Many organizations are starting to see glimmers of faster paced growth. As a reaction, many are becoming more aware of the need to build their employment brand as a well-managed company and good place to work. And while senior executives long ago realized the value of building product brands, and now credit portions of their market value to such brands, only recently have executives realized the importance of managing their brand as an employer. Due to the infancy of the employment brand management concept (it did, after all, only rise to popularity in the late 1990s, only to be stifled by a downturn in the economy) many individuals are unaware or misuse the terminology related to employment branding. Combined, these two issues have contributed to a great deal of confusion about what is and is not employment branding. Employment branding is a targeted, long-term strategy to manage the awareness and perceptions of employees, potential employees, and related stakeholders with regards to a particular firm. The strategy can be tuned to drive recruitment, retention, and productivity management efforts. It works by consistently putting forth an image surrounding management and business practices that make your organization an attractive, “good place to work.” The net result of successful employment branding is that your organization’s exposure and reputation increases, creating consensus among your employees, magazine editors, managers in other organizations, and high potential applicants that you are one of the top employers of choice. A successful employment brand management effort increases both the number and quality of applicants, reduces the turnover rate among top performers, and increases overall workforce productivity. Because employment branding is a targeted strategy it cannot be successfully managed using a hodgepodge or uncoordinated effort. In order to be successful, it must contain each of these eight essential elements:
- A culture of sharing and continuous improvement. No employment branding effort can succeed in an organization that is afraid to expose or “brag about” its best management practices. Many organizations today practice a false modesty by discouraging or even forbidding managers from spreading the word externally about best practices. Such an attitude might have been acceptable prior to the 1990s, when the value of PR was highly doubted and models for placing a dollar value on such exposure were highly theoretical. However, in an era where technology can track spikes in sales and market value that correlate to such exposure, public touting has become a way of life in leading firms like GE, Cisco, Southwest Airlines, and Wal-Mart. Unless your firm wants to be left behind, becoming more and more obscure each year, it’s essential that senior management recognizes and encourages employment branding and the sharing of best practices. Therefore, the foundation element of a good employment brand is a senior management team that encourages, measures, and rewards the development and sharing of best practices. (This element is strengthened by the development of processes the enable the rapid sharing of best practices between business units.)
- A balance between good management and high productivity. Having unique benefits and doing great community work both have some impact on a firm’s external employment image. However, the primary foundation of any employment brand is first and foremost the firm’s management practices. Unfortunately, some firms, in an effort to become known for their management practices, go overboard in an effort to look good. This “look good” effort might result in managers becoming overly soft or losing their focus on the importance of maintaining an increasing productivity of the workforce. Since the basis for any HR effort should be to improve its workforce productivity (i.e. the value the company gets back for every dollar invested in its employees) any image building effort must balance “looking good” and increasing productivity. On the flip side, some managers become overly focused on workforce productivity and go overboard in the opposite direction, ignoring good management practices for short-term gain. While short-term output may increase, such actions almost always cause decreases in productivity and increases in employment related costs in the long run. Some of the problems that occur when managers push productivity at the expense of good management practices include increased employee burnout, increased error rates, decreased customer satisfaction and increased turnover, especially among top performers that have come to expect excellent management. Therefore, in order to insure a strong brand as well as improved employee productivity, firms must measure and reward balance between the use of good management practices and efforts to improve employee productivity.
- Obtaining public recognition (great-place-to-work lists). There’s no doubt that the increased interest in employment branding during the past decade has been a direct result of the increased number of organizations and magazines that create lists of great places to work. While it’s true that many of these lists are heavily slanted towards firms that offer great benefits, no one can argue against the benefits of exposure that occur as a result of being listed. Often times the exposure is not limited to just being mentioned in the list. Local news agencies, periodicals, and industry trades frequently run features on firms in their area or industry. This exposure increases the credibility of your firm and reinforces the mindset among target audiences that your organization is a good place to work. The most prominent great-place-to-work lists include those published by Fortune and Working Mother Magazines.
- Employees “proactively” telling stories. One of the prime attributes of a great employment brand is that employees go out of their way to tell stories about the firm’s management, business practices, and impact on their life. While almost any employee will respond to a question about their firm, the employees at well-branded firms volunteer their stories to strangers both inside and outside the workplace. Having created such an environment enables viral marketing, where employees spread the word about the great management practices to their families, friends, co-workers, and even strangers on airplanes, at places like professional meetings and social settings. In a well-branded firm, even the employee’s families know of and help spread stories. Employees spreading the word about your firm being a good place to work has a significantly higher impact than the firm spreading the word that it is a great place to work. No firm or outside consultancy can declare a firm a good place to work; that designation must come from the employees themselves. Having employees proactively tell stories within the organization builds pride and increases retention rates. Having employees that tell stories externally increases the number and the quality of employee referrals for open positions.
- Getting talked about. The number of agencies that make up the business press has grown so large and become so segmented and influential that being talked about in specific publications has become an essential element in building a strong employment brand. Getting written up is equivalent to getting a great review for restaurant. Having others talk about you and site your great management practices has more than impact than any employment ad that you could place. Getting talked about requires two basic components. First, managers must speak and write about their management practices in highly visible ways. While an internal meeting is great for communicating information to a small group of employees, a conference or periodical column provides greater exposure. By giving speeches and writing articles, you also increase the likelihood that writers and editors will not overlook what you are doing. In fact, some research suggests that up to half of a company’s employment brand is tied to the CEO and how well they are positively perceived in the business community. The second component of getting talked about focuses on getting written up in the business press. By making managers available to reporters and editors who can dramatically increase the number of times that your best practices are cited by the business press, you exponentially increase chances of growing your exposure.
- Becoming a benchmark firm. The best managed firms are those also known as benchmark firms. These are the firms that have best practices that everyone else wants to learn about and emulate. A great brand requires management to participate in major benchmarking studies and to make a conscious effort to respond to those that highlight your best practices. The net result of this is that at management meetings around the world your firm’s name will become one of the most quoted and respected, a fact that filters down to the community level with time. Since most benchmarking begins on the Internet, you can even assess your “benchmark shadow” or exposure by doing a Google search of both your firm’s name plus the functional area (i.e. “General Electric” + HR). Then compare your score to your competitors to assess how well known your management practices are.
- Increasing candidate awareness of your best practices. There are many companies that are well known because of their product brand but that have not developed awareness for their management practices. A great employment brand doesn’t just increase the potential applicants awareness of the firm. It goes one further step and informs potential applicants about the management practices that make you a good place to work. The basic foundation of this branding step is to craft messages to your target audience of potential applicants, so that they apply for your jobs specifically because of your management and business practices. This element requires each major business function to make it part of their performance objectives to educate potential applicants about their best practices. It entails highlighting best practices at tradeshow booths, in recruiting materials, in the annual report, and especially on the company’s website. Because so many potential applicants educate themselves about a firm through the employer’s website, it’s essential that the corporate website contains information that educates and excites applicants about your management and business practices.
- Branding assessment metrics. Building a product brand requires intense effort over time. You can’t rest on your laurels when you have a successful brand. You must continually improve it and sculpt it to fit the changing needs of your target audience. Employment brands are no different. They must continually change and improve. The key to that continuous improvement is the use of brand assessment measures or metrics. Any branding campaign should begin with side-by-side comparison numbers that can be used to judge the relative success and improvement of the effort. Branding metrics should become part of the assessment criteria for all major business functions and their managers. You can’t improve what you don’t measure. What you measure, talk about, and reward sends a clear message to everyone about what’s really important.
Conclusion Employment branding and the actions required to build and manage an employment brand are powerful tools that can be used to add value to your organization through HR. All to often, HR looks to impact the bottom line of the firm by enacting cost-containment initiatives. Such initiatives do nothing to increase quality or productivity. Employment branding, on the other hand, can increase the quality of employees, help inspire them to become more productive, and open opportunities to the company in the marketplace that might not have been open before. In short, employment branding can address many of the issues facing corporation today. Ignoring the concept and the elements that empower it is a sure way to help your firm ensure a spot in the corporate graveyard.