Don’t Bother With Employment Branding

Let me repeat that: Don’t bother with employment branding. Don’t waste your time or resources uncovering and articulating your brand. At least … don’t bother unless you commit to changing your mindset about active and passive candidates.

“But wait,” you may say, “Doesn’t a well-researched and authentic employment brand contribute not only to more efficient recruitment but ultimately to improved employee retention and even company profitability?” Yes, that seems to be the case. But in order for a company to realize those impacts most effectively, recruiting needs to be ready to back away from its perceptions about active and passive candidates; namely, that passive candidates are almost always superior to active candidates. That’s because if your brand effort does what it’s intended to do, many “passive” candidates will actively pursue your opportunities.

Hear me out.

At its most basic, a well-executed employment branding effort accomplishes two things:

  1. It makes potential candidates aware of a company’s employee value proposition in a way that will increase interest among the candidate set who would perform well within the company’s environment.
  2. It creates a lasting, positive impression among the desired candidate pool.

To state it more directly, a well-developed and appropriately executed employment branding effort should increase not only awareness but also interest among your company’s most ideal candidates. As a result, more individuals who would be a good fit — culturally as well as skills-wise — will actively seek employment with your organization.  In other words, an accurate, authentic, and well communicated employment brand effort will, by its very nature, convert some previously passive candidates to active candidates, candidates who directly choose to seek employment with your company without having to be further courted. Some will pursue your opportunities immediately. For others, your message will resonate at that right moment when they decide it’s time for them to change roles or organizations. But either way, your branding effort will, and should, help appropriate individuals self-select and become active candidates.

This is where the mindset about active and passive candidates needs to change as part of an employment brand implementation. If we agree that your branding efforts will convert passive candidates — individuals who up until this point were considered ideal candidates — to active candidates, and if we believe that these candidates change in no other way aside from deciding on their own, with the help of your employment brand effort, to apply (without you having to source and court them further), then it stands to reason that by not changing your mindset, by still acting on the belief that active candidates should be considered secondary in quality, you will bypass more and more exceptional candidates who would be a good fit for your organization.

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Not only that, but by failing to giving more credence to active candidates once you promote your employment brand correctly, you will fail to realize the efficiencies that your initiative should instill.

  1. By helping the right individuals choose to actively apply to your opportunities, you should, in theory, be able to spend less time (and money) hunting and more time assessing and following up.
  2. If, however, you continue to view all active candidates as inferior, you will by necessity overlook, consider as secondary, and/or possibly miss out on exceptional candidates who were passive by nature until your brand message “spoke to” them.

Not changing your mindset about passive candidates once you communicate your employment brand also implies that there is something wrong with individuals who would choose on their own to be part of your organization.

Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in. If you take the time to communicate your authentic employment brand proposition to the world, and then you actively discount any individual who is compelled to apply due to the message you convey, what does that say about your company? In other words, should an individual always have to play hard to get to be considered a quality candidate? Don’t you want to hire someone who not only has the talents and skills you seek but who also both understands what your company stands for as an employer and wants to be a part of it?

Employment branding continues to remain one of the most highly recommended efforts to improve not only the efficiency of a recruitment effort but also to enhance employee retention and ultimately to positively impact a company’s bottom line. If you make the investment, be sure to take the time to manage the critical change of mindset about active and passive candidates so that you can gain the most from such a vital initiative.

Megan Stanish, Vice President of Client Strategy for both Group1201 and AppVault, takes the success of her clients personally. A dedicated lifelong learner, Megan's career and experience span internal operations and business strategy, direct recruitment support, as well as the strategic development and implementation of full-scale recruitment process, employee engagement, recruitment technology and employment marketing solutions for a wide range of companies spanning many industries. Megan had the good fortune of becoming acquainted with Shawnee Irmen during Megan’s tenure at S2E Solutions, the recruitment advertising company that supports Golden Living. Megan earned her undergraduate degree in English from Georgetown University as well as an MBA from Emory University.


15 Comments on “Don’t Bother With Employment Branding

  1. Thanks, Megan. Recruiters SHOULD forget about employment branding- it’s to recruiting what marketing is to sales. Recruiters are here to quickly and effectively put quality butts in chairs, on-time and within budget, whether or not some real or hypothetical candidate thinks our company is great or not.


  2. Great article and really nails the point of why Recruiting should be involved in the branding aspect. Our entire messaging (which will hopefully be released soon with its first campaign) is singularly focused on driving passive candidates to our brand, and therefore, our company. The goal being that instead of me headhunting 24/7, those candidates will see the value proposition and come to me instead… but I’ll probably still be doing leadership headhunting 24/7. From a few small things we’ve done, we’ve already seen an increase in quality candidates from 1-3%. Hopefully that number will get up to around 5-7% in the first few months of the new year. Additionally, in order to reach your target effectively, you have to know what you do well from an employment perspective as well as what your competitors DONT do well.

    @Keith: For 3rd party recruiters, you’re right. For corporate recruiters, or more to the point, those who lead corporate recruiting for their firm… you’re wrong. Sure, the ultimate goal is a good butt in a seat, but how to get that good butt is always changing and branding is one of the multiple ways to get there.

  3. Keith, Brian and Scott – Thank you very much for weighing in on this. Clearly, I have a viewpoint on this subject, and I value hearing others’ perspectives.

    Brian – Thank you so much!

    Keith – I think Scott’s answer reflects how I would respond. I would also add that recruiting IS marketing in the sense that you are selling an individual on why he or she should consider the company or role in question (or, at times, why they should not). Ideally, that interplay between headhunting activity and employment brand influence makes the entire process more effective all around. But you may disagree!

    Scott – Thank you for offering your current experience as an example and also for that insight about differentiation. I’d be curious to know if your hopes/predictions about quality candidates play out as you expect! Best of luck.

  4. Thanks, Scott and Megan. If you’re a recruiter involved in the placement/hiring of contractors, or a large majority of corporate/contract recruiters, it’s fair to say: “If you have time to develop relationships with candidates, you don’t have enough reqs.”

    Until a potential applicant becomes an actual one (or can refer a qualified person), I have no need to communicate with them. Consequently, I don’t need to (nor want to) deal with people who MIGHT become interested in a job with our company 3, 6. 12, or more months down the road. Until that point (interest in a current job), marketing might be in order (but not by my recruiter-colleagues or me), and when they become actual, that’s when sales takes over and I/we will be involved.

    In that magical realm where strategy, abundant resources, and willingness exist, BUILDING A LONG-TERM TALENT PIPELINE IS A VERY GOOD IDEA, but most of my colleagues and I recruit in a land very far from there.


  5. “That’s because if your brand effort does what it’s intended to do, many “passive” candidates will actively pursue your opportunities.”

    But, but, but… Passive Candidates Are Better!

    This is something I’ve pointed out every time the malarkey about passive candidates and passive recruiting comes up; it’s the same damn population at different points in their careers. One is not inherently better than the other because the top performers in this world move fluidly through each population. As a marketing effort you want to engage both audiences all the time, but it’s ridiculous to claim one is inherently better because they’re passive. It’s also true that the passive recruiting route is more time and resource intensive, making it less productive but potentially as or more profitable, depending on the resultant hire, as active recruiting. So in the end, it’s a decision about ROI. You don’t put much effort in passively recruiting readily available populations of candidates; you do passively recruit when active recruiting can’t turn up the good candidates.

    Re Scott and Keith’s conversation, I agree with both of them. Keith, you are right on the practical level. But, I think it could be possible to incorporate the 3-12 months timeline candidates into more of a marketing effort, keeping it off the plates of the recruiters except in a coordination/consultation role until it’s time to engage the candidates for a real position that needs to be filled.

    A pipeline of candidates would be nice to have, however with the resources typically devoted to recruiting it’s not a realistic goal to maintain that for most corporate recruiting departments. However, since it’s generally accepted that 50% of marketing budgets are wasted anyway, potentially this function could fall to them. They’re the ones with the training for it anyway.

  6. Richard – Great perspective and ideas, thank you for weighing in. My favorite comment: “…the malarkey about passive candidates and passive recruiting comes up; it’s the same damn population at different points in their careers. One is not inherently better than the other because the top performers in this world move fluidly through each population.” I know that I might be shunned for saying so, but I agree very strongly.

  7. Thanks, Richard. Again, I agree it COULD be done, and it probably SHOULD be done, but in all likelihood it WON’T be done.

    IMHO< ERE and other recruiting forums are filled with loads of ideas tools, and strategies, which may or may not work, but usually require significant amounts of things most of us in recruiting don't have: time, money, buy-in from higher-ups, etc. Couldn't someone come up with practical solutions of a type like this: "If you can set aside an additional 30-60 minutes/week, you can improve THIS, or for *$2.44/hr you can get a virtual assistant to help you with your data entry, or you can improve the SOMETHING even if your staffing manager isn't interested". What I'm looking for are little minor improvements that will help us out here in the real world of recruiting. Maybe I could crowd-source these questions someplace…

    * I have one at this price, and she's doing work for meenow…

  8. Well, to put it into realistic perspective… I decided to formally brand our employment culture in November of last year. Just now are we at the point where we’re going to launch a new, fully branded website showing culture, etc. So its taken a full year to accomplish on the cheap and with limited time. More so, my first meeting when we decided to do it was with our Marketing Dept and they’re the ones putting it all together with our input on verbiage. Because I was able to show the data on declining applicant number COMING TO US, the buy in part was easy. Frankly, it was easy because I said we could basically do it for free (cost a couple hundred bucks in total). Yes, its a time suck, but time well spent.

    We haven’t officially launched it yet as we’re fixing multiple items, but it is live and you guys can check it out at if you’d like (its not connected to our corporate website yet). The plan is to start there. Then we’ll brand social media campaigns on sites that work (i.e. NOT twitter). I’ve created a list of over 1,000 competitor employees that we’ll be sending branded messaging to. Finally, we’ll be having a video competition next year in the company. Each office will create a video of their own unique culture within the office. We’ll post those short movies in various outlets.

    So it takes time, but I’m thrilled to finally being at the point where we can release it to the masses with actual strategy behind it. I can pick up the phone all day long, but the goal is to have a candidate pick up the phone and call us… hopefully.

    @Kieth: To your earlier comment, we hire people all the time where we started the conversation 3-12 months prior. Maybe its unique to our industry, but senior or executive level hiring rarely happens in a few weeks. We have to slowly build a relationship with that person and have them see for themselves over time that we’re a better option for them.

  9. Thanks, Scott. You’re fortunate that you have the luxury of slowly building relationships with potential candidates. You mention “time” (both to plan and to act) and you have the willingness/support of superiors to try something new. Many (perhaps most) recruiters have neither.

    To restate my point: what you suggest to do is VERY SENSIBLE, and I’d guess that a large number of companies that have the ingredients (mentioned above) are already doing it or at least considering it. Most companies who SHOULD do this (as I said, I think it’s very sensible) CAN’T or WON’T. I also think there are probably few functional companies in 2013 who are so isolated they haven’t heard of something like this by now…



    * You mentioned it took A FULL YEAR.

  10. I’d disagree on that one, Keith. There are many companies that haven’t heard of it. Remember, most companies are small to medium sized, many privately owned by people who aren’t steeping themselves in the lore of recruiting to say the least. At most they read an article by chance and think it’s a great idea, but don’t move on it. Or, do move on it not realizing that their demands for right now will be the opportunity cost for this branding/pipeline unless they invest in some more resources to keep both going. And the utility of doing so for such companies is arguable, since they simply don’t have much opportunity to sell. That would not necessarily be a jab to their culture, they may have great workplaces and offer competitive salaries, benefits, and have some good opportunities. But the scaling could be wrong. They could spend time and money developing a great pipeline of engaged engineers ready and willing to come and work for them, and then confront the reality that they only hire one or two engineers a year. Will the pipeline help satisfy that need? Likely so. Will it do so in the most economical or efficient way? Not necessarily so. Analogously, it could be a huge outlay to develop a pipeline, or plumbing if you will, to provide a massive stream of clean water to a house where only a glass of water is necessary every now and then. When in reality they could have just walked to the nearby stream and dunked their glass.

    That’s a likely scenario for a good company. Most companies are average, and it really comes down to what are they selling, or able to sell? And then for the below average companies, it’s even more problematic. If you spend a lot of time and money advertising a high quality product and buyers eventually realize you’re not being honest, the market can and does weed that out over time. I’d say the more prominent the product is talked up, the bigger discrepancy between what was sold and delivered would lead to an ever bigger motivation for each individual consumer to go out and rate the product badly.

    If that product is your employment brand, you’ve got a serious problem. And if you try and tamp it down, you get the Streisand Effect to deal with. And most companies, not willing to change or accept the idea that there are better ways of doing things, will simply try and tamp down on the negative reviews, as opposed to nullifying them by simply offering a better product than before.

    I had a manager once with high turnover in his area, every exist interview mentioned his weekly meetings as the primary reason people were leaving. Those meetings almost had him going off the rails, screaming at the top of his lungs, professionally demeaning people, personally insulting them, and even threatening at times. This manager couldn’t be fired because he was in good with ownership. They are the decision makers and until the issue bit them in the ass they weren’t inclined to act, and his department got results. At high cost, but results none the less. When informed that the majority of his turnover was due to his literally disgusting and reprehensible behavior, did he change? Nope, he doubled down and decided what his employees needed was even more of it.

    I agree Ere and other such sites are full of good ideas and tools. The practical angle you bring up is very relevant. But more prominent in my mind is the issue of assuming people are rational in the colloquial sense of the word. Most people aren’t rational. And many companies are highly political. And the tendency of human beings is to keep on with their behaviors until some major consequence surfaces and they REALLY feel the pain of it. And even then many don’t change their behaviors. It’s the conflict between what Should Be, and how things would be in some ideal world, vs they way things are and how people behave in reality.

    Which is why I liked this article, especially the opening. Passive candidates will become active if you successfully brand your company, so you’d better take your preconceptions and ditch them quick. It started off by addressing the inherently irrational and unfounded idea that ‘passive’ is ‘better’ for some magical reason.

  11. Thanks, Richard. I can accept the possibility that many SMBs in the US can be far more isolated from current trends and events than I think they are. I’d hope that they wouldn’t try to do some massive “reinventing the wheel”-type of recruiting project without checking around to its feasibility and appropriateness to them, but then I’m constantly amazed by companies’ capacity to do foolish wasteful, and unnecessary things.

    I disagree that mediocre product performance will necessarily undue marketing’s efforts. Example: Microsoft in the 80s and 90s.

    As far as “rationality” is concerned: a assume a basic level in ordinary interpersonal interaction- if I wave hello to someone I know, I assume they won’t rush over and try to c kill me. However, I’m also “Mr. GAFIS Principles” where I strongly believe that a large number of workaday decisions are made based on Greed, Arrogance, Fear, Ignorance/Incompetence, or Stupidity of the decision makers, just like your manager and his superiors.

    As far as “branding” is concerned: while it might be in our immediate interests to do so, do we really want to hire people naïve, ignorant, or stupid enough that they believe non-verifiable information from an organizational (corporate) website or communication? I learned not to believe commercials and ads when I was a young kid, and that’s what I think branding efforts are: commercials and ads of one sort or another. I think we need a Consumer’s Union” for companies- rating them the way the way CU rates products. (I mistakenly hoped that Glass Door would be like this, but more’s the fool, me.)


  12. “I’d hope that they wouldn’t try to do some
    massive “reinventing the wheel”-type of recruiting project without checking around to its feasibility and appropriateness to them, but then I’m constantly amazed by companies’ capacity to do foolish wasteful, and unnecessary things.”

    You likely wouldn’t be surprised. The main driver I’ve found is lack of understanding of opportunity cost. Most small business owners think they can just pile endless work on people and they’ll get it done with no regard to anything resembling a work-life balance, up to and including the need to sleep. Most owners/managers simply don’t look at such issues in basic terms, as, “How much time/effort will project x take initially and on a continuing basis.” Interestingly enough, that’s the primary reason small to medium sized companies that rely a lot on Excel end up with these unwieldy spreadsheets that no one understands and eventually end up unused. It makes sense initially to track or manage this or that using a simple spreadsheet, but as the amount of data in there grows the need to maintain it, cross reference it to other data points, to keep the entry process regular, and to occasionally audit it to make sure it’s up to date, become so daunting that no one wants to do it, or even can do it if a key person with all the necessary knowledge is lost. Often it’s the administrative/data entry aspect of such projects that weighs people down. At my current position it was literally, and seriously, suggested initially that we use Excel for our ATS. Track upwards of 30000 people, where they worked dates and duties and all, as well as contact information and interview schedules, in Excel. It took several months to dissuade them of this idea and few if anyone seemed to grasp what a massive undertaking, not to mention waste of time, that it would be just in data entry. The best line I heard was, “Just make a template and start adding the data in…” No support was envisioned in terms of data entry.

    “I disagree that mediocre product performance will necessarily undue marketing’s efforts. Example: Microsoft in the 80s and 90s.”

    I would disagree. It can take time, the illusion can be maintained for a while. But in this day and age information does flow and it’s less and less controllable. If you run a crappy company, people will eventually learn of it and it will affect your pool of available candidates to varying degrees. I’m aware of one company that has severe difficulty hiring for their plant because word has gotten out in that area; they pay crap and treat their employees badly, and better jobs can be gotten at the fast food places right down the road. It’s only a matter of time before word gets out these days. Glassdoor is certainly not perfect, but there are a ton of companies struggling with their reviews on there and I know for a fact it has hindered hiring for some of them. The internet savvy generation is coming into the workforce.

    It’s hard to conceive for people like us who remember a time when it didn’t exist, but there’s a whole generation of people for whom the internet, and the constant flow of information it enables, has always been there, always been a part of their reality. We all have Google for brains now, and these people are simply not aware of a reality in which they’re ‘not allowed’ to ask certain questions or access certain information. As the boomers retire and this newer generation of people essentially becomes the available workforce, there’s going to be a lot of blowback against companies that are secretive and/or run poorly from an employee perspective. They won’t be able to control the message as they have in the past. The government is already learning this, corporations aren’t far behind.

  13. @ Richard:
    Thank you. Re: your current/former company- all I can say is “Against stupidity, the gods themselves avail in vain.”

    “I disagree that mediocre product performance will necessarily undue marketing’s efforts. Example: Microsoft in the 80s and 90s.”
    I would disagree. It can take time, the illusion can be maintained for a while.
    “FOR A WHILE” is the key- we live/work increasingly in an “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone, let’s do the deal!” world.
    If I lead an (initially) incredibly successful marketing campaign that gives me a huge bonus with a promotion and leads me to being headhunted away for an even better job in 18 months, and the thing implodes and reveals my former company to be very misleading in 24 months, well looks like “God’s in his Kingdom and all’s right with the world”. To update Lincoln: “You can fool enough of the people long enough of the time to end up quite well.”


    Keith “Uses Too Many Sayings” Halperin

  14. ““FOR A WHILE” is the key- we live/work increasingly in an “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone, let’s do the deal!” world.
    If I lead an (initially) incredibly successful marketing campaign…”

    I agree somewhat, but I think you’re falling in to a purple squirrel trap. CEOs and higher ups can and always will be able to cover their own asses. However, it’s the rank and file people that make up the bulk of all orders raised and filled when it comes to new positions. Currently and more so in the future, they will be less likely to pursue opportunities at companies with poor reputations as employers.

    It’s not about these one-off higher level people managing to move from company to company that I’m talking about, it’s the ever increasing stream of information the potential rank and file employees of (insert company name) have access to about that company specifically, and whether or not they’d want to work there. As mentioned before, Glassdoor is imperfect, but I’m more than aware of the effect it can have on hiring. That trend is only likely to continue. Trying to get information off the internet is like trying to remove pee from a pool with a spoon. It just doesn’t work.

    I think companies will have to pay way more attention to their branding, but they will also have less control over that branding and actually have to live up to their own hype or watch their candidate pool dwindle. It’ll be as hard to stop the spread of this kind of information as it is to stop piracy of music and movies. That industry is fairly powerful and well funded, and still, with minimal effort, damn near any movie or album or song you want is yours for the taking despite their efforts to stop piracy. The industry itself is already massively changed because of it.

    I feel the same will happen in employment because it’s such a huge part of people’s lives, where they work, that the demand for honest ratings is there. It just has to be met better than it has been to date. But the efforts to do so are there. As an idea, it’s out there. It’s only a matter of time before it gains steam due to this or that innovator figuring out a better way to do it.

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