Assess Your Employment Brand Using an Audit Checklist

One of the hottest topics in talent management today is employment branding, in part because applicants rank brand as the second most influential factor when deciding whether to accept an offer.

Just five years ago, less than 1:10 Fortune 200 companies had a dedicated role to manage the employment brand, yet today more than 1:4 Fortune 200 companies have dedicated headcount and budget to the practice.

Employment branding is the practice of managing your firm’s image or reputation as an excellent place to work. Because so many factors influence how an organization is perceived, employment branding is loosely defined.

Most of the individuals involved in employment branding use a “learn as you go” approach, actively trying a market basket of brand manipulation activities to see what works and what doesn’t. Quite often, initial employment branding efforts are weak and full of elements that need serious improvement.

To have an effective employment branding function, periodically conduct an assessment or audit of the three critical branding areas:

  • Your branding program’s design elements.
  • The information that you provide.
  • The approaches used to establish each of your sub-employment brands.

Whether you want to audit your existing effort or get a new effort off on the right foot, here is a quick audit checklist you can use to judge where you are now and where you need to be.

Incidentally, if your goal is to build a powerhouse employment brand like Google’s, recognize upfront that each individual audit item is important, so don’t skip a single one.

Audit Part One: Assessing the Critical Program Design Elements

When you assess the design of your branding program, the following are critical elements that must be included if your effort is to be successful:

  • Program plan. The program has a written plan with milestones, timetables and individual accountabilities.
  • Program goals. The program spells out each of its specific measurable goals. These goals must be widely communicated and there must be a specific metric (with a measurable target) to assess whether each program goal is actually met.
  • Focus on job acceptance criteria. It’s critical that there be a process for identifying the “job switch criteria” of the candidates you’re trying to attract. Successful programs have a process for matching your firm’s strengths with the requirements of potential applicants. The program should then focus image-building efforts on those targeted factors or brand pillars.
  • Excitement. Branding is a sales and bragging effort, so identify and spread several specific WOW’s or features that will measurably excite potential candidates. Branding can’t be successful unless it excites potential candidates to take action (i.e., visit your website or apply for a job).
  • Emphasis on “hot” topics. Assess whether your overall campaign sufficiently emphasizes all of the current hot topics including green/sustainability, innovation, emerging technology, global reach and job security.
  • Minimize advertising. Recruitment advertising adds value but does not constitute employment branding. If you must “pay” to get your branding message out, it’s just not as credible. A focus on leveraging traditional recruitment advertising is the most common employment branding error. The best employment branding messages are spread virally.
  • Clearly differentiated. If you mention programs or features in the information that you provide that everyone has, your firm cannot appear superior. As part of your audit, compare your branding programs, features, and messages with those of your talent competitors to make sure that your programs and features stand out as clearly superior in more than one way.
  • Focus on stories. Great branding works because it emphasizes stories which can be easily spread by your employees and the media. Stories about what it’s like to work at your firm are the most effective tool for spreading your brand message. If your information doesn’t contain stories or if the stories are not compelling enough to be repeated, you have missed a great opportunity.
  • Focus on referrals. Nothing is more credible or powerful than having your own employees tell stories and provide examples about how great it is to work at your firm. If your referral program has not been refurbished so that it results in over 40% of your hires, you have to grade your branding program as mediocre.
  • Relying on collateral materials. In an electronic world, brochures and handouts send a message that you are antiquated. Because ads and collateral materials cannot contain video, blogs, or detailed information, you cannot justify their high expense or rapid obsolescence.
  • Referral cards. Providing powerful referral cards (both hardcopy and electronic) to key employees is essential if you are to take advantage of their broad social and professional networks.
  • Your website. Every potential applicant will visit your website as a mechanism for validating whether what they’ve heard about your company is really true. Your “careers” and “jobs” websites must provide opportunities to read detailed information, to review employee profiles, to read blogs, and to view videos.
  • It is tested. Never assume that your materials and approaches are effective. Test information you provide on your target audience in order to assess the resulting image and the action that each message obtains. This involves surveys and focus groups among the targeted individuals that you are not currently able to attract. (Do not ask them whether they liked it, only whether it would lead them to make an application.)

Audit Part Two: The Information You Provide Has the Maximum Impact

The next phase of the audit is to assess whether the information that you provide effectively sends the correct message to your target candidates. Regardless of how you communicate with your target audience, your efforts should meet these criteria:

  • A story. The information has at least one repeatable compelling story contained in it.
  • No trite words. It doesn’t use a single trite word or phrase (i.e., teamwork, values, ethical, a challenging career, exciting opportunities). If these vague words are used, there must also be examples included so that the reader can easily differentiate what you offer from what everyone else offers.
  • Quantified results. Using numbers to differentiate is one of the most powerful ways of improving program information (e.g., we offer 25 days of vacation the first year versus “we have paid vacation”).
  • Degree of participation. Potential applicants often view HR programs with a degree of skepticism. Overcome some of that cynicism by showing the degree that the program or feature is utilized by your workforce (e.g., 96% of the workers participate in our flexible work schedule).
  • Dollars and time spent. List the amount of money (or time) spent on it each year (e.g., employees devoted 2,005 hours of paid time to community-based programs).
  • Direct comparisons. Already powerful stories with examples and numbers can be made even more powerful when they include comparison numbers. This might include comparisons like “we spent an average of $2,000, the highest in the industry, while the average in the industry was only $700.” Stating that you were the first in the industry to do something can also be a powerful brand builder.
  • Compelling quotes. Almost any bit of information can be improved and made “more real” when a compelling quote from an employee or customer is added.
  • Programs have names. HR and people management programs get more recognition and are more likely to be passed on if they have compelling names (e.g., periodic meetings versus “departmental CEO coffee talks”). Program names should be tested to ensure that they convey the right message.
  • Involving ordinary people. Almost universally, applicants like to read information or hear stories that involve the success of “ordinary” people. Providing information and stories where the “little guy” becomes very successful within the corporation is a strong brand builder (even if your applicant isn’t an ordinary person). Assess whether these powerful programs are open to participation by hourly and even part-time workers.
  • Testimonials from individuals. Where more detailed information can be provided (i.e., the corporate website) effective branding information includes testimonials from employees. These can be narrative but they’re more effective if they are available on video and in podcasts. Profiles of your employees who are compelling can also be effective.
  • Real examples. Examples can highlight either program features or of a typical employee’s experience with the program. Without compelling examples, programs can appear dull and ordinary.
  • It includes media coverage. Narrative information about people management programs becomes more credible when it includes quotes or an actual newspaper/magazine clipping from when the program was profiled in the media. When possible, provide access to the actual media stories for the visitor to review.
  • Videos. Any successful branding effort must provide one or more compelling video clips. Nothing is more powerful than seeing and hearing what it’s like to work at your firm. Often, the most effective videos are prepared by your employees in an ad-hoc manner. These videos can be made available for viewing on your website or on popular sites like YouTube.
  • Pictures. When writing articles or including information on your website, always include a compelling picture showing the involvement of an actual employee (not a “canned” diversity picture with actors).
  • Imperfection. Nothing reduces the credibility or believability of information more than the fact that it appears to be perfect. When you assess the information that you provide, rate it lower if it’s overly glossy or if it provides a 100% perfect story. Instead, make a story appear “real” by including one or two things that are currently being improved.
  • An opportunity to read in-depth. Link to detailed information on a particular topic (the additional information is usually provided through a link to a website or blog entry).
  • Values. Nothing is drier and less compelling than listing a firm’s mission or values without providing details and examples to prove that these values are real. If you can’t differentiate your values and how you act on them from other firms, don’t list them.
  • Technology. Almost every picture and “nugget” of information that you provide needs to emphasize the fact that your firm is an extensive user of technology. Don’t provide pictures or descriptions that show antiquated equipment or methods. Instead show in every bit of information that technology permeates the firm
  • Trite slogans. After the use of trite words or phrases, the next most common brand killer is the use of trite slogans (e.g., “We care about our employees!” or “We focus on quality!”). If you must use these slogans, at least provide examples or illustrations to bring them to life. Avoid all slogans that can’t be demonstrated and differentiated.

Audit Part Three: Your Branding Effectively Covers Each of Your Employment Sub-Brands

Although every firm has an overall employment brand, few realize that a firm’s brand includes up to 12 employment sub-brands. Two examples of sub-brands are a firm’s image on the Internet and your firm’s image as a “green” environmentally conscious firm.

The very best employment branding programs focus on providing information that effectively builds their image in each of these areas. When conducting your audit, assess the effectiveness of your efforts on each of these sub-brands:

  • Your Internet brand. This includes information on your own site and information that potential candidates can find on other sites, on blogs and in videos. Effective branding programs ensure that it’s easy to find the desired information about your firm.
  • Your internal brand. Your internal brand reflects how well your employees are enabled to bring the organizations brand to life based on their experience with the organization. Internal brand strength can be measured through surveys and by assessing customer reactions to employee service levels.
  • Visibility in the media. Effective branding programs proactively spread their message in highly credible business and trade publications as well as on TV and radio. Assess the amount of exposure that your firm receives in the desired outlets and to what extent that coverage is positive.
  • Professional event brand. Assess whether your leaders have successfully increased your firm’s exposure and image by speaking at industry events.
  • Your referral program brand. The image and the information that your employees present when they are talking to potential job referrals is your referral brand. Assess its effectiveness both by the messages and the stories that employees convey, as well as by the percentage of new hires who come from referrals.
  • Your image post-orientation. How well your firm manages and improves your image during orientation/on-boarding is critical because so many individuals call new hires during their first few weeks to ask them “what is it like there.”
  • Your brand among college students. How well-known and how positive is your image among the college students you’re targeting?
  • Your “well-managed” brand. Many firms choose to bolster their brand image by offering excellent pay and employee benefit programs. An alternative approach that focuses on your firm’s excellent management practices (incidentally, the approach CEOs prefer) is more effective in attracting top performers, innovators, and game changers. This “well-managed brand” approach communicates that your firm has great managers and excellent management practices. Focus on surveying only top performers and innovators who care more about excellent management practices than the average worker.
  • Your “negative” brand. Assess the visibility of negative messages that can be found about your firm. Counter or “bury” those negative messages so that they are difficult to find.
  • Green image. A strong branding effort proactively builds the firm’s image and reputation in the important area of the environment. If most of the potential applicants to your firm view it as having a positive impact on the environment, you have done a good job. However, if they view your firm as a leader in this area, you should rate your effort as outstanding.
  • Your community brand. Your image in the surrounding community as a result of your proactive efforts to “give back” to the community is your community brand. This brand can aid in recruiting and in minimizing local legal and business restrictions.
  • Your geographic brand. Firms need to assess how well they have provided information that causes potential applicants to view the local area and the region in which a job is located in a positive light. Great branding identifies any potential negatives associated with your locations and provides information to counter them.
  • Your industry brand. If the industry in which your firm operates has a neutral or negative image, build up the image of your industry as an exciting place to work (i.e., retail, fast food, nuclear power, oil industry). Ask applicants during interviews if they have seen or heard any of your firm’s “pro-industry” messages.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are just now designing an employment branding program or if you are auditing one that is already in operation, it’s critical that you understand which factors make a program effective.

By using this simple audit checklist, you can force your efforts to focus on the critical elements that lead to a successful employment brand. If you need additional help on branding you will find numerous articles that I have written on the subject on ERE or on my personal site at www.DrJohnSullivan.com.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ere.net. He lives in Pacifica, California.

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