Before You Waste Your Time and Money on So-Called Employer Branding


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 most 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, and coming up with the perfect tag line. They follow this up with their “internal branding campaign” (i.e., 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 get people through the door, but if the employer doesn’t actually deliver a great work experience, those employees will soon be heading back out.

Article Continues Below

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 “employer branding” that focuses on creating an alluring employer brand that is really a myth, you’re wasting your time and money. Before you “spread the word,” invest in making sure what you’re saying is true.

This means, you want to first:

  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 healthcare field) notes that the foundation of its 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 new hire orientation; the onboarding process; any organizational change; and 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 their willingness to invest in their middle managers’ 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.” Thus, if you’re serious about actually being an employer of choice and not just saying you are, invest in leadership development at all levels. Make sure all of your supervisors and managers get the training and coaching required to know how to create a work environment that can make you an employer of choice.
  10. 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. Otherwise, only your better managers will attend your leadership development program, and even they will forget to implement what they learned amidst the maelstrom of today’s workplace.

Without accountability, 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. Thus, if you’re serious about being an employer of choice, manager accountability is a must.

The Consequences Go Far Beyond Employer Branding

If you do employer branding right, you won’t just enjoy the luxury of having the cream of the crop want to work for you, you will also enjoy many side benefits. 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 the side benefits that affect your bottom line:

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

Now For the Next Step

If you want more of the “how to’s” related to analyzing and creating a more employer-of-choice-worthy workplace, has several of my articles that go into depth on this, starting with How to build a compelling employer brand.

Finally, if you’re already doing this, I’d love to hear from you if you want to post comments. It’s always fun sharing examples of what organizations are doing right.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at


10 Comments on “Before You Waste Your Time and Money on So-Called Employer Branding

  1. David,

    Great post and one that many employers would do well to heed. I think you’re spot on in that many employers put out one set of values, but practice a completely different set internally. I’ve heard this time and time again from colleagues and experienced it myself.

    Bottom line, in this job market where it’s getting harder to attract the right talent, losing that talent because of mixed messaging is a recipe for failure.

  2. Good article, but this article seems to mostly address employee retention, and not candidate attraction, which is the primary function of ‘Employer branding’.

    Anecdotal evidence tends to suggest that ’employer branding’ can often be a direct side effect of the branding of the rest of an employer’s products or services. Very often, for instance, if the word gets out that a company that has a great reputation for marketing quality products has retained the services of a certain placement service, that placement service can quite suddenly and unexpectedly become inundated with phone calls and emails.

    A company, on the other hand, that is very busy but makes a product with no opportunity to develop a reputation among the general public – perhaps some sub-assembly of a mechanical part or something of the sort – is going to have to devote considerably more effort and resources to marketing the notion that the company is a good one to work for in order to attract a consistent pipeline of quality candidates.

  3. Thanks John for weighing in… I wanted to respond to and clarify in case other readers had this perspective:

    ‘Good article, but this article seems to mostly address employee retention, and not candidate attraction, which is the primary function of ‘Employer branding’.

    Actually, it’s not an either/or, it’s a both. Doing what the article discussed will help employee retention AND…it’s the foundation of effective employer branding.

    You actually touch on the crux of the issue I was trying to communicate later when you wrote:

    ‘…is going to have to devote considerably more effort and resources to marketing the notion that the company is a good one to work for in order to attract a consistent pipeline of quality candidates.’

    This is the big problem, as I see it, with how many companies approach ‘Employer Branding’ (what they consider it to be, not what it should be. That is:

    They focus on ‘marketing the notion that the company is a good one to work for’ without…

    Actually making sure it IS a good company to work for

    That’s the whole point of laying the foundation discussed in the article. Without actually focusing on the work experience you deliver, all a great marketing campaign will do is get more people through the door faster, so the employer’s work experience can drive them back out the door.

    Hope I’ve done a better job of communicating this point because, in my opinion, it’s the essence of getting Employer Branding right.

    Best regards,

  4. Highly engaged employees foster strong, enduring employer brands ? and much healthier and much more valuable enterprises.

    David Lee?s first six suggestions begin with ?ask? or ?find out?. Best-in-class employee engagement surveys answer all these questions and many other equally important ones ? delivering much more than just a score.

    Advanced surveys can now provide all the information, knowledge, insights and direction that managers need to raise employee engagement to unprecedented levels. Actionable information and clear paths forward make David?s suggestions #7 (?do something?) and #8 (?with greater mindfulness and precision?) much easier for managers to accomplish.

    Unquestionably employees ?join companies? and ?leave managers?. The mission critical process of developing (and culling) managers properly starts with valid assessments. A comprehensive employee engagement survey will highlight areas for attention. From there, 360 degree reviews can zero in on issues and connect them to tailored leadership development solutions. This process provides the objective means for employers to capably and confidently address suggestions #9 and #10. Annual engagement surveys and 360 follow-up reviews provide the essential measurement and feedback on progress, at every level.

    Today, we have all the necessary tools at our disposal and, better than affordable ? these solutions are downright profitable.

    Highly engaged employees not only outperform, they like where they work and they tell everyone they know. Attracting, developing and retaining are all part of the same fabric. So why tinker with employer branding? Take the direct and proven path to becoming an ?employer of choice? and reap all the benefits that flow from achieving ever-higher levels of employee engagement. Best-in-class solutions discipline the process and underwrite success.

  5. David,

    You hit it completely on the mark with:

    They focus on ‘marketing the notion that the company is a good one to work for’ without…

    Actually making sure it IS a good company to work for

    – I can attest to that as a professional who left her last company because it wasn’t even remotely possible to build an effective EVP there. It was not the right time, and I had a hard time communicating that to our top level executives. They are still struggling, and will continue until they solve the problems and make it a great place to work again. Simple, but a lot of companies miss the really crucial factors in attempting employment branding.

  6. I was at a presentation by David Snowden, one of the gurus of knowledge management this week at the KM Forum (

    David advocated a slightly different question to ask, based on his deep research and experience with getting at the heart of true questions.

    The question to ask is ‘What would you tell someone who just got hired about this organization?’

    The reason to ask questions like this is because it eliminates the ‘loyalty bias.’ That bias shows up whenever you ask someone what they think of working at your company.

    Think about it next time you’re planning employee surveys. What would you tell a friend about ERE?

  7. ‘… all a great marketing campaign will do is get more people through the door faster, so the employer’s work experience can drive them back out the door.’


    Because if you don’t have significant turnover, why do you need recruiting services in the first place??

  8. Also need to ensure that when your company is branded as ‘one of the top companies to work for’ that it is for everyone in every department and not just for a select group in the companies core business. i.e. all of the benchmarks by which the company was rated are applied to one group in the company but are not factors or in how other groups are treated.

    I’ve seen companies where identical jobs are paid 30% more in one group than the other because of a perception that one group is more elite. Yet when the market and their business plan turned around the less ‘elite ‘ group was the one that generated 80% of the revenue. Yet the compensation was not adjusted.

    Or one group has great leadership and the ability to get things done while another is mired in the ‘we could never get that approved’ muck.

    Companies are rarely consistent in how they manage, train, tool and compensate employees.

    What is a great employer for one group can leave another demoralized and frustrated.

  9. Hey John,

    Am I the only recruiter who is working on lots of new headcount? Turnover isn’t a problem everywhere!


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *