Employer Branding: Don’t Get Taken in By the Waffle

bpEvery few years our business lexicon gets invaded by a new cliche. Management speak like “big data” and “social hiring” … vague terms that no one can really define but are liberally trotted out typically by vendors, consultants, and conference speakers trying to impress you. The king of the management cliches at present and one that makes my skin crawl is employer branding. There. I said it — well wrote it — but I was cringing when I did.

If you ever hear someone wittering on about employer branding I dare you to interrupt them and say, “define employer branding.”

I bet most won’t give you a very good definition and will be suitably aghast that you even questioned one of recruitment’s current sacred cows, but challenge it you must. Prick the pomposity bubble that we get sucked into. I read one article recently that urged all companies to create a “compelling employer value proposition.” There were few details on what that meant or how to implement it. In short it was just waffle. Companies spend fortunes and waste thousands of hours (I know, I was part of one) designing internal value propositions to allow company recruiters to become “front-line brand ambassadors.” This is nonsense. Stop wasting your time and money.

Let’s examine what exactly people are referring to when they talk about employer branding. Let’s cut through the waffle and look at some specifics that you can actually do to boost your organization’s perception among job seekers.

Wikipedia probably has the best definition of what an employer brand is:

“Employer brand denotes an organization’s reputation as an employer.” Therefore by extension, employer branding is the proactive process of using marketing techniques to communicate a perception of your company as a great place to work among current and prospective employees.

The overpaid and not-very-analytical consultant from Typical Vendor Inc. will tell you that its software, training programs, and social media this that and the other will dramatically improve your public image as a great place to work. Yes and no. Don’t for a moment buy into the idea that implementing some of its ideas will suddenly create a tsunami of applications or that you will be batting away a flood of unbelievably talented people begging to work at your company. Sorry, ain’t gonna happen. Not even close.

Now all these vendors don’t want me to say this, particularly if you’re about to spend stack loads with them, but the simple fact is this:

Your employer brand is 95 percent determined by the wider perception of your company among the general public. Google receives tens of thousands of applications every month for six reasons:

  1. It has lots of jobs to fill
  2. It is very profitable and still growing quickly which means tasty salaries and stock options
  3. Working for Google looks damn good on your resume, as it’s very tough to get in
  4. Prospective employees will know they will be involved in cutting-edge work, as Google is at the forefront of many industries
  5. Social kudos: “I work at Google.” Nothing more needs to be said
  6. It’s perceived to be a fun, innovative place to work

Same with Apple, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Facebook, and many others. Of those six points, points three and four are probably the most powerful. To quote Steve Jobs when tempting John Sculley to join Apple, ”Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

Only a very small percentage of candidates applying to Apple will have done so on the back of any employer branding work conducted by HR. Much more likely, the driving force will be a wider perception of Apple as a great place to work from articles in newspapers, from news reports seen about a new product launch, and most crucially of all, by the public’s positive interaction directly with Apple products.

Now if you trotted down the street and asked Jo Public if he/she thought Apple, Google, or Facebook was a great place to work, they would probably say yes. These companies have vast PR operations that can pick and choose the media outlets they let in to film/write about them. Pictures of twenty-somethings skateboarding to the free cafeteria where the Michelin-starred chef has just started serving, being careful to not crash into the people playing table tennis in the hallway … we’ve all seen it on the news. This is employer branding that money just can’t buy. These media pieces aren’t focusing on recruitment. They just make the company look like a pretty cool employer, and cool companies don’t struggle to attract people.

For the average company with very limited media coverage (and by average I include even very big firms), you can spend hundreds of hours creating a set of internal values you may well live and breathe by. You can spend fortunes offering your staff paid leave to work on voluntary projects. You can spend thousands on a glitzy corporate video placed on your careers section and it is still not going to make a huge difference. All the employer branding work in the world couldn’t compensate for the PR disaster that followed BP’s recent oil spill. In contrast, the PR that Apple received when launching the iPhone or iPad was infinitely more powerful than anything the head of employer branding could do (no idea if they have such a person, but you get the gist).

My point is this: don’t believe the hype that is peddled by employee branding consultants. Even the most fantastic program you develop will make only a marginal difference. If you want people queuing up to work for you then you need people queuing for your products. Very few firms can generate the kind of PR buzz that Apple can.

So if you’re not one of these media darlings, can you portray yourself as a great place to work? Yes.

Can you use conventional marketing techniques to make more people aware that you are a great employer to work for who might not otherwise ever come across you?

Yes again.

Will that make a huge difference to either the volume or quality of applicants you receive?

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A bit, but not much.

The harsh reality is this: for the vast majority of companies you can do all the employer branding work you like and it will make only a very small difference in the number of people applying to you but (and this is the good bit) you can convert more people who come to your website from “just browsing” to “yeah, I really like the look of this company. I want to join.”

You’re unlikely to get more people visiting your careers site, but you can increase your application-to-visits ratio … which is generally a good thing. You do this by creating a top-quality careers portal, and that’s where your employer branding comes in:

  • Give employees time off to do fully paid charity work and highlight it on your careers page

  • Make a corporate recruitment video

  • Spruce up your careers pages with innovative content: “Five reasons to join us”

  • Details all the company social/sports stuff your staff do

  • List interviews with happy new recruits

  • Use Twitter and other social media to tell everyone what your employees do both in and out of work

  • Incentivize your staff to blog about what they do at the company. “Most number of retweets wins a BMW,” etc., etc.

Here are some examples of companies who’ve done a great job with their careers pages.

If you want to improve your employer brand, copy what these firms have done.

But if you really want to attract more and better quality applicants you really need do just two things, and both are related to the first touch point a prospective applicant will have with your company: the job ad.

First, write a phenomenal job ad that sells the company and the role, and:

  • portrays your company as a leader in its field

  • tells people how fast your are growing, and

  • that you make money, and lots of it

  • stresses that anyone you recruit will have access to a mass of cool stuff from free meals, flexible hours, free child care, in-house sports facilities, or discounts to nearby gyms, etc.

  • stresses the opportunities for rapid promotion and variety of future roles available

  • sells the job as genuinely interesting and cutting-edge work with great people

Then drive them to your newly designed careers site which is packed full of cool stuff to make the employee go “Wow, this really is an exciting place to work.”

Next, pay a great salary. Great sports stars get paid a great deal to join a team for a reason: they’re the best. You want the best, you’re going to have to match the rhetoric with a market busting package.

But there’s one thing that many companies would do well to remember. No amount of employer branding, funky careers sites, or expensive PR will ever make a person want to work for you if they’ve used your product or service and had a bad experience. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been left disappointed by a product or inefficient member of staff. Would I work for a company that produces awful products and employees? Not a chance.

So the ultimate employer branding is very simple. Make a great product or service that people love and admire and then they might, just might, want to work for you.

Nick Leigh-Morgan is the CEO and founder of iKrut, the world's first free enterprise-level applicant tracking system. He has more than 18 years experience in the recruiting industry, covering staffing firms, direct employers, and now web-based recruitment software. You can view iKrut at www.ikrut.com.


9 Comments on “Employer Branding: Don’t Get Taken in By the Waffle

  1. I couldn’t agree more with Nick’s basic premise here, and have warned in my own blog of the dangers of buying into HR “Buzzwords” (http://tinyurl.com/HRbuzz)…one of the things he doesn’t talk about, though, and one of the easiest to actually implement, is to let your candidates know the outcome of their application! Whether they are even considered or just screened out, a consistent pattern of thanking them for applying and letting them know how it worked out will go a long way toward spreading the word that you’re a business that cares! If you don’t have an easy way to accomplish this, you need to get one–and they don’t have to be expensive.

  2. It is interesting to note how self-styled authors can form opinions despite their limited knowledge on a subject. I understand this is essentially a Recruiters’ forum, but can’t help commenting that Employer Branding does not serve Recruitment marketing only i.e. it has both outside-in and inside-out dimensions. More than ever Employee Value Proposition today is driving internal employee engagement ( read ‘pride’, ‘advocacy’, ‘loyalty’ ) as much as it is being used to determine and attract ‘target profile’ of prospective employees. Also readers may note that Employer Brand and Customer Brand are two different entities though they should be supportive of each other.

  3. Thanks, Nick and Everybody:

    IMHO, the point of these types of buzzwords like “employer branding,” “talent communities,” “employee engagement,” “social recruiting,” etc., is a very useful one. It helps redistribute corporate recruiting funds otherwise used on bad, proven *things that would actually help put quality butts in chairs on-time and within budget right now (aka: “Recruiting”) into the hands of slick hucksters with high-level connections ready to sell the latest recruiting snake oil or “magic bullet” to desperate and not-yet insolvent recruiters and their superiors who fail to recognize that in most cases they are futilely “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” of their companies’ ill-conceived, over-blown, grossly-dysfunctional hiring practices. Who can be opposed to folks making a dollar or two off someone else’s greed, arrogance, fear, ignorance/incompetence, or stupidity (GAFIS)? If we didn’t have these hucksters telling our higher-ups what to learn about, do, and buy: our higher-ups might have to ask US- the people who do the actual work and can give very good and clear ideas on what would make our own jobs better, faster, easier, and cheaper. That would never do.

    Happy Friday and Happy New Year, Cruitaz!

    Keith “King of the Overly Long, Run-On Sentence” Halperin

    * Like an efficiently run and managed Employee Referral Program or a streamlined, user-friendly, and quick application and interview process

  4. Akhilesh: It is indeed unfortunate that these “self-styled authors can form opinions despite their limited knowledge on a subject.”

    In the future we will attempt to convert to your opinions before we comment on this “recruiters forum.”

    As an aside, I can only say that if I EVER wrote anything of any value here at ERE, it was because I spoke the truth as I saw it and kept away from corporate speak nonsense.

    I can only say that I have read your comment 3 times, which is 2 times more than I usually read anything and I have no idea what you are saying, can’t figure out your point, fail to see the metrics that support your argument or find the bio you have that speaks to the glib superiority you possess that makes the rest of us here at ERE the hacks you profess us to be.

    I am sorry we have disappointed you.

    Warmest regards,

    Howard Adamsky

  5. Well-said, Howard…I was (temporarily) struck speechless by the implicit arrogance in the Akhilesh comments. As far as self-styled, my list of peer-reviewed publications goes back to 1971, I’ve served as keynote and invited speaker nationally and internationally over 100 times, yada, yada. My opinions have been formed by real-world successes and failures over 40 years in the business world…perhaps Akhilesh was having a bad day, in which case I hope he’s feeling better, now.

  6. I can agree Akhilesh opened his comment in quite a rude way, but I feel “arrogance” could have something in common with this article as well, where an entire industry (EB consultancy and services, made of creative agencies, researcher and freelance) is compared to rubbish.
    A good employer branding strategy could help companies (expecially companies not so popular as the mentioned names are) to spread his projects, values and mission – internally and esternally, to employees and potential – with the results to attract and retain good people not just for what it has done but for what it is planning also. And I do not think it is ALSO a question of money…first because companies are not always looking for the BEST talent.
    Talking about metrics I cannot appreciate which metrics are supposed to be generated adopting the strategy Nick told about. I do not think investment in that area will be successfully linked to time-to-hire, cost-per-applicant/hire, turnover or other in order to better address the future investments.

    I hope I gave Nick and other people agreeing with the topics of the artcles a starting point to think about.

    PS: I absolutely agree about inflaction of the term Employer Branding in HR environment.

  7. As a practitioner of employer brand and employee communications, I believe – and know – that a stronger employer brand increases employee engagement which not only makes people more productive, it helps to retain them longer. A stronger employer brand also improves attraction and hiring performance: you’ll find and “close” candidates easier and faster if you are communicating a strong employer brand.

    I know that many on the corporate side are besieged by people like me, consultants, and I’m sorry for that. All I can say is that I’m a sincere, honest guy who is passionate about what I do. Employer branding isn’t for everyone and I get it. But I all I ask is that we can have respectful conversations.

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