Stop wasting your time and money.

Let’s examine what exactly people are referring to when they talk about employer branding. Let’s cut through the waffle and look at some specifics that you can actually do to boost your organization’s perception among job seekers.

Wikipedia probably has the best definition of what an employer brand is:

“Employer brand denotes an organization’s reputation as an employer.” Therefore by extension, employer branding is the proactive process of using marketing techniques to communicate a perception of your company as a great place to work among current and prospective employees.

The overpaid and not-very-analytical consultant from Typical Vendor Inc. will tell you that its software, training programs, and social media this that and the other will dramatically improve your public image as a great place to work. Yes and no. Don’t for a moment buy into the idea that implementing some of its ideas will suddenly create a tsunami of applications or that you will be batting away a flood of unbelievably talented people begging to work at your company. Sorry, ain’t gonna happen. Not even close.

Now all these vendors don’t want me to say this, particularly if you’re about to spend stack loads with them, but the simple fact is this:

Your employer brand is 95 percent determined by the wider perception of your company among the general public. Google receives tens of thousands of applications every month for six reasons:

  1. It has lots of jobs to fill
  2. It is very profitable and still growing quickly which means tasty salaries and stock options
  3. Working for Google looks damn good on your resume, as it’s very tough to get in
  4. Prospective employees will know they will be involved in cutting-edge work, as Google is at the forefront of many industries
  5. Social kudos: “I work at Google.” Nothing more needs to be said
  6. It’s perceived to be a fun, innovative place to work

Same with Apple, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Facebook, and many others. Of those six points, points three and four are probably the most powerful. To quote Steve Jobs when tempting John Sculley to join Apple, ”Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

Only a very small percentage of candidates applying to Apple will have done so on the back of any employer branding work conducted by HR. Much more likely, the driving force will be a wider perception of Apple as a great place to work from articles in newspapers, from news reports seen about a new product launch, and most crucially of all, by the public’s positive interaction directly with Apple products.

Now if you trotted down the street and asked Jo Public if he/she thought Apple, Google, or Facebook was a great place to work, they would probably say yes. These companies have vast PR operations that can pick and choose the media outlets they let in to film/write about them. Pictures of twenty-somethings skateboarding to the free cafeteria where the Michelin-starred chef has just started serving, being careful to not crash into the people playing table tennis in the hallway … we’ve all seen it on the news. This is employer branding that money just can’t buy. These media pieces aren’t focusing on recruitment. They just make the company look like a pretty cool employer, and cool companies don’t struggle to attract people.

For the average company with very limited media coverage (and by average I include even very big firms), you can spend hundreds of hours creating a set of internal values you may well live and breathe by. You can spend fortunes offering your staff paid leave to work on voluntary projects. You can spend thousands on a glitzy corporate video placed on your careers section and it is still not going to make a huge difference. All the employer branding work in the world couldn’t compensate for the PR disaster that followed BP’s recent oil spill. In contrast, the PR that Apple received when launching the iPhone or iPad was infinitely more powerful than anything the head of employer branding could do (no idea if they have such a person, but you get the gist).

My point is this: don’t believe the hype that is peddled by employee branding consultants. Even the most fantastic program you develop will make only a marginal difference. If you want people queuing up to work for you then you need people queuing for your products. Very few firms can generate the kind of PR buzz that Apple can.

So if you’re not one of these media darlings, can you portray yourself as a great place to work? Yes.

Can you use conventional marketing techniques to make more people aware that you are a great employer to work for who might not otherwise ever come across you?

Yes again.

Will that make a huge difference to either the volume or quality of applicants you receive?

A bit, but not much.

The harsh reality is this: for the vast majority of companies you can do all the employer branding work you like and it will make only a very small difference in the number of people applying to you but (and this is the good bit) you can convert more people who come to your website from “just browsing” to “yeah, I really like the look of this company. I want to join.”

You’re unlikely to get more people visiting your careers site, but you can increase your application-to-visits ratio … which is generally a good thing. You do this by creating a top-quality careers portal, and that’s where your employer branding comes in:

  • Give employees time off to do fully paid charity work and highlight it on your careers page

  • Make a corporate recruitment video

  • Spruce up your careers pages with innovative content: “Five reasons to join us”

  • Details all the company social/sports stuff your staff do

  • List interviews with happy new recruits

  • Use Twitter and other social media to tell everyone what your employees do both in and out of work

  • Incentivize your staff to blog about what they do at the company. “Most number of retweets wins a BMW,” etc., etc.

Here are some examples of companies who’ve done a great job with their careers pages.

If you want to improve your employer brand, copy what these firms have done.

But if you really want to attract more and better quality applicants you really need do just two things, and both are related to the first touch point a prospective applicant will have with your company: the job ad.

First, write a phenomenal job ad that sells the company and the role, and:

  • portrays your company as a leader in its field

  • tells people how fast your are growing, and

  • that you make money, and lots of it

  • stresses that anyone you recruit will have access to a mass of cool stuff from free meals, flexible hours, free child care, in-house sports facilities, or discounts to nearby gyms, etc.

  • stresses the opportunities for rapid promotion and variety of future roles available

  • sells the job as genuinely interesting and cutting-edge work with great people

Then drive them to your newly designed careers site which is packed full of cool stuff to make the employee go “Wow, this really is an exciting place to work.”

Next, pay a great salary. Great sports stars get paid a great deal to join a team for a reason: they’re the best. You want the best, you’re going to have to match the rhetoric with a market busting package.

But there’s one thing that many companies would do well to remember. No amount of employer branding, funky careers sites, or expensive PR will ever make a person want to work for you if they’ve used your product or service and had a bad experience. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been left disappointed by a product or inefficient member of staff. Would I work for a company that produces awful products and employees? Not a chance.

So the ultimate employer branding is very simple. Make a great product or service that people love and admire and then they might, just might, want to work for you.