Shattering the Illusions of Employer Branding

By David Lee

Employer branding is quite the rage these days. Yet, I’m still amazed at what many people think it means to “create” an employer brand. Let me give you an analogy for what I see as a common—and very misguided—approach to employer branding. Engaging in this mistake doesn’t just hamstring your ability to become an employer of choice, it will diminish employee morale, loyalty, and engagement.

Here’s the analogy: Several years ago, a friend told me how much he loved his new Audi, but then in the same breath, how he would never buy another one. This seemed a bit puzzling, until he went on a rant about his distasteful buying experience, followed by frustrating service experiences. Because he bought it from the only Audi dealer in his area, his service alternatives would require a long commute. Even though this car was his all-time favorite vehicle, he would never buy another.

About a week later, I heard an especially clever radio commercial by this same dealership. After it ended, I juxtaposed the “we’re so wonderful” message from the commercial with the story my friend told me.

“Isn’t this so typical,” I thought. “They spend all this money and creativity on getting people to come through the door, only to drive them back out by the experience they deliver. Wouldn’t it make sense to invest some of that money on upgrading the service they actually deliver?”

This is exactly what I see so many companies doing when it comes to employer branding—or recruiting for that matter. They invest great sums of money and intellectual firepower on clever ads and recruiting campaigns, but next to nothing on making sure they actually deliver a great work experience that makes a great employer brand possible.

The Illusion of Employer Branding
Over the years, when I’ve asked HR professionals and ad agency reps about whether they’re involved in employer branding, if they answer “Yes,” they always go on to talk about updating logos, creating spiffier collateral material, coming up with the perfect tag line, followed up with their “internal branding campaign,” that is, trying to convince their employees this is who they are as an employer. Those things are great (sort of), but it’s putting the cart before the proverbial horse.

Just like the car dealership, those approaches might help bring people through the door, but if the employer doesn’t actually deliver a great work experience, those employees will soon be heading back out.

Before You Tell the Labor Market Who You Are (or Would Like Them to Think You Are):
If you’re spending thousands of dollars on creating an alluring employer brand that is really a myth, you’re wasting your time and money. Before you “spread the word,” invest make sure what you’re saying is true.

To begin:
1. Ask your employees what they think about you as an employer.

2. Find out what they see as your strengths and your weaknesses.

3. Ask them how you compare to other employers.

4. Find out what new hires heard about you and why they chose you over other potential employers.

5. Ask your new hires if you’ve been delivering what they expected.

6. Ask employees representing different demographics and professions what you can do to become more of an employer of choice.

7. Make sure you DO something with this input. There’s nothing quite as effective at breeding cynicism and disengagement as asking for employee input and sending it into the big employee input black hole. Al Stubblefield, CEO of Baptist Healthcare—an employer of choice and patient satisfaction exemplar in the health-care field—notes that the foundation of their success has been soliciting and using employee input.

8. Design key employee experiences with greater mindfulness and precision. Make sure each step of the crucial employee experience creates a positive emotional and perceptual take away. Ask employees for step-by-step feedback on these critical employee moments of truth because they profoundly affect an employee’s overall work experience. Examples of such moments of truth are:
a. New hire orientation
b. The onboarding process
c. Any organizational change
d. Performance reviews

9. Unleash your secret employer branding weapon: supervisors and managers who know how to create a great work environment. Quint Studor, former president of Baptist Hospital, noted that the hospital’s willingness to invest in their middle manager’s professional development differentiated them from most organizations. Common sense combined with research by the Gallup Organization tells us that bosses are the most important factor affecting an employee’s work experience. As Gallup’s research revealed: “Employees join companies, but they leave managers.”

10. Invest in leadership development at all levels. Make sure all of your supervisors and managers receive the training and coaching required to create an optimal work environment. Set up a system that shows managers how they’re doing and holds them accountable. Quint Studor describes this as the “glue” that holds the whole process together. If you want your leadership development investment to translate into employer of choice status and a powerful employer brand, you MUST provide your managers with a scorecard, progress reports, and coaching.  Without an accountability process in place, the managers who are in the greatest need of a skills upgrade—typically those who think the people part of managing is “touchy feely”—will either avoid leadership training or, if required to attend, will fail to use what they learned.

The Consequences Go Far Beyond Employer Branding
If you analyze and upgrade the work experience you provide, if you actively involve your employees in all aspects of the process, and if you keep monitoring and refining each aspect of the work experience (especially those critical moments of truth), you will also enjoy these “side benefits”—all of which affect your bottom line:

  • Lower turnover
  • Lower absenteeism
  • Higher productivity
  • Improved customer service
  • A more positive, “can do” workforce

Author Bio:
David Lee is the founder of and an internationally recognized authority on optimizing employee performance.  He is the author of Managing Employee Stress and Safety as well as dozens of articles.

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