The 4 Biggest Mistakes Companies Make in Employer Branding

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Sep 12, 2018

At this stage, I’d wager that you’ve spent some amount of time seriously thinking about one of the two hottest topics in recruiting: artificial intelligence or employer branding. In your fear of getting left behind or as a means of solving a problem, these concepts seem to be where everyone is looking for help in surviving the ever-tightening talent market.

Either of these requires a significant investment and smart planning in order to make an impact, but they each have the potential to be game-changers for your organization. One allows you to lower costs and even extend reach, the other helps you attach more of the right kind of people.

While I can’t help you code a bot, I can offer some insight on how not to approach an employer brand investment. If you can avoid these mistakes when launching a branding project, you will be well on your way to making a serious improvement in your ability to attract and hire talented people.

Trying to Be Someone You’re Not

An employer brand is a kind of shorthand for how people think about what it would be like to work at your company. Amazon wants you to see it as a place where people pioneer. The Red Cross wants your help to save lives. The U.S. Marines want you to test yourself. Inside this employer brand message are lots of other sub-ideas to unpack and connect to various people who could apply to a variety of roles. How someone sees the idea of pioneering or testing or saving lives becomes a personal connection to the brand. That shorthand is established and reinforced by a series of interactions, touchpoints, and messaging (see “siloing”), but it starts with a core idea.

That’s all well and good, but the problem starts when leadership doesn’t truly understand who they are and why people work for the company.

Companies love to tell you about how they are mission-driven, but how many of their staff would stay if they had to take a 10 percent pay cut? Companies love to tell you how their teams get to use the best technology, but the back-end platform runs on decade-old software. Companies love to tell you about their commitment to work/life balance, but still have people at work past seven or eight?

Being in it for the money, having to convert old tech to new and expecting people to work long hours aren’t problems. Plenty of smart, talented people would love those jobs if they had a real reason to work there. The problem occurs when expectations have never met reality, when candidates are sold rose gardens but are met with thorns and weeds.

Everyone thinks they have to be Google (or Apple or Amazon or Facebook or whatever) in order to be a “desirable employer.” But that’s not true. When asked, engineers rated Google, SpaceX, and Tesla as some of the hottest places to work, but those sexy brands got smoked by some government office called NASA. That’s right. More engineers would rather work for the federal government than Google. No one thinks NASA geeks are the best paid. No one thinks they get free food or  coffee with six different kinds of milk at NASA. And yet, they are winning the employer brand game because they know who they are and aren’t pretending to be someone they aren’t.

Letting Marketing Deliver Your Employer Brand

A brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what each person thinks it is. The brand isn’t something you see or touch, but something that exists in people’s minds. As such, a brand, especially an employer brand, isn’t something you create or build. It’s something that already exists. Your role is to uncover it, shape it, polish it, focus it, and reflect it out into the world.

Let’s pretend you are looking to buy the freshest eggs you can. Do you buy the carton that was printed on nice paper, with a slick logo and a glossy sheen? Or do you choose the carton that looks like its actually seen the inside of a chicken coop? Which do you think will be fresher? That seems obvious, but that slightly worn and ratty carton isn’t worn and ratty because the head of marketing said that it would convey freshness. It is rough looking because the farmer putting those eggs in the carton was too busy raising and tending to the chickens to pick a font or paper stock.

This is the core of authenticity. That freshness is is core to that farmer’s work. The focus on freshness leads to less time spent on things that don’t deliver freshness. Like cartons. You can’t paint authenticity onto the walls, it simply is, and it is there for a reason. You don’t create it, you reveal it.

In the same way you don’t simply decide one day that you’re the kind of person who likes to juggle fire, despite having never done it, you can’t suddenly decide your employer is all about providing support to every employee because you think that’s what people want to hear. You either are so dedicated to your staff that it is patently obvious to candidates, employees, and everyone the employee knows, or you aren’t. It has to be obvious what you’ve given up (burnishing your reputation, investing in cutting edge tech, cultivating a culture of ambition, etc) to reveal what you’ve chosen as your focus.

You either are that thing or you aren’t. Marketing can help you polish it up and stick a bow on it, but it can’t build it from scratch.

Siloing the Responsibility for the Employer Brand

There’s a reason we call it an employer brand and not a recruiting brand. The employer brand reflects what people think it would be like to work there, not just what the experience of being recruited is like. It is the perception of the whole experience, not just the tagline, the hiring manager, the recruiter, the career site, the screening and assessment process, or the job description. It is the sense that someone could be satisfied working here for months and years.

Every part of the employer has a role to play in establishing, communicating, and reinforcing the brand to the world. Amazing recruiters cannot overcome newsworthy scandals in which management is caught being racist or sexist. A well-written job description (which by the way I’m doing a session on at ERE in San Diego, next April) can’t fix the sense that the company doesn’t have a clear future. An amazing candidate experience doesn’t negate the candidate’s fear that the company won’t invest in its own people.

Investing in your employer brand starts with embracing the idea that hiring is everyone’s job. Without that belief woven into the entire employer-brand concept, you’re painting flames on the side of a car without an engine. It might seem at first glance to enhance the speed and perceived value of the car, but the car isn’t going anywhere.

Thinking That Employer Brand Only Impacts the Top of the Funnel

The draw of a strong employer brand is that it will help you attract a better-quality candidate to your company, that it will help you punch above your weight-class in the fight for talent. And that’s true. But a focus on attraction has two problems. One: you will miss out on the other benefits of a strong employer brand. And two: not paying attention to those other aspects will actually undermine the investment you’re making. Seeing half the picture ensures that the half you see won’t get fixed.

Here’s what happens. You want to encourage great people to apply, so you do the hard work of figuring out what makes your company unique in the eyes of your staff. You take that feeling and shape it into something clear and focused, creating marketing campaigns to communicate that idea out to the world. Lo and behold, it works! People have a clearer understanding of what you have to offer them and they apply.

But then something happens. Your investment in telling the world about your commitment to growing people stops making things better. The value of your employer brand plateaus. Or worse, begins to lose impact. Why? Because you were so focused on applying the brand thinking to the top of the funnel you forget about the rest of it. Your job descriptions, career site, event collateral, outreach messaging, social message and ads all aligned about this new brand and people started to believe it. But then they applied and that feeling fell apart.

The brand you built around growing your people is attractive to a segment of candidates, but no one told your hiring managers. No one informed the rest of the interview loops. You forgot to tell your talent development team that they were the centerpiece of your new brand. Consequently, when the candidate shows up and starts asking questions, they realize the brand is inauthentic. They realize that they’ve been duped, sold a bill of goods that will never be realized.

You look at your offer acceptance rates and they are dropping and you don’t realize the impact the employer brand is making. Your marketing is writing checks your hiring managers and development team can’t cash. If you don’t see how the brand is making an impact on the interview cycle, the offer cycle and talent funnel, you will be fixing the wrong problem, putting you back to square one.

So if the time has come for you to invest in your employer brand, don’t pretend the investment is an easy fix to your talent woes. It takes rigor, dedication, and diligence to make any company an attractive place to work. But the value of investing in your brand is that it provides you a framework to make almost any company a more attractive and desirable place to work.

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