The True Power of a Magnetic Employer Brand

Q: Is all this talk about employer branding just the latest in a long line of management fads? A: It depends. Q: Doesn’t it really just boil down to creating a better recruiting sales pitch? A: No. Q: Does it really make a difference in your ability to attract talent? A: Absolutely. Whether or not employer branding becomes just another flavor-of-the-month fad depends in large part on whether it is seen as a technique for luring talented people through the door, or whether it is seen as a comprehensive, integrated approach to becoming an employer of choice and then communicating this in a compelling way. Companies who get this are exponentially more effective at recruiting talent. Their employer brand acts like a powerful talent magnet. Having this kind of an employer brand is like the organizational equivalent of having a magnetic personality. Who you are draws others to you. Having a magnetic employer brand draws the best of the best to you. The following hypothetical example illustrates the power of a magnetic employer brand. Imagine that at the next job fair your organization’s recruiting booth is staffed not by trained recruiters, but by a random selection of your employees. As job hunters stop to talk with your employees, would they think, “Wow, I’d like to work with these people!” and, “This is the kind of company I’ve been looking for!”? Or would they escape as quickly as possible, hurrying off to the next booth? Would what your employees said, and who they were as people, act as a talent magnet or a talent repellent? When I present this scenario to groups of managers and HR professionals, some blanch at this possibility, some squirm, and some smile confidently. If your response falls into the first two categories, you know you don’t have a magnetic employer brand. I see this scenario as a litmus test for whether or not you have a magnetic employer brand, because it illustrates the defining characteristics and benefits of a powerful employer brand. The Power of A Magnetic Employer Brand You know you have a magnetic employer brand when your reputation in the marketplace and the labor market is such that you don’t have to spend your time trying to convince people why they should work for you. People already know what a great company you are both in the marketplace and as an employer. At our hypothetical job fair, if your organization has a magnetic employer brand, the most talented prospects will make a beeline for your booth. Unlike organizations who have either a poor reputation or who haven’t differentiated themselves, your conversation doesn’t need to be a sales pitch. Your Recruiting Power Increases Exponentially When you have a magnetic employer brand, recruiting isn’t limited by the size and budget of your recruiting department. Instead you turn your whole workforce into a tribe of headhunters. I believe this is the most under-recognized benefit of creating a compelling employer brand: it unleashes the recruiting potential lying dormant in your workforce. Although to some extent monetary rewards will motivate employees to refer friends and colleagues, they only become evangelical in spreading the word when they feel passionate about their employer. Think about your behavior as a customer. You’re far more likely to tell others about your customer service experience if you were “wowed” than if you were simply satisfied. First, if your experience was merely acceptable, there’s no interesting story to tell; there’s nothing to talk about. Second, when you’re treated to exceptional service, you want others to experience it too. Similarly, employees are far more likely to tell others about their employer if they’re wowed by a work experience far superior to any other they’ve had. This is why the foundation of a great magnetic employer brand is delivering an exceptional work experience. If you don’t have that, your employees have nothing good to talk about and no sincere desire to bring others into the fold. Your Employees Have a Coherent, Compelling Message To Spread A strong brand requires coherency in the message. Good brand managers carefully scrutinize the various messages, associations, and experiences their brand delivers to make sure they don’t send conflicting messages. For instance, if Coca-Cola started emphasizing the health benefits of drinking plenty of fluids and how Coca Cola helps you do that, such a campaign would confuse and weaken the brand message they’ve invested in over the years: the message that people should buy Coke because it’s a fun, tasty beverage, because it’s “the real thing.” When you have a magnetic employer brand, everyone in your organization is “on message” because they know what you’re about, why you’re great, and the stories that convey this message. This is one of the reasons why it is so important for employees to have a big-picture view of your organization. To be effective recruiters, they need to be able to tell others about your organization’s mission, vision, and distinctive values. This doesn’t happen by accident. Southwest Airlines is a great example of a company that has consciously communicated over the years to employees about who they are and why they’re a great company. Not only does it inspire employees and strengthen their culture ó and therefore their employer brand ó it helps employees do a better job telling others about why Southwest is such a great employer. You Unleash the Brand Building Power of Story-Telling Great brands are a collage of great stories, stories about experiences people have had with that brand. Companies with a strong employer brand have a set of defining stories that capture the essence of who they are and what they are like as an employer. For instance, one of the defining stories about Tom’s of Maine as an employer involves a frontline worker who came up with an innovative packaging idea. This Kennebunk, Maine producer of all natural personal care and health products had an item that was languishing on retail shelves. Employees were alerted to the dilemma. A frontline worker presented the marketing department with a packaging design idea that enabled them to provide more information about the product’s benefits, use less packaging (an important Tom’s of Maine value), give the consumer more product for the same cost (reflecting a commitment to providing value to the customer), and use less shelf space per package (critical in retail). The result? Sales doubled. This story tells a lot about who the company is and how employees are perceived. It is also far more memorable ó and believable ó than simply saying, “We value our employees.” By collecting and sharing stories that capture what’s great about your organization, you enable your employees to communicate to others in a more compelling way, thus increasing the recruiting power of your workforce. Your Employees Themselves Become Talent Magnets When you have a strong employer brand, your employees are your best recruiters, not only because they tell great stories about your organization, but because they also embody your company’s unique spirit and value-set. They themselves become walking, talking talent magnets. They become brand and culture strengthening forces, because they attract people who resonate with your organization’s vision, values, and culture. Employees become brand messengers by experiencing your employer brand in action. They absorb it experientially by working in an environment where your vision, values, and culture are reflected in everyday work life. They also learn it overtly, through the telling and retelling of employer brand defining stories in orientation, training programs, and coaching interactions. They also learn it overtly when your mission, vision, and values become an explicit part of making operational, customer service, and marketing decisions. Having a workforce that embodies your brand also comes from holding people accountable for delivering on your employer brand promises. Without this conscious effort at strengthening your culture ó and therefore your employer brand ó you will have some employees who are inspiring messengers, some who leave no impact, and others who are talent repellents. As mentioned previously, lack of coherency and consistency weakens an employer brand. Just as hearing conflicting messages weakens a brand, so does encountering brand representatives who demonstrate conflicting ways of being. It would be like the Ritz Carlton allowing some of their hotels to be staffed by morose, self-absorbed people. It wouldn’t take many customer interactions with these employees to damage their brand. Creating an environment that elicits brand strengthening behavior in employees doesn’t happen by accident. It requires ongoing communication, coaching, training, and accountability. You Create a Self-Reinforcing Talent Magnet Success Cycle When you have a magnetic employer brand, your cachet attracts “A” employees ó the kind of people other “A” employees want to work with. Thus, your employer brand, recruiting process, and culture create a self-reinforcing talent magnet success cycle that continually increases your ability to attract and retain the best employees. “A” employees are also more likely to know other “A” employees, further increasing the recruiting power of your employee referral program. Not only does this give you a huge competitive advantage, it also makes your managers’ lives easier. Because you have a higher quality talent pool to draw from, you can “hire hard” and “manage easy.” Rather than taking any warm body that slouches through the door and then micromanaging them to keep them from wreaking havoc, you can afford to be rigorous in your hiring process and then give your employees room to move. Such self-motivated, low-maintenance employees are possible if you have a strong employer brand. You Can’t Have the Benefits Without the Foundation If you want to enjoy the recruiting power of a magnetic employer brand, if you want your employees to be rabid recruiters, you need to deliver on your employer brand promise. As you can see from the above benefits of a magnetic employer brand, they’re all predicated on delivering a great work experience. This is where many, if not most, organizations drop the ball. They think of employer branding as the process of creating a better sales pitch. Developing a magnetic employer brand is far more than just making sure your ads, radio spots, Internet postings, and recruiting booth presentations work synergistically. It’s far more than a marketing makeover. If you don’t actually do the great things you say about your company, you don’t have a brand, you have a recipe for high turnover. Thus, creating a magnetic employer brand requires that your management team look honestly at themselves and your organization’s daily operations and ask, “Do we really deliver a great work experience, or even a good one?” It requires asking this question not only in a self-reflective way, but more importantly, asking your employees. I believe, based on my experience conducting employee focus groups, that many of the day-to-day experiences that drive a wedge between employees and management go unnoticed by management because employees don’t speak up. They remain silent because they don’t want to be seen as a whiner or get the dreaded label of “not being a team player.” So instead, they just grin and bear it, while growing increasingly more disengaged ó and becoming increasingly less likely to refer someone for employment. To counteract this, you need to put in place processes that invite employee feedback and communicate that giving “customer feedback” to management is appreciated and important. The First Step Toward Unleashing The Power of Your Magnetic Employer Brand If you do the work required to develop a magnetic employer brand, you will dramatically increase your ability to recruit talented people, both because you’re able to attract them (rather than always having to sell to them), and because you unleash the recruiting power of your workforce. Developing such a powerful brand requires more ó far more ó than crafting a great image. It requires that you do the hard work it takes to create a great work experience. If you are willing to do that, you get to enjoy the tremendous recruiting power a magnetic employer brand will provide you.

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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 david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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