Strategic Storytelling

HR Outsourcing

Communicating an authentic employer brand is an effective way to get the attention of today’s top performers.

By Russ Banham

Employer branding has become a highly useful tool in the tight labor market, distinguishing companies by engaging job candidates with a compelling illustration of what they can expect post-hire.

Gone are the days when people simply applied for a job based solely on compensation. In fact, according to a 2015 survey by Korn Ferry Futurestep, companies that focus their recruitment efforts on promoting higher salaries are less competitive in obtaining the talent they seek.

Today, many Millennials and older generational cohorts want to work for organizations that offer more than big pay packages, seeking such opportunities as flexible working conditions, employee benefits like wellness centers, longer paid leave practices, and a culture that is exactly as the employer has made it out to be.

The latter point is especially critical in today’s recruitment space. Tell-all sites like Glassdoor.com give employees the means to anonymously voice severe criticisms of the companies they toil for, tarnishing the employer’s reputation as a desirable place to work. “You can’t give a prospective employee the glitzy, glam Ferrari version of what it’s like to work at the company, and then on day one the person gets a beat-up, old Chevy experience,” says Neil Griffiths, global practice leader, at talent acquisition and RPO provider Korn Ferry Futurestep.

Regrettably, this happens more often than many companies would like to admit. The reason isn’t that they’ve embellished their employment brands to the point of incredulity; more often they just have no sense of what it is truly like for their employees to work at the organization.

Each company is also different, yet these distinguishing features fail to be captured in the recruiting message— not a good idea when unemployment rates are at their lowest level in nearly eight years.

“Companies are competing for the best talent to the point where there are bidding wars,” says Liz Weeks, head of employer branding and attraction for the Americas at talent acquisition and management provider Alexander Mann Solutions. “Winning these people is not just about salary,” she asserts. “Equally if not more important are the meaningful aspects of the job—the things that connect with job candidates. That’s your brand as an employer.”

She adds, “Every organization has a living, breathing employer brand whether they’re actively communicating it or not.”

The Real Thing

Certainly, it is better to actively communicate an authentic employer brand—for no other reason than most job applicants today are likely to check sites like Glassdoor.com to read what current and past employees have to say about the organization. A 2015 study on employer branding by CareerArc indicates that 75 percent of all job seekers consider an employer’s brand before sending in their job application, with 62 percent of them visiting social media channels to evaluate the organization’s reputation as a suitable employer.

Another persuasive reason to articulate a genuine brand in recruitment messaging is employee retention. As Griffiths pointed out, newly hired people will quickly ferret out the difference between a Ferrari and a rusting hulk of metal. Yet, the CareerArc study notes that only 57 percent of employers have an employer brand strategy at all. One can be sure that not all these programs are world-class. As Weeks comments, “It’s not uncommon to be told an employer has an employer brand, it’s just not the one new hires expected.”

When this occurs, employee disengagement and the evils this breeds, from unproductive workplace behaviors to bad word of mouth, is a more likely and regrettable outcome. “Every job candidate is like a consumer,” Griffiths says. “If the message it not clear or accurate when you buy a product, you return the merchandise. When the person is a job candidate, they simply quit.”

Telling the Truth, Bottoms Up

Benjamin Franklin once opined that, “honesty is the best policy.” Today, this aphorism has great value in the recruitment space. Many C-suites may think they’re being completely frank in describing what it is like to work at the organization, but let’s be honest—the Ivory Tower is a long way from the rank and file.

Nobody wants to be sold a bag of goods, not when it comes to their careers and family’s financial security. So how can companies be sure to recruit not just the best skill sets but the right ones, too?

Both Griffiths and Weeks say it is vital to interview current employees about their workplace experiences and insights, which informs the truthful content of the recruitment strategy. “Current top performers can provide a really good understanding of what it is like to work for an organization,” says Weeks. “You then hire against this profile to secure the right fit—not just from a capability standpoint, but also from a behavioral and personality standpoint.”

To get a real understanding on what employees like and dislike about their jobs, Alexander Mann Solutions conducts internal focus groups with a client’s existing employees. To make sure the comments it received are honest, the interviews are anonymous. “We want to hear the negatives as well as the positives,” Weeks explains. “Our job is to turn these experiences into compelling stories and we want them to be real stories. So if some things are not great about the organization, we as the branding agency need to know this in advance. We don’t want to sell something that can’t be delivered.”

A similar process is in play at Futurestep. “You can’t do just a little research and know a client’s employer brand, waving a wand and pushing out a message that current employees won’t stand behind,” says Griffiths. “That’s why we run internal focus groups asking employees to tell us honestly about the company’s culture, best practices, corporate social responsibility, work-life balance and even the personality traits of business heads. We’re surveying them to find out truthfully what high performing employees really like about their jobs because that’s the message we want to get out.”

Both firms also conduct interviews with senior executive leaders to understand the company’s strategic goals in relation to the mix of talent needed to attain these objectives. In some cases, the organization’s culture may not match up with the vision articulated by senior leadership. For instance, the company may have a plan to pursue business growth through an enhanced focus on innovation, when the skill sets it has on board are not exactly out-of-the-box thinkers. This information informs the recruitment strategy to ensure the right people are in the queue for job interviews.

Case Study: Amcor

Companies are just beginning to realize how important an authentic employer brand is to their recruitment efforts. Amcor, a global leader in packaging solutions that supplies a broad range of packaging products to the food, beverage, healthcare and other industries, is a case in point. The Australian company ($9.5 billion in 2015 sales) has grown largely through acquisitions over the years, and currently employs nearly 30,000 people. “We’re at the start of our journey, having just launched a specific employer branding project we call the Accelerated Career Development Program,” says Cristina Istria, Amcor global director of talent and development. “The goal is to bring in 20 people every 18 months with five to seven years experience in sales and marketing. Not just any people—the right people.”

The employment challenge for Amcor is that as a business-to-business manufacturer, its name is not nearly as well known as the use of its products. “We’re packaging bottles for popular soft drinks, but no one knows when they take a sip that they’re drinking from one of our containers,” Istria explains. “Yet, we would like to think that a job here is just as cool as a job at a much better known company. We want our brand to resonate authentically with what our high-performing people really think about what it’s like to work here.”

To communicate this message in its sales and marketing recruiting program, Amcor turned to Futurestep. “They came in and interviewed our high potential employees who were already on a career path in our commercial function,” Istria says. “They wanted to understand what it was like to be on this path in order to capture these insights and bring them alive in our recruitment marketing content.”

Futurestep worked closely—and swiftly—with Istria and her team in designing the media plan for the recruitment strategy. “We were able to launch the media within three weeks,” Istria reports. The Accelerated Career Development Program media brand includes a logo—’Aim high. Think big. Go far.’—and other content artfully arranged. The jobs site anticipates the kinds of questions most candidates generally ask of a potential employer: Why join us?. What do you need?. What can we offer?, and so on, each with a few sentences response, followed by a “read more” icon. There is also a section on program details.

“Futurestep took actual quotes from the interviews they conducted with employees, which were then translated into stories,” Istria says. “The worse thing an employer can do is try to sell an employer brand that is inauthentic, with your current employees rolling their eyes and saying ‘This is not us at all.'”

Since the branding effort launched only recently, Istria has yet to measure its success. Nevertheless, she is sanguine that Amcor will recruit the experienced sales and marketing talent it needs—people that fit its culture closely.

Tomorrow’s Branding Today

As the branding effort for Amcor indicates, employers can polish their current recruitment strategies by knowing in advance the likely questions that candidates will ask at the job interview. The questions depend on the type of hiring organization and the positions being offered, but generally include why the person would want to work for your business. The answer should not be pat.

“Truly a best practice is to tell a story of what it is like to work at your company,” says Weeks. “It’s this story that will engage the candidate, hence the need for it to have personal significance. Someone looking to work for an organization that prides itself on its social responsibility will want to hear a compelling tale that the employer is indeed this organization. That will make them connect with your brand over someone else’s.”

Griffiths seems to share this perspective. “This is all about the employee value proposition—the straightforward reasons why an applicant should consider a career with a company,” he says. “If they perceive a strong fit and you make good on this once they’re onboard, you’ve just turned a prospect into a future brand ambassador.”

He makes a good point. One good story begets another, an oral tradition that echoes in business success.

Posted May 5, 2016 in Talent Acquisition

Leave a Reply