by Dr. John Sullivan and Master Burnett
Over the course of the last three years, employment branding has grown from a concept a few organizations were spending a little money on to a full-blown discipline that many large and small organizations alike are investing heavily in.
As of April 2007, more than 57% of the Fortune 200 and a growing percentage of the Global 500 had both dedicated headcount and budget working on employment branding. While the concept may have started in the United States, it is rapidly becoming a core practice among high-growth firms in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe.
While we could start a rant here about the differences between employment branding and recruitment marketing, we’re not going to (instead, you can find that article here.)
Despite the current popularity of employment branding and the launch of numerous vendors offering related services, there is still a lot of inconsistency in how it is defined and, more important, executed.
As with many HR practices, employment branding can have a huge impact on the business with a relatively low investment if managed well. However, the reverse is also true.
Without a well-documented strategy and resources to execute it, an employment branding program can rapidly consume resources and seemingly offer nothing in return. With spending on the rise and competition for the best talent around the world increasing, the visibility of employment branding outside the HR function is growing quickly.
Simultaneously, poll after poll reveals that managers outside of HR are growing even more frustrated with the nature of our profession. Some studies show that nearly 79% of managers outside HR see HR as a barrier to the business. HR needs some success stories, some evidence that the profession is not full of clueless administrators intent on making life difficult via poorly defined processes and archaic policies, all of which seem not to align with the goals of the business.
Via our roles as corporate advisors, we see how numerous organizations approach employment branding, how effective the various approaches are, and more important, what often gets overlooked. From that vantage point it is clear that nearly every major implementation of employment branding lacks direction and structure, both of which are needed to enable successful execution.
Many outside our function would argue that the same critique could be applied throughout HR and they wouldn’t be that far off. The famous science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein noted something about human behavior that seems directly targeted at the HR profession.
“In the absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.”
It is a behavior that nearly every business leader and consultant around the world has encountered in nearly every organization and one that can sink a branding program quickly. Organizations must focus their branding efforts, have a complete plan, and be able to communicate that plan among business leaders.
The Five Questions
While a lot more goes into crafting a strategy than answering five questions, the following questions are a foundation that must be established before any other work takes place. If any one of these questions is not answered thoroughly, it will leave issues open to exploration later down the road that could derail even the best-intentioned effort.
The five questions include:
- What current business conditions are driving the need for employment branding?
- What does the organization hope to accomplish via employment branding?
- What specific objectives will take advantage of or mitigate the impact of the driving business conditions?
- What will be both in- and out-of-bounds for the employment branding program?
- What specific deliverables will the program produce?
These five questions seem simple enough, but they truly are loaded questions. There is a minefield of issues behind each question; any could render your investment a waste, or even worse, a liability!
Thinking About the Five Questions
As was stated earlier, a lot of issues are buried within the five questions that warrant attention during the planning phase of establishing an employment branding initiative. If you already have a program in place that isn’t guided by a well-developed charter, start over.
The answers to the five questions should vary dramatically from organization to organization. If your responses seem generic enough that another organization could have developed them, you have dived deep enough.
Some of the sub issues for each question include:
What current business conditions are driving the need for employment branding?
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- Are the business conditions consistent across the enterprise or do they vary by region, product line, professional function, manager, etc?
- How volatile are the business conditions? Can they change in a week, a month, a quarter, a year, etc?
- How does each business condition impact the organization’s capability or capacity to achieve its strategic objectives?
- What possible labor types can be used to mitigate or leverage the business conditions?
The key in responding to this question is to determine not only how the program should be focused, but also to establish what segments of the labor market need to be targeted, and what the maximum cycle time can be to impact perception and drive action by requisite talent.
Many organizations erroneously assume that they have a single employment brand. In reality, employment brand can vary throughout the organization. While some attributes are specific to the organization as a whole, many are not.
What does the organization hope to accomplish via employment branding?
- Does the employment branding program solely need to drive recruiting, or does it also need to impact retention and motivation/productivity?
- What will be different down the road in terms of the capability and capacity of the organization to achieve its objectives as a result of employment branding?
The key in responding to this question is specifics. The branding program must specify who will be impacted, to what degree, and on what timeline. This question is simply about drawing a line in the sand and setting clear goals about accountability.
What specific objectives will take advantage of or mitigate the impact of the driving business conditions?
- What is the optimal ratio of labor resources needed to mitigate or take advantage of the business conditions, and how will each segment of the labor resources need to be manipulated?
- Can a single initiative drive the requisite talent to the organization, or will it take multiple initiatives to piece-meal the right composition of labor?
- Is the labor market capable of allocating the optimal ratio of labor needed to the organization or are long-term, development-oriented impacts needed?
In responding to this question, organizations need to be specific about what will be done to bring each and every segment of labor needed to the organization. This isn’t the shotgun “employer of choice” approach. Instead, this is really targeted work.
What will be both in- and out-of-bounds for the employment branding program?
- Where does the employer branding program sit in terms of organizational power? Can it drive changes to the recruiting strategy, organizational design, budgets, etc?
- How will the employer branding program ensure the organization’s ability to deliver on any brand promise established?
- How will the employer deal with barriers to establishing the brand?
This is the 10,000-pound gorilla in this set of questions. You could answer every other question to the nth degree of specificity, get it right, and still fail miserably if you don’t get this question answered. Too many branding organizations are lame-duck organizations with no authority to manage the product being produced.
What specific deliverables will the program produce?
- What methodologies and tools will the program design to assess the current brand perception; the ideal brand perception necessary to attract the requisite talent; communication channels and their ability to influence the target markets; and program performance?
- How will the methodologies and tools be integrated into the business so that they do not become stand-alone HR activities?
- What lifecycle will each deliverable possess?
All too often, branding programs bounce around from activity to activity, failing to produce any deliverables that can be evaluated, systematized, or even repeated. In responding to this question, branding organizations need to specify what will be produced, who will own the product, and what maintenance cycle will be needed to maintain the product.
While putting together a strategy is inherently more involved than answering these five questions, just getting these down will go a long way at putting some structure around employment branding, regardless of how you define it.
Throughout the process, it is essential that program leaders follow the cardinal rule in branding: never manage based on your own perceptions, but rather those of the parties you are trying to influence.
Branding is a long-term activity, and results rarely occur overnight. But that is no excuse for not making sure they occur at all. Jump off the bandwagon, get your camp in order, then jump back on and prepare to ride a wave of productive fun. Executed well, employment branding can touch nearly every aspect of the organization; executed poorly and it’s just recruitment marketing with a different name!