Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
19 Apr 2010

Engaging your people & creating great employer brand

19 Apr 2010 • by Changeboard Team

People are vital to employer brand

The most important element of your brand is the one controlled by your marketing team right? The fantastic ad campaigns, the witty radio jingles, the pitch banners at Wembley and Twickenham, the outside of the Ritz Carlton in Cannes? Wrong. 

The most important element of your brand sits at your desks, walks your hallways, often causes you headaches but if you’re really lucky, also makes your business stand head and shoulders above the competition. Many a business guru has pronounced over the years that “people are the best asset”. 

However, in recent times and with the economic hardship, it would seem that caring for and respecting one’s own people (above all showing them loyalty in the face of adversity) has gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Engaging with potential employees

For a study a couple of years ago, I observed a group of final year undergraduate students discussing their choices after the annual 'milk round'; comparing notes on the various potential employers with their glossy brochures, brightly coloured stands and free pens/chocolate/binders (branded with the corporate logo of course). The attempts to lure in the intelligent newcomers with training, junior management opportunities and a chance to fulfil every iota of their quite significant potential.

I was fascinated to see the level of astuteness within the group who, despite being inundated with promotional catalogues and an indecent amount of free gifts, were able to debate the merits of each organisation based on what they offered to the people. The hours, the conditions, the Benefits, the culture, the values, these were all just as important as having the right name for their CV for the future. Interesting given past experience showed favour for the company with the highest public profile and the best free gifts.

Employer brand - all gimmicks?

However, even the more recent evolution into promoting one's inner culture and value set, does not prove infallible when it comes to getting it right with your people. I followed up with six of the undergraduate group a year later when they were properly ensconced within the organisations of their choice. All six were asked the same questions relating to what life was really like within the four walls of the business compared to the idea (brand) they had been sold and the Results were startling, if a little depressing.

One out of the six beamed from ear to ear and declared it everything he had ever dreamed of. Three of the six used the word “ok” to most questions but wore a look of resignation and when pushed, elaborated enough to say that the culture and values expressed before they joined were “seen occasionally but only when it matters to the boss”. The remaining two of the six had already applied for other opportunities elsewhere as they were both disappointed and frustrated that “it was all spin and the business sees us as numbers not assets”.

How do some businesses get it wrong?

In an attempt to verify but also understand the findings, I visited the monthly senior management meeting of the various organisations to listen to the discussions on “the people issues” (as one MD referred to them).

One organisation had just cut nearly 20% of its people. This followed a cull of 10% the previous quarter. The recession, fewer clients, cashflow issues had all been cited as reasons. This, in itself did not come as any great surprise, however the element that did, was the announcement that thanks to the money saved, bonuses could now be paid, but only to those in senior management (a total of over 200 people within an organisation of 1500). 

One organisation had just cut nearly 20% of its people. This followed a cull of 10% the previous quarter. The recession, fewer clients, cashflow issues had all been cited as reasons. This, in itself did not come as any great surprise, however the element that did, was the announcement that thanks to the money saved, bonuses could now be paid, but only to those in senior management (a total of over 200 people within an organisation of 1500). 

The boardroom discussion I was privy to, centred on:

(a) how to ensure the bonus-receiving management kept schtum to their teams about receiving the money at the same time imparting the news that there was “no bonus money” even for those who received top performing in their appraisals.

(b) how to readjust the way appraisals were graded to ensure no-one received the highest performance grade (which would normally equal a significant salary raise and bonus).

The HR director almost had his head in his hands as these issues were being bounced around the table. In response to questions of “fairness, integrity, truth” came the unbelievable answer of “times are tough out there, if they don’t like it let them vote with their feet”. 

One organisation had just cut nearly 20% of its people. This followed a cull of 10% the previous quarter. The recession, fewer clients, cashflow issues had all been cited as reasons. This, in itself did not come as any great surprise, however the element that did, was the announcement that thanks to the money saved, bonuses could now be paid, but only to those in senior management (a total of over 200 people within an organisation of 1500). 

The boardroom discussion I was privy to, centred on:

(a) how to ensure the bonus-receiving management kept schtum to their teams about receiving the money at the same time imparting the news that there was “no bonus money” even for those who received top performing in their appraisals.

(b) how to readjust the way appraisals were graded to ensure no-one received the highest performance grade (which would normally equal a significant salary raise and bonus).

The HR director almost had his head in his hands as these issues were being bounced around the table. In response to questions of “fairness, integrity, truth” came the unbelievable answer of “times are tough out there, if they don’t like it let them vote with their feet”. 

Engaging with your people - communication is key

In another boardroom, following a request by the head of HR to conduct a ROIT questionnaire/employee morale and requirements survey (an online and inexpensive way to commence an honest dialogue with employees) one of the directors said: “I don’t need some damned online test to tell me what morale is like out there, I know. Let’s not waste money on this people rubbish, let’s get on with the business of earning it”. 

At this point I had to ask: “Do your teams know that you are aware of how they feel? Have you asked them or talked to them about what life is like now they are on lower pay with more work and fewer Benefits? Because I am quite sure if you haven’t either they think you don’t know, or more importantly, you don’t care”. Silence ensued followed by some throat clearing, and I am pleased to say, approval for the head of HR’s engagement request.

Brand - it's the experience you give your people

We're all becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to an understanding of brands and branding, the spin and spiel behind a well crafted marketing campaign whether it's selling products to consumers or a business to future employees.

Surprisingly, what's still only barely understood is that it is the experience created (both internally and externally) that is the true power behind a brand. After all, what good is buying a Ferrari if you discover post-purchase that the engine is that of a Ford Fiesta and the interior is more Kwik-Save than Waitrose? What enjoyment do you get from staying in a beautiful expensive hotel when there's no hot water and the staff can’t understand what you are saying? 

Equally, what good is it promoting your employer brand as one of kind, caring concern, mutual trust, loyalty and integrity if all it is in practice is words in a spirit book.

Employers - champion your people

In a recent brand audit of a large organisation, I asked all 20 of its executive directors to name the 5 values of the organisation (emblazoned on posters and mugs throughout the building). Only one could do so. None of them explained the meaning behind them correctly or could give me an appropriate example of the value in action. Is it any surprise that this business has just seen a huge drop in staff retention now that the economy is picking up?

Now for the good news. If you care about your people and you care about being one of the brands who deliver an exceptional experience from the inside out, you can actually make a difference here. Because this, the most important aspect of your brand, sits firmly within your remit. It requires bravery, a strong backbone and a will to Challenge the way things are done but it is possible. You have the unique position to use your influence and skill to restore a culture of trust, respect and loyalty that means to your people you are their champion and not just the purveyor of bad news and rule enforcer. 

Heroic HR?

From starting at ground zero and working your way through an engagement process that is both honest and robust, you can start to undo the damage done by difficult times. 

In fact, if you do it well, you get to be the heroes of an organisation, and who doesn’t want to be a hero.