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In the brand scheme of things
Print – Issue 165 | Article of the Week

The concept of employer brand management was introduced by Simon Barrow and his team nearly thirty years ago. Much has changed since then and, for us today, it seems less a revelation and more a statement of the patently obvious – the idea that a company should consider reputation as an employer, and articulate value proposition – is surely as primal as the discovery of fire.


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The concept of employer brand management was introduced by Simon Barrow and his team in People in Business nearly thirty years ago. Much has changed since then and, for us today, it seems less a revelation and more a statement of the patently obvious – the very idea that a company should consider reputation as an employer, and articulate value proposition – is surely as primal as the discovery of fire.

Article by Stephen Duncan, Head of Employee Engagement, EMEA – Weber Shandwick & Claire Jones, Associate Director, Employee Engagement – Weber Shandwick

Since the mid-1990s when employer branding was a new theory, whole new industries have emerged and others have disappeared. A war for talent has been declared with no sign of a ceasefire any time soon. The pace of change inside organisations has never been faster, driven by the transformative power of tech and digital. New generations have entered the workforce with different needs and expectations to those that came before, and now we worry about the impact of artificial intelligence, automation, and Brexit on all our careers. So what does this all mean for the way that we think about employer brands? How do we need to evolve the brand to continue serving businesses in the future? There are four trends to consider to make their employer brands resilient for the future. It’s impossible to ring-fence an organisation’s reputation as an employer from other aspects of its reputation. Increasingly the kind of employer you are significantly impacts the way that shareholders, customers and regulators view your business. Then there is the media bot just the traditional platforms that are fuelled by stories illustrating how the behaviour of CEOs, toxic cultures, zero-hours contracts sexual harassment, and pay inequality can shape people’s perceptions of your business. And now of course there is social media where everyone has a voice, a story and an opinion.

“Rather than thinking about a company having a singular employer brand, the time has come to think about organisations managing a “house of employer brands”

We are all familiar with organisations such as Patagonia, Southwest Airlines, Pret-a-Manger, Lululemon or Mars, which have used their reputation as an employer as a significant driver of their overall perception. Notably, McDonalds has positively impacted with employee development and training to lose the negative association with ‘the Mcjob’. So there is plenty of evidence that strong employer brand helps protect organisations from employee related reputational risk. But it’s important that the employer brand is properly integrated with other aspects of an organisation’s reputation and brand. This means reaching across traditional boundaries like the ones between HR, communications and marketing to create a more holistic view on an organisation’s reputation. So what should we consider about our employer brand profile, in order to meet the challenges of the day?

Readers will of course be aware that, for the first time ever, we have five generations of employees working together in the same time, and this is not a short-lived situation; a mix of social, demographic and economic will make this the new normal. Longer, healthier lives mean fewer people will want to spend the last thirty or more years in “retirement”. The age at which the state pension starts has already increased to 67 to help keep the pension system solvent; and we can only expect this to go up in coming years. So people will need to work longer to fund their private pension pots in order to sustain their lifestyles through two or three decades of retirement. However, the bald facts are that there are not enough new young workers entering the workforce. Low birth rates between the 1980s and early part of the 21st century means that we will increasingly depend on older workers staying in the workforce longer, a situation exacerbated in the UK if it is harder to attract young workers from overseas. Recently, businesses have focused on understanding what millennials want, how they are different to previous generations and what we need to do to appeal to these employees. The real challenge therefore is not just appealing to millennials but is creating an employer brand that appeals as much to an 18 year old entering the workforce as it does to a 65 year old approaching retirement. At these points in life the exchange of value between an employer and employee will inevitably be different. The need and want from each other will change.

Rather than thinking about a company having a singular employer brand, the time has come to think about organisations managing a “house of employer brands” which reflects the different stages in people’s lives and make it easier to satisfy all these different generations of employees. There will be core tenants that remain the same throughout a career but others that change over time. One of the biggest mistakes any organisation can make with its employer brand is to think this is only about recruiting more new staff and solely the responsibility of the HR department. An employer brand needs to honestly reflect the whole career journey from the very first moment someone hears about a potential employer until long after they have left. Many groups within an organisation contribute to a person’s employee experience – HR certainly but senior leaders, line managers and other enabling functions all play a part. Only by creating a proper coalition made up of all these groups can an organisation hope to deliver a consistently good employee experience and continuously improve it.

The measure of success of an employer brand cannot simply be gauged by whether more candidates apply for jobs in your organisation. What really matters is whether the right people, the people who will succeed in your organisation and help it to perform better, are aware that you want them and then are attracted to apply to join you. And when you recruit them that you are able to hold on to them long enough to make a real contribution. A good employer brand makes it very clear what is expected from employees and what they will get in return. It needs to attract people who are a good fit for your business, but equally it should help people who aren’t going to succeed in your business make the choice to work elsewhere. Honesty in employer brands is essential. Research by PWC’s Saratoga institute suggests that as many as one and seven people start looking for a new job within a month of starting with a new employer. For many, the reality of their new job clearly does not meet the expectation from the recruitment process.

Our newly-published research (in association with KRC Research) finds that only 19 percent of employees globally believe there is a strong match between what their employer promises and what they actually experience at work. This credibility gap tends to be the focus of the discontent that leads to low engagement and poor reviews on sites like The good news is that this also presents a huge opportunity for organisations. In the UK, less than ten percent of employees resolutely disagree that there is any alignment between what employers say about themselves and what they experience. This segment is basically unmovable. The largest segment – 73 percent – fall in between. These are “marginally aligned” employees, and their employers have the opportunity to change perceptions by better defining and making real an employer brand that employees recognise, believe and promote. Moving the 30 percent who “agree” that there is alignment to the “strongly agree” group would be the best use of company time. Of course, a credible employer brand doesn’t happen by accident. It is fostered deliberately through values, leadership, and good employee communications, told with a compelling narrative that is authentic, recognisable and brings to life the actual experience employees have working at an organisation.

Employer brand management has helped organisations think hard about how they explain the exchange of value with employees. Many have been able to use the approach to establish their reputations as great places to work. The future of employer branding is about understanding that this a strategic tool not just the domain of HR and talent management. Employer branding is one area where HR leaders can make very credible contributions to their organisation’s business performance and provide trusted counsel to the colleagues in the C-suite. The way we think about employer branding needs to evolve to reflect the greater complexity of the workforce today. We need to move from our monolithic view of an employer brand to a more sophisticated position where an employer can have many employer brands to connect with a diverse group of workers. And perhaps most important of all, the promises implicit in an employer brand have to be delivered. The companies whose employer brands we will admire in the future are the ones that make sure their employer brand is what people actually experience at work.

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