Employment Branding: Satisfy the Psychological Contract

Aug 30, 2010

In the September Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership, I write about branding in a way that, hopefully, you haven’t thought about before.

There has been a lot of talk about employment branding recently and how organizations are dedicating more and more of their resources toward their branding intitiatives. In all the noise and in the race to create the best brand something essential not just to recruiting but for the entire entry-to-exit HR process was lost. Keeping promises! That’s right — keeping promises. It’s not as boring a subject as it might seem, and I make no ethical/soft arguments toward that end in my article. Simply put, I provide evidence and a discussion that supports either promising only what you deliver, or using your employment brand as a driver to deliver more than what you promise. It’s all there in the literature. It’s even very intuitive to see, yet time and time again we see that this advice is ignored in the branding efforts of even some of the most visible organizations.

What I say in the Journal is that branding isn’t a matter of good and bad, but about how much you promise, what you promise, and what you can deliver. If you raise people’s expectations too high, and under-deliver, that’s when you’ll have a problem.

And if you under-promise and over-deliver (like the famous motto of some of the major organizations goes) you risk not attracting the volume and the high quality talent that you’re seeking.

For example, let us consider Un-diverse Inc, a fictitious company based on a real example. Un-diverse is considered to have one of the most attractive employment brands for young aggressive professionals. However, we questioned its generational diversity efforts from the images displayed on its careers website, as well as when questioning its associates about their internal status. Although it is not explicit in its attraction for young professionals (that would be illegal in the United States, according to Title VII and other federal and state laws), the culture created from their particular employment brand is one which is attractive to young professionals, especially male professionals.

Of course, the company states that it is just a good place for anyone to “start a new career,” but the effect itself is one of attraction of young males.

As a thought experiment, let us consider this particular case:

You are a female in her mid career and you are dissatisfied with current opportunities in your field. You decide to apply and consequentially are accepted as an underwriter at a local Un-diverse location. During your research of the organization, your screening calls, your interviews, and subsequent parts of the recruitment process, your psychological contract is developing toward the idea that this is a diverse place suitable for all ages, sexes, and career points. After all, this is what Un-diverse claims in its branding messages!

Once you begin your new assignment, filled with enthusiasm and excitement, you find that 98% of your peers are under the age of 25 and male, and thus a culture inevitably develops that reflects this.

How would you feel? Most employees in this position would feel that Un-diverse is not a place for all generations and career points, regardless of Un-diverse’s efforts to 1) make it so and 2) say that it is so.

In this case, you, the female professional, came into the organization with expectations that were not met, regardless of the effort (real or not) that was undertaken to meet them. On the other hand, Un-diverse claims that its workplace is a great place for anyone to work, yet its brand attracts young male professionals in large doses, which effectively limits the flexibility of the culture and dooms it to be young and male-dominated. Regardless of effort, the psychological contract of this female professional has not been met, and it had no relationship to HR practices, the recruiting process, or any of the typical drivers of employment branding. What it was based on, however, was a very strong brand that was geared in a particular direction.

Although unproven and potentially controversial, one can make an argument that Un-diverse seeks young male candidates for its branch positions, but due to government laws and regulations they cannot explicitly say so. Instead they create a brand which is attractive to young male candidates, and explicitly declare that it is simply a great place to start a career regardless of your current career progression or diversity category.

More on this in the Journal, but for now let’s just say that if an employer chooses to brand itself as a company that “does xyz,” it should consider the ramifications to its promise in the forming of a psychological contract between it and its new employee. Another conclusion of this is that talent acquisition can never be thought of as an independent process from internal human resource and talent management practices.

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