The Power of Stories for Employment Branding and Referrals

Few people would disagree with the premise that stories are powerful mechanisms for selling ideas and concepts. In fact, there have been books written about how stories can help build and maintain corporate cultures. But, what most recruiters don’t know is that stories can and should play a prominent role in building a firm’s employment brand and in improving the effectiveness of the employee-referral program. No recruiting ad, brochure, website, or recruiter pitch can have the same power and effectiveness as current employees telling powerful stories about what it’s like to work at their firms.

Google: the Master Story Creator

Certainly, no firm has mastered the use of stories for building its culture, for recruiting, and for building its employment-brand image better than Google has. In fact, as a result of its efforts to continually create new stories about its people-management practices, Google has become the most talked about firm in the history of the world, which is an amazing feat in a handful of years. Its “story-a-day” strategy of providing every employee with an exciting story to share is a model for everyone to emulate. It has made it the number one employment brand in the world. Unfortunately, most recruiting and branding managers under-appreciate the value of this and certainly under-utilize stories as recruiting tools.

If you want to take advantage of the power of stories, read on.

Why Stories are Powerful Sales Tools

Employee stories are powerful because they come from individuals who “live” the job. Because they come from people who have first-hand experience, the stories that they tell are just more credible and believable than anything a recruiter or PR specialist could possibly put together. Similar to someone telling you about his or her experience at a great restaurant, the resulting impact (whether positive or negative) is many times more powerful than any recruiting ad could be.

Other factors that make employee stories a powerful tool include:

  • Since friends and colleagues can get close to potential applicants, there is little resistance to a story because the individual telling it is trusted and not a stranger.
  • Because employees have various personal and electronic interactions 24/7, they have numerous opportunities to spread stories to many individuals like themselves, who are thus good recruiting targets.
  • Since individual conversations can last longer, it’s possible to deliver detailed stories and much more in-depth information than is possible in a recruitment ad.
  • Face-to-face interactions and some electronic communications allow the target of the story to interact with the storyteller and to ask questions. Make the story personalized and add whatever details the receiver has an interest in.
  • Because stories don’t sound like sales pitches, there is less initial resistance to hearing them.
  • Stories are almost always interesting or entertaining, so they are more easily remembered and passed on to others.
  • In certain situations like at restaurants, in bars, at sporting events, and at social and family functions, everyone tells stories. This provides an opportunity to share something that might, in other situations or in other forms, be resisted.
  • Employees hearing and passing on compelling stories serves to reinforce their decisions to join and stay at their current firms. Family and friends positively reacting to their stories can also reinforce their desire to stay.
  • Hearing a good number of stories can increase their pride in the firm and the motivation to be productive.

Make Stories Available to Employees and Managers Through a Story Inventory

Stories only add value if they are spread to others. Most companies have no book or central depository that contains a list of all the firm’s stories about their people and management practices. Instead, they have to be sought out and put into an inventory that can be used to support the recruiting and branding efforts. Employees need access to powerful stories about the firm in order to use them in attracting potential referral candidates. Managers need to be aware of powerful stories for use in speeches, to respond to reporters’ inquiries, and as sales tools for closing finalists for their open positions. The best way to make the stories available is through a corporate or business unit “story inventory.”

A people program and story inventory provides the basic ammunition the company can use for building its brand and image both internally and externally. It’s not enough to have a large number of programs and stories. The stories themselves must be in areas (benefits, rewards, learning, or community related, etc.) to be considered important by your target audiences. In addition, these stories and programs must have some glamour factor, which makes them exciting enough to be talked about by your employees, the media, and others in your industry. When you finish building your program and story inventory, it becomes the basis for your internal and external branding and referral efforts. A story inventory is no more than an internal website (or, in some cases, an Excel spreadsheet) that collects and then categorizes stories, best practices, exciting people-management programs, awards for use in employment branding, “best place to work” applications, employer referrals, and recruiting.

Stories and exciting people-management programs can be identified through a variety of methods. PR, the head of employment branding, and HR generalists are usually the ones charged with seeking out powerful stories. The stories are then categorized by type, location, and function or business unit involved. Stories are assessed and weighted based on their relative power. In addition to direct access, stories can be proactively spread by including them in newsletters, executive speeches, management meetings, and as part of employee-referral program materials.

After formally compiling its story inventory, one well-known coffee retailer found that instead of having 65 compelling stories, it had over 360 for use in branding activities. The fact is that by not having a formalized effort to gather and distribute stories, you are limiting your ability to recruit and brand by letting 75% of your stories remain in limited distribution.

How to Identify Stories Within the Organization?

The search for best management practices, programs, and stories can take a variety of paths. I find that the best way to begin the search process is with a complete list of the possible information gathering approaches and then narrow them down, based on your time and budget constraints. Next, do a quick sample of each approach and assess whether that approach is producing useful results. Continue the information gathering for awhile and then, after comparing results, narrow down the list even further and focus on the approaches that have the most success in identifying stories.

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Before You Start Gathering Stories, Anticipate Some Reluctance to Cooperate

It’s important to recognize that the culture of the organization helps determine what approach to gathering stories is most effective. In a centrally-organized firm, it is very likely that the corporate offices are already aware of the best stories, programs, and practices. However, in a good number of organizations, headquarters is kept in the dark because individuals outside headquarters are extremely reluctant to share best practices. Why? Because most managers have a well deserved fear that if corporate found out about a local practice, it would make them stop. In these all-too-frequent cases, you probably need a one-on-one visit with the local managers in order to get them to share. It is important to identify these informal programs and the related stories because, oftentimes, they are the most creative and innovative.

Another problem is that in some organizations, there is a great reluctance to brag. And, you certainly can’t find or spread great stories without the willingness to brag. In these cases, an announcement by the CEO that he or she supports and sponsors a story-gathering initiative is an absolute requirement. Finally, some cultures hate surveys and meetings of any kind, so they require individual interviews and phone calls to gather stories.

17 Steps to Make Your Branding Stories As Powerful as Possible

When you’re speaking to reporters, you want to make your examples and stories as powerful as possible. The same is true when you’re writing an article, preparing a “best place” list application, or giving a speech. I have researched this issue for many years and, as a result, I have identified 17 factors that you can add to any story to make it more powerful. Or in some cases, it turns an average story into what I call a “wow” story.

Once you have identified a simple story, conduct more research, then add to the story any of the following factors to make it stronger and more compelling. Remember, stories with numbers and comparison figures are the best and individual testimonials about one-time incidents that use just words have the least impact.

  1. Comparison with Industry Average/Best in the Industry. Compare and show how “yours” is superior to “theirs” using a side-by-side basis. The use of direct comparison percentages or numbers makes for an even better story. Being first in your industry or region to offer a program is also an excellent story builder.
  2. Comparison with Last Year’s Goals. Show how you have dramatically improved your numbers from last year (or any period).
  3. Quantifying Program Results. Using statistics to demonstrate the business impacts of a program is helpful. Using dollars as well as numbers to describe program outputs makes any story stronger.
  4. Defining What Is a Good and Bad Number. By including inside the story a description of a good/high number and a bad/low number, you can make a good story better and make any number more meaningful.
  5. Awards Received. Programs or events that were recognized with an outside award or commendation are superior. Internal awards are less powerful, but still helpful.
  6. Degree of Participation. Just having a program isn’t compelling if no one participates in it. Showing the estimated percentage of workers that participate in or actually use a program helps make the message stronger.
  7. Stories Involving Ordinary People. Stories that focus on the success of the “little guy” (low-level employee) impress most people. Showing how the little guy matters and that he received some attention or benefit from a program is always good.
  8. Stories Involving Diverse People. Stories that focus on the success of diverse employees are very powerful. Showing high-participation levels by diverse individuals or the inclusion of diverse individuals at higher-organizational levels is a great addition to any story.
  9. Demonstrating the Amount Spent or the Program Costs. Showing either the large amount spent per employee or a large percentage of all total expenditures for the program tells the reader right away you think this is important.
  10. A Great Program Name. Often, just having a program with a great name can make an informal event into something credible. A cool or catchy name for any program makes it even better.
  11. Concern for the Environment. Demonstrating that we show a deep concern for environmental issues in a story or program helps us gain points. Programs that protect or support green issues are very important. Individual environmental and community work can also add value.
  12. Compelling Quotes. A good story becomes a better one with a short quote that one might remember and repeat. Quotes from average people about their jobs and experiences are great. Notable quotes from CEOs aimed at commitment also add value to any story. Quotes from major publications add significant value. Customer quotes can also be compelling.
  13. Testimonials from Individuals. Short testimonials from individuals outlining their passion for the firm or program are powerful. Testimonials about their treatment or experiences provide added value. Video testimonials on the website can also, on occasion, be powerful.
  14. Add a Video Clip (If it’s a Website Story). Sometimes, words aren’t enough. Short video clips (3-5 minutes) can be included on the corporate website (or, in the case of “best place to work” applications, in supplemental materials).
  15. Add a Picture. A picture that raises emotions can be a valuable addition to a story, application, or website. Test it first to see if the picture actually does add real value.
  16. Add a “Wow.” A “wow” is a short story element (1-2 paragraphs in length) that, when told, is so powerful that the person literally responds with a verbal sound (i.e., “Wow”). Most “wow” stories are passed on to others verbally or in e-mails.
  17. Add a Web Link. Add a web link to a written story or award application so the reader can easily find more detailed follow-up information.

What Kinds of Stories Have the Most Impact on Recruiting and Brand Building?

They are many categories of stories that can have positive recruiting and branding impacts. And, there are other categories of stories that can help build the firm’s image and its referral success rate. They include stories that illustrate:

  • How employees are free to innovate and experiment.
  • How employees are involved in decision-making.
  • How managers listen to their employees.
  • How performance is recognized and rewarded.
  • Opportunities when the little guy can jump job levels or be offered extraordinary opportunities.
  • Job security.
  • Strong ethics or corporate values.
  • Flexibility and work-life balance.
  • That employees have a chance to make a difference or change the world.
  • Learning and development opportunities.
  • That employees share in the company’s success.
  • The firm’s concern for the environment.
  • Teamwork is encouraged.

Examples from Google

In the case of Google, the company has utilized almost every story category to build a culture, attract recruits, and develop its employment brand image. Some of its programs and activities might on the surface seem outrageous, but you have to admit that they have resulted in compelling stories that have been widely spread and repeated in the media by employees and over the Internet.

Here are a few examples of Google’s practices that have helped build its employment brand:

  • Demonstrating It’s Different. Doing things that would never be allowed at most organizations sends a clear message that working at that firm would certainly be different than at almost any other firm. You can search the Internet and easily find stories about Google’s Pajama Day, valet parking, on-site massage and laundromat, Movie Day, and on-site concerts. Of course it doesn’t hold Pajama Day every day, but the fact that it could never happen at your firm in a million years says it all.
  • Demonstrating Its Trust in Employees. Once again, it’s easy to find stories about Google’s trust in its employees. In addition to the 20% free time, there are stories about executives celebrating million-dollar failures, not tracking sick time, and allowing employees to work remotely. Google has provided real examples that it lives its values.
  • Showing It’s a Fun Place. Almost all firms use the term “work-life balance,” but stories about how no employee should be more than 200 feet away from free snacks, a martini blow-out, free meals all day, and allowing dogs on-campus illustrate that it’s a fun place better than any website bullet-point could.

Final Thoughts

The business world generally focuses on “hard” things. But, in direct contrast, stories work because they are “soft” and interesting. Stories are powerful because they highlight real events and incidents that the average worker can relate to. Unlike most of the corporate information that is provided to employees (which is often considered to be propaganda), employees are more than willing to listen to and spread compelling stories that illustrate some of the positive things that their corporations do for them. Although gathering and spreading stories isn’t always on the radar of the heads of recruiting and employment branding, it should be.

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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