Building an employer brand: Lessons learned


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Employer brand has great potential for recruiting, engaging and retaining staff so it is hardly surprising the idea is becoming more sophisticated in the UK.

Organisations are moving beyond values workshops and glossy brochures to a more sustainable, embedded approach that penetrates the organisation's psyche and this focus is becoming more important as companies come to realise the potential of branding.

But in this shift in focus to implementation, many efforts are falling short as revealed in a study by recruitment company Robert Half. When organisations were asked what they were doing to implement employer brand strategy, 37% said they were conducting workshops with staff and then implementing results. This implies a transactional approach, such as communicating brand values, raising awareness with workshops and presentation of brand materials. And while this is a good starting point, there is an opportunity to take a more transformational approach to implementing an employer brand to produce a deeper, lasting effect on existing staff and thus drive retention, engagement and quality of work.  
Implementation is about continually demonstrating the brand promise by providing tangible proof, so employees will invest their time and effort.

While there are multiple ways to provide evidence of an employer brand, we have found that leading companies provide t proof through three main activities:

  • Translating brand values into the induction process, either as a new recruit or a newly promoted employee
  • Ensuring the job fulfils what was promised
  • Embedding the employer brand into the company culture

The most obvious way to demonstrate the brand promise is in the induction process. This is when employees form their first impressions of a company and decide if they want to stay. In the first week, interactions with line management and team bonding are critical to perceptions of the employer brand. Unfortunately, many companies spend this time taking new employees through long-winded presentations that don't tend to be relevant to their job. Some of these presentations may introduce employees to the external brand values but often miss an opportunity to introduce them to the employer brand as an experience and demonstrate its importance in how the company fulfils its promise to its employees.  

Enterprise Rent-A-Car takes a different approach. Leigh Lafever-Ayer, HR manager at Enterprise Rent-A-Car UK, found new employees were spending too much time filling in forms in their first few days, which conflicted with the firm's employer brand value of fun.

So the form-filling activity was removed and brought online so it could be completed before new recruits started employment.  

Interactions with line managers, especially senior management, are crucial in helping new employees understand how the employer brand promise is real in the organisation. My experience shows exposure to senior leaders during induction is critical as it signals the importance of their contribution as part of the employer brand promise. New or newly-promoted employees scrutinise the behaviour of senior leaders to see whether or not the company is truly what it has said it is. At Enterprise Rent-A-Car new employees meet regularly with management, where they observe how managers talk about their experiences in their roles. "We want to inspire pride in the decision they made," says Lafever-Ayer. "New employees learn how much they matter, and how their actions affect the customer and the business, which provides them with compelling evidence of the employer brand promise of an entrepreneurial and high impact role immediately upon joining."

Finally, leading companies provide opportunities for new employees to bond with their team, both formally and informally, to demonstrate the type of the experience they will have when they start work.

At Enterprise Rent-A-Car, example, part of the employer brand promise is a long-term career with promotion from within, surrounded by similarly ambitious peers.  So the firm sets up peer-to-peer mentoring via buddies and this informal networking approach enables the new recruits to help each other up the career ladder and track their performance through the organisation.

While the induction process is critical to setting expectations about the fulfilment of the employer brand promise, the most important way to provide evidence is the job itself.  
A Towers Perrin study shows the top employee drivers of retention and engagement relate to the potential of the role combined with support through learning and development. They are:

  • Appropriate autonomy to do the job well
  • Excellent career opportunities
  • Effective job training/ improved my skills /capabilities over past year

The first few projects are critical for a new employee because they provide evidence that the control, autonomy and customer impact matches the job that was sold. It becomes even more critical if a company does not have a strong external brand.

Part of Google's employer brand promise is to provide ground-breaking, stimulating projects, surrounded by like-minded, bright colleagues.  Dan Hynes, head of resourcing EMEA, explains 20% of a software engineer's time is allocated to leading-edge projects of their choice. Hynes claims these projects keep staff engagaed. Leading-edge projects can become major initiatives that result in new market entry and drive much of the company's innovation. Such projects have resulted in the launch of Gmail, Google News and Orkut, the company's social networking tool that is market leader in countries such as Brazil and India.

Leading companies implement their employer brands most effectively by designing roles, careers and learning and development in order to provide evidence of what was promised during recruitment. They invest the effort and spend required to ensure employees are convinced about the brand promise and willing to stay and give their effort to their company.

A third way to implement the employer brand effectively is to link it to company culture and ways of working. But culture, and the associated behaviours, can often be perceived as amorphous concepts, which are difficult to influence and manage. So if a company wants to embed employer brand in its culture, then it will need to start with the top team. As an initial step, they need to fulfil the brand promise in the eyes of their direct reports.

Focusing brand awareness on graduates will not be sufficient because graduates will look to their people managers, who ultimately look to senior management.  

Those at the top must provide the scope, autonomy, coaching and development to their senior teams that is consistent with what was promised before they were brought in or promoted. Embedding employer brand into the culture is not just about telling senior teams to ‘live the values', but more about demonstrating them through leader behaviours and fulfilling the promise through actions.

In addition to leaders, employees provide an opportunity to link employer brand with culture. Companies that allow their employees to shape the culture to reflect the employer brand values are able to better retain and engage their staff. Google leverages activities such as its Culture Clubs to increase the involvement of its people in the employer brand. During one of its recent conferences in Rhodes, 1,667 employees spent an evening breaking a world record doing the largest-ever Zorba Greek dance - the video was subsequently posted on YouTube. On the surface this might seem to be no more than a fun activity, but it demonstrated the Google brand promise of high energy, like-minded colleagues and the sense of belonging to a movement.  

These more embedded activities imply that leading companies never stop implementing the employer brand - it is not a one-off event but a continual process, because it lives with senior leaders, line managers, HR and employees. It harnesses existing processes and leverages them to demonstrate the promise that is made to its new and existing employees throughout their careers.

Anna Marie Detert, head of human capital and communication at Buck Consultants, sponsor of the HR Leaders Club

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