The answer to that question is the essence of employment branding, which I define simply as the amount of attractiveness an organization has to an average candidate.
Try this experiment: ask five of your family members or friends to tell you what they think about working for X, and name a few organizations, including the one you work for. My bet is that they will not have a very clear idea about whether any of them would be good or bad. They may have an opinion about the product or service, but not about working there.
When I ask people about working for a particular organization, the answer I usually get is that they have no idea whether it would be a positive or a negative experience. In other words, most organizations have no employment brand at all.
A very few firms have a negative employment brand, probably because of recent media coverage (e.g. General Motors or Toyota) but which quickly fades into neutral territory. Another few enjoy a very positive brand image also because of media coverage or product excellence (e.g. Apple or Google) and which can be short lived as well.
The organizations that have developed and maintained an enduringly positive employment brand over several years can be counted on one hand. From a global perspective they include such firms as IBM, Intel, Disney, KPMG, Deloitte, and Microsoft. Other organizations may have local appeal or appeal to particular career segments , but probably lack broad, global strength.
So what makes a strong employment brand? Here are a few elements, but I would love your perspectives and thoughts to add depth to my thinking.
First of all, the firms with the strongest employment brand have been around for a while. None of them could be called a startup, nor have they suddenly become popular. For example, I have not included Google in my short list because it has not demonstrated whether it will maintain its promises to employees over periods of growth and recession. It may eventually join the ranks of the few. Time will tell.
Hewlett-Packard lost its strong employment brand as it went through mergers, layoffs, and many changes of leadership. It has now stabilized and may be rebuilding a brand that was at the top of list throughout the 1980s.
So as we have seen, brand is ultimately built on promises — promises given and fulfilled over time, and even when times are bad. Apple promises to deliver beautifully designed, almost flawless products. Coke promises to make you feel good. And as much as organizations fulfill their promises, they become stronger as brands.
IBM is a classic example. Its employment brand was built on at least three promises: (1) long-term employment maintained even during recessions; (2) continuous personal development; and (3) respectful treatment as an individual.
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Over the years some of these have wavered, but for the most part it has continuously hired, trained, retrained, promoted, and retained the best people it could. Even those who have been laid off have been treated respectfully and given decent separation packages — even before that was in vogue.
Having a strong brand does not mean just offering lots of perks. Prospective employees understand that perks can come and go as times change. A few years ago internal child care was the rage, but now it is less important, and there is more of a focus is on fitness centers. Free food, entertainment, and other such benefits are nice but will not fundamentally change the impression candidates have of you.
Much more important than how many perks is whether the perks enhance your personal life or add to a sense of excitement or personal fulfillment. Google’s best perk is offering time off for charitable work. An employee can do something good for their community and themselves. Sending volunteers to Haiti or tutoring school children are better benefits than dry cleaning services or gourmet meal preparation.
One of the most powerful brand builders is consistency. Does your firm offer a few things all the time, and has it picked a few areas where there is unwavering support? IBM’s philosophy and practice of developing employees has been a hallmark. Many are hired directly from college with no experience and no strong career goals. IBM manages to help employees find the career that most engages them and that returns the most to IBM. There are many internal training schools, opportunities to become technically stronger or become a manager. Employees can leave one career and start another all without leaving.
This has translated into a strong brand message: we will help you be whatever you want to be. And IBM has maintained this message for decades.
Creating an Employment Brand
Given all the money and time spent on building employment brands, not much real progress is evident. Some firms have earned awards such as a “Best Place to Work” award, which may help them get some candidate attention. A few organizations consciously embark on an employment branding strategy, but more often the brand is the outcome of decisions and policies enacted by leadership over time.
But to penetrate the minds of most potential candidates takes a focused effort, following the steps I have listed, executed over several years. Perks, short-term campaigns, and social media pages can help, but will not replace the hard work required to put in place an enduring employment brand.