The 4 Components of an Employee Promise

Nov 15, 2013
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 1.16.29 PMThere are four basic components of an employee promise.

  • The job
  • The typical pay-benefits package
  • The culture
  • The brand

Each component ties first to running a successful business, and second to differentiating your workplace from others. Three of the components are quite standard (the job itself, the typical pay-benefits package, and the culture) and I will briefly describe these. However, I’m introducing a fourth component: the brand.

All four of these have an exchange of what the employer provides the employee and vice versa. Even though I discuss this as an exchange, it should not be seen as “tit for tat” or entitlement. It should be seen as honesty, transparency, and authenticity for both employee and employer, not a contract.

(I get into all this more in my book, from which this article is excerpted, pictured at right and available on Amazon).

Now let’s look first at the job. First and foremost a workforce exists because a job needs to get done. Therefore, the first part of the employee promise describes the details of a job that’s expected of the employee.

Every job requires a set of skills, knowledge, and experience (whether it’s as minimal as 16 years of life or as much as an advanced degree with years of experience and specific expertise) needed to get the job done. The exchange part here is that the organization must provide the tools and resources for the employees to get the job done. If I had a dollar for every time an employee was put in a position without the tools or resources to get the job done, I’d be rich.

I caution organizations in creating their job requirements; some are setting the bar too high, unnecessarily, requiring skills and degrees that may not be relevant to getting the job done. When I was hired at JetBlue, nobody cared about my master’s degree or my college degree. The founder of the company didn’t even have a college degree. (See this list of top entrepreneurs who don’t have a college degree). At the time, JetBlue was the “unairline.” It specifically was hiring folks without airline experience, as it wanted to be different. Ironically it was harder to get a job offer at JetBlue in 2003 — when I joined — than to get accepted to Harvard.

Second, the most widely known component of the employee promise is the typical pay-benefits package. Some call it the employee value proposition, and some view this as the employee promise in its entirety. This includes what the company provides concretely to the employee, and the parameters for which the employee can operate. I capture more than just health care, retirement and investing, dental, wellness, tuition reimbursement, etc. and include other areas that are usually taken into consideration and reviewed with an employment decision. These include: commute, hours, vacation, work-life balance, flexibility in schedule, and growth or advancement opportunities. Here is where the employer can start to differentiate themselves from other employers and integrate talent needs with the business model, mission, and customer promise.

The third component of the employee promise answers the question: What kind of individual can thrive in your culture to produce the best results, and what kind of culture are you offering to employees? It’s the work environment. You have a culture, regardless of whether you implemented it on purpose. There is much written and researched on this topic, such as how to build an organizational culture, how to change it, and how to align it with the business. The key in terms of a “brandful workforce” is ensuring that the culture you say you have really exists, and that you update it as it evolves. It is part of your employee promise, and many employees do sign up to work in organizations specifically because of the culture. A strong culture can be the reason for lower pay (a compromise many make); however, if the expected culture is not there, pay becomes more of an issue.

Cultures differ based on their organizational values, work rules (rigid vs. open; union or non-union), citizenship, involvement (compliant, creative, entrepreneurial), fellow employees, mission, and — most importantly — leadership. The leaders are the ones who model the culture and carry it forward. A colleague of mine once defined culture as “how things get done.” As leaders change, so do priorities and the way they get addressed — which is the culture.

Cost-cutting Dilemma

A midsize customer service-based organization was struggling to cut costs and make a profit. The CEO thought about reducing his reservation agent staffing and automating the reservation system. But then he realized that the success of his business was due, in large part, to the strong relationships his employees built directly with the customers. Instead of automation, the CEO decided to spend more on reservation agent salaries and focus on these vital relationships, as a key differentiator among his competitors.

The decision more than paid off. Cutting the salaries of staffers would have gone against its “relationship” culture, its established employee promise, and the customer promise of being available. In the end, it was  trying to establish a better future for their business. Sometimes cost cutting, especially on people, can backfire. It’s best to make business decisions around your people, while focusing on your key business differentiators.

Now, I’d like to introduce the fourth component of an employee promise: the brand. In this case, the brand is the set of products or services the organization delivers, as well as what consumers think about these products or services (and the overall organization). When you think about what kind of talent your business needs to charge forward, why not include the need for people who are truly behind your products and services? Being clear that you want employees who want your brand, specifically, helps connect them to your mission, business model, and customer promise, in a way that the other three components don’t. If you don’t address your brand — not your employer brand, but your organizational brand — in your employee promise, you risk not being able to create or sustain a brandful workforce. The workforce can be engaged in the job and the culture, but will they be brand advocates? In exchange for their brand promotion (which also means involvement and critiquing and shaping the brand, which every organization can benefit from), employees are afforded brand perks.

Offer an employee promise that includes an exchange whereby employees receive brand perks, and in exchange they get involved in the brand — because they truly are evangelists of your products and services. Such brand perks are both tangible and intangible. Tangible brand perks can be free products or services, or discounted swag (described later), or special events and promotions. Intangible brand perks are associated with the status of a cool brand, whether it be globally, nationally, locally known, or even unknown. If your employees think it’s a cool brand, then there are intangible brand perks. When I worked at JetBlue, I was highly regarded among my friends: Oh, you work at JetBlue! (eyes wide open, mouth drooling). JetBlue had employees fly inaugural flights, appear at ribbon-cuttings, go to air shows, hear bands at the terminal, and attend special events.

The brand doesn’t necessarily need to be cool. It can simply be a brand that the employees appreciate and can get behind. Take Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Its employees are highly dedicated to the cancer work that the organization supports and delivers. Part of their employee promise is that they require all employees to be comfortable in the hospital setting. No matter what the job is — for example, accountant — anyone can be asked to be in the hospital on occasion. At the same time, employees who have loved ones with cancer can be given special employee perks. There is an exchange going on with the brand, specifically.

Organizations that have a clear employee promise that includes the brand get better brand matches than those that don’t. A better brand match allows employees to genuinely be brandful.

What differentiates your organization from another, as a place to work?

Now that we’ve seen how the employee promise connects to the customer promise and supports the success of the business, let’s compare, at a high level, how the employee promise can differentiate your organization from others. Some employee promise differentiators can be specific employee interests (like those that relate to your products or services), levels of experience (just beginning, mid-career, or varied career), need for innovators, need for self-starters, flexibility to move geographically, flexibility in schedule or number of hours, or certain personality types. Your employee promise should determine the type of employees you need to get the job done and build a “brandful workforce.”

Whole Transparency

First let’s look at Whole Foods, a supermarket chain. As an employee, I would be drawn to this organization if I loved fresh food and wanted to work in a company where I could get involved and move up in my career. Its core employee promise focuses on employee involvement and career advancement. The website showcases how employees are empowered to make decisions. Employees have opportunities to participate by voting. It also has a Team Member Emergency fund to support each other in time of need. Unlike most organizations, it is transparent with career opportunities and even list career paths on their website, so that prospective candidates can explore their career possibilities. Many organizations don’t even have defined career paths, but Whole Foods goes as far as to publish them publicly. An employee video boasts: My job is to replace myself. Are they serious about career paths or what? Whole Foods connects its employee promise of being involved to advancing its business. In fact, I wonder if its business depends on employee advancement and involvement.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car may be somewhat similar to Whole Foods in that its employee promise centers on career advancement; however, it specifically seeks out folks who are just starting out. Enterprise differentiates its employee promise and has been recognized as a great place to launch a career. It offers management training and a wide variety of opportunities. It’s a different industry, service-based instead of product-based, and calls for a different set of talent and interest than Whole Foods. It would make sense that a different kind of employee would be able to thrust their business forward versus the kind of employee that would propel Whole Foods. Would you agree? Please share comments at or below.

What about the health care company, Cigna? It looks for midcareer folks who want a change and are passionate about making a difference in health. Experienced professionals is called out on their career site. Some of the most successful people at Cigna weren’t looking for a career or job change. They were looking to make a difference.

Your employee promise should be clear in the eyes of your employees so they join and stay for the right reasons. When they join for career opportunities and don’t find any, the brand promise is broken. Now, if they change their mind and later don’t want the career opportunity but need more flexible schedules, then that’s a different story. An employee promise provides your employees with a clear and simple picture of why they should join and why they shouldn’t join. You should be able to compare and contrast your reasons with the reasons of another organization. Unfortunately, most organizations do not make it clear; therefore, employees are not really sure what they’re getting, outside of pay and benefits.

When I moved from Morgan Stanley to JetBlue in 2003, I knew my needs had changed and I understood I was moving from one employee promise to a completely different one, as the two companies are quite different. In the end, both were great matches for me at different times in my life. At Morgan Stanley, I had made a career transition, and was looking for an organization with a global presence and excellent reputation where I could get training and have potential for advancement. After five years, I realized I wanted to return to more entrepreneurial roots, where I had started prior to Morgan Stanley. JetBlue provided a combination of the entrepreneurial flavor of a startup and the stability of solid financials. When I joined, it was incredibly innovative, fun, and fresh, and there was plenty of opportunity. I particularly loved the “unairline” rebel approach, and of course I also loved the mission: Bringing humanity back to air travel.

In each case, I had a sense of why I was joining, what was expected, and what was being offered. One was not better than the other. They were simply different and appealed to different interests. The concept is to be clear on who you are and what you’re offering.

Anyone for Shoes?

Even though I moved from one industry (financial) to another (transportation), organizations in the same industry have tremendous employee promise differentiators. The size of your organization and its maturity level also determine important aspects of your employee promise. Let’s look at a few different shoe companies: Nike, Foot Locker, TOMS, Zappos, Footzyfolds, and Blue Elephant.

A global organization like Nike (which has more than shoes, but is being used for illustrative purposes) may appeal to folks who have a true passion for a known or established brand that they truly believe in. Nike may have career opportunities in many locations, and has world-class talent and partnerships. Part of the employee promise is the exposure to the many facets of a large organization, and becoming part of the global brand with billions of dollars in annual revenues. The employee can also be part of a larger Nike mission: to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. (*if you have a body, you are an athlete).

Not everyone is drawn to a large, international organization. At the opposite end of the spectrum are smaller mom-and-pop companies like Blue Elephant, in my neighborhood. Interestingly, some current executives got their start at these types of establishments. Part of an employee promise at organizations like Blue Elephant includes hands-on, practical skills that can be applied throughout your career. As well, a workplace that provides employees involvement in all aspects of the business like a jack-of-all-trades can be a big draw for the right kind of person. It’s funny to think that Nike could be competing with a small family-owned shop for employees; however, it potentially could happen.

Then there are organizations in between like Foot Locker, an international shoe store chain and TOMS, which is not as interested in profits as they are in providing shoes to needy children around the world. And then there are online shoe sellers like Zappos who focus on customer service. And let’s not forget that there are always startups on the horizon like Footzyfolds, created by two women who wanted to carry around roll-up shoes in their purses, in the event their heels were hurting their feet. Each organization sells shoes; however, each does it in a unique way, with unique clientele, which all calls for a unique employee promise. Each organization has their pros and cons for potential candidates. And each requires something different from their employees.

At this point, consider whether you are, as an organization, targeting the right employees who are interested in your brand and your differentiated employee promise.

Now, let’s turn to a few questions regarding the employee promise that typically arise.

Organization Size

Can an organization be too big or too small to have an employee promise? No. I have heard colleagues at large organizations say: We’re too big to have one employee promise. I don’t buy that. You can still have one; it may just be broader or more general than that of a smaller organization. But there are always general themes about your organization that can be brought together in an employee promise.

Is it all right for my organization to change our employee promise? Yes. Just do it aboveboard, in a way that employees can easily understand and relate to.

I’ve seen job offers go out and candidates start from Day 1 with a different job than they were offered. This can and does happen. Should there be a renewed promise? If a company is fast paced and changes quickly, this should be openly discussed as part of the culture and expectations. I’ve seen some organizations look for employees who like change, or at least are OK with change. They are open and up front with employees, telling them to expect constant change. Candidates who are averse to change are discouraged from joining, as it’s part of the promise.

Here are a few questions that you can answer yourself:

When times get tough, can you live up to your employee promise? Do you lay off or do you have other strategies? Do you elicit the help of your employees to find solutions? For example, JetBlue held an internal campaign (“Return to Profitability”) — it was the employees who came up with many great ideas on how to save money, as they wanted the company to succeed. Can you ask for voluntary departures or reduced work schedules? How creative can you get? Can you delay hiring, create job sharing, or eliminate certain benefits? The point here is to design your employee promise to withstand tumultuous times.

Does your back office help or hinder your employee promise? Having spent 13 consecutive years in corporate America, following a few years of nonprofit work, I couldn’t complete this chapter on employee promises without mentioning the support of back-office administration. They are the folks that support the managers and supervisors and front-line employees who need to focus on getting the job done. The back-office administration is the behind-the-scenes backbone to delivering your employee promise.

For example, how many times have you been on the telephone with a representative who says: Oh, I’m so sorry; my computer is very slow today. Or from another point of view: Healthcare professionals may be quite passionate about helping their patients get better; however, the administrative details of billing and notes get in the way of doing what they love every day.

There’s a real opportunity for the back office to support the employee promise, not put a damper on it. Here’s another example: Teachers who love to help children grow often get discouraged — not by the actual work, but by what comes with it: the parents, the school administration, the policies, and the unions. Organizations that do not allow the administration to get in the way of their mission and passion have a better chance of successful branding. A brandful workforce depends on the organization to work in a way administratively that allows the culture, mission, and strategy to be executed flawlessly. When the daily administration is not working (This is where IT, legal, human resources, finance, supply chain, training — all of the support or back-office functions — are critical.), it prevents the execution of the brand from the inside. There’s always grunt work. Even artists have to clean up after they complete a masterpiece, but the passion should not be overtaken by the grunt work.

Are you in the right geographical location for your employee promise? You’ve heard that to build a successful business, what you need is a good location. Well, the same goes for an effective employee promise. Many organizations, rightfully so, internally debate where they should start up, move, or expand. Location is everything — not just for your customer base, but for attracting and retaining the right talent to propel your organization forward. Zappos, the online shoe and apparel company, moved from California to Las Vegas as it needed the right space to offer its services, and grow its brand and talent. I spoke with a recruiting executive from a major financial institution with about 25,000 employees regarding their brand. He mentioned the following:

Our brand is widely known and loved in certain states. As we branch out and open new locations where we are lesser known, the employees in those areas have a different experience with customers. Typically they rave about us; however, in our newer locations, the customers are not as familiar with our products and services, so employees don’t get as much instant brand recognition from customers and friends. We can’t attract employees as easily in those areas.

Another colleague at a national retail chain confides:

Our headquarters is in a location completely isolated from our stores. There is a cultural disconnect between our store employees and the mothership. We need to relocate to an area where our employees can better mirror our customers.

The last question that typically arises is: How do I know if my employee promise is working? Here is a quick test. Which of these two options best reflects the current attitude of your employees?

Option 1: Entitlement

What have you done for me lately?

Option 2: Gratitude

I’m lucky to work here and be a part of this exciting brand.

If you chose the first option, entitlement, it would indicate that you have more work to do on your employee promise. Even though I described a promise as an exchange, it is worth noting that nobody should be keeping score. It’s more of an understand-ing based on trust and constant communication. On the other hand, if you chose the second option, gratitude, you’re right on.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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