4 Forces Shaping Your Employer Brand — and How to Leverage Them During the Pandemic

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Apr 20, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

Employer brands are insanely complex and complicated things. They remind me of someone’s personality, where even where there are overarching traits we see everyday, under the surface there is a surprising level of complexity that doesn’t show up often. Think of the biker who has a kitten or the high-school dropout who quietly collects pulp noir novels. There are layers.

To account for such layers, it’s helpful to think of your employer brand as the sum, both directly and indirectly, of four primary forces: 

  1. Culture
  2. Leadership
  3. Policies
  4. Options 

Like physics, understanding the underlying drivers of your brand will help you anticipate and influence the path of your brand. So first, let’s define these forces and how they impact your brand; then we’ll examine how they are changing in light of the pandemic.

1. Culture

There are so many fallacies around culture, a book could be written just documenting them. From thinking that leadership or any one person can define a culture, to thinking that culture remains static over time, to not seeing how each new hire has some impact on the culture — there is a lot of lightweight thinking going on.

So let’s be clear: Your culture is the sum of interactions between everyone in your organization. It exists and occurs regardless of whether you like it or want it to happen. 

A big mistake is equating brand with culture. Culture is how your company does something because of the people in your company. Your brand is a selective and focused understanding of which aspects of the culture you’d like to talk about. Think of it like a dating profile: You don’t have to list every TV show, movie, and band you like. Simply saying that you love country music and Breaking Bad paints enough of a picture to help someone decide whether to engage with you.

2. Leadership

Leadership is an obvious force, though we often misunderstand it. By leadership, we mean the intentional and unintentional decisions and actions of those with authority. Think of the leader who is happy to play favorites among their own teams and how that influences, if not overrides, some of the policy decisions in the company. Or the leader who talks a good game about responsibility, but walks out of every lunch meeting and assumes “someone” will clean up after them. 

Leaders inform the culture, the personality, and the direction of a company, regardless of whether they realize it. 

3. Policies

These are the formal rules about how your company operates. For my money, this is the least-considered aspect of an employer brand, but it often forms the guard rails of it.

How can your company say that it is committed to gender equality when there’s no breastfeeding room and when the family-leave policy is the legal minimum and unpaid? How can your employer brand claim to embrace innovation and flexibility when you don’t allow working from home? How can you build advocates internally when Legal and HR stomp on any informal messaging about your organization that wasn’t approved beforehand?

Policies don’t dictate your brand, but they can keep you from making certain claims.

4. Options

If you’re a nurse in Fayetteville, AK, there is a finite number of potential places for you to work. You can work in a clinic, a hospital, or a private practice within 10 to 15 miles of where you live. For the sake of argument, let’s say that would include up to 1,000 places that you could reasonably apply for a job.

But what if you’re a freelance writer in Omaha? Your jobs aren’t limited by geography, because you can work remotely. And pretty much every company will need writing help at some point. Given that there are 18 to 20 million businesses in the United States, that means there might be millions of work opportunities for you. 

Options frame your employer brand. If someone can work at a thousand places, those places define what the person can reasonably expect from an employer. One employer might say that it focuses on innovation, but such a claim is relative. Is it really as innovative as SpaceX, Apple, Google, Boston Dynamics (they make those crazy robots you see in videos), AstraZeneca, and Nike?

The number of options that candidates have frames how they see and interpret a brand.

But the World Has Changed…

If you want to make sure that your employer brand maintains its strength, to maybe even take advantage of the current chaos to grow your brand, you’ve got to start managing the forces that drive it.

1. Culture Changes

Look around. Almost everyone’s working from home, taking over slices of their bedroom or dining room to try and get work done. Their kids and pets interrupt calls. Everyone’s a little on edge because no one knows how long this pandemic will last. The culture at your work, the “how” work gets done, is shifting. Whether we all go back to normal or this becomes our new normal, you have to take into account that your culture is different. 

Are you finding ways to collect people’s stories of struggle and success? If your brand is based on a story of opportunity and impact, what better stories could you be telling? If your brand is based on a culture of collaboration and togetherness, what stories can you tell about how employees went out of their way to help one another? If you understand what your brand is, what idea you’d like to plant in someone’s mind, you need to be using this time to collect the stories that make that idea crystal clear.

During the good times, anyone can claim collaboration and opportunity, but what does that really look like when the chips are down? These are the stories that carry weight and meaning to candidates.

2. Leadership Changes

Leaders are now lightning rods for your culture and brand. When your company stops work to build masks or funds drives to help keep local businesses going, it is the leader who stands up and makes that change in direction. When your company demands that every single employee is essential (even though you run a store for knickknacks) and does the bare minimum to protect staff, the leader is the one who will make that call.

It is also the leader who takes the hit or gets the glory on behalf of the company for these decisions.

For years, employer branding has been the go-to move for crisis PR teams, who wheel out staff to put a human face on the company when the leader makes a mess. That’s still true, but now the leader is as much the face of the brand as any member of the staff. Where previously, we’d only see the rare celebrity CEO (e.g., Elon Musk or Richard Branson), now you see many more CEOs and presidents front and center on so much messaging.

If you’ve got a message to convey, get your leaders involved. Put them front and center and make sure they are living your brand.

3. Policy Changes

Turns out, most companies have had no problems allowing staff to work remotely. Turns out, companies really do have the capacity for empathy and concern for staff and their mental health. Turns out, employees can do great work even when their schedules don’t line up to 9-to-5 expectations. And it’s going to be very hard for leadership or HR to tell staff that all this is impossible once the pandemic subsides. 

So you have two strategies here: First, embrace the change and work with leadership and HR on how to standardize the new normal, how to tell the story of how you are changing internally to align with the brand, and how to reinforce the story you are trying to tell.

Second, take advantage of the chaos and suggest other policy changes that support the brand story. Lobby for change in family leave. Talk about how a more remote and flexible working situation, supported by smart technology, makes you more agile and innovative.

4. Options Changes

This one is the hardest to manage. As the world seems to realize how many of its workers can do great work from a laptop propped up on their knees, companies will start to realize that they can hire talent far outside their geographic area. Suddenly, the world is their proverbial talent oyster. 

But there are two other forces at play. One, people can apply to millions of jobs that were too far away before. And two, your competitors are in the same boat, so you’ll be competing with them for the same person.

In short, the way you compete for talent just went nuts. And the strength of your employer brand will be a huge factor in how well you can engage someone who doesn’t live near you, has never engaged with you, and has no frame of reference about you.

So if it feels like the ground is shifting under your feet, it is. But by understanding the forces that shape your employer brand and what you can do to leverage them, you can more effectively manage your company’s brand.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.
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