Friday, 21 November 2008

A Great Week with Australian HR Professionals

I've just spent a spectacularly enjoyable and informative week with more than 250 HR professionals in Australia in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney as a guest of ADCORP, one of Australia's largest marketing and communications firms. ADCORP specialises in employer branding, and during the course of interaction with their consultants and clients, it soon became apparent that they do some very good practitioner-oriented research and creative work in this field. As part of their programme to support their clients and to learn more about what academics have to say about these issues, they asked me to lead a number of sessions on employer branding and on other HR-related issues I'm currently researching, e.g. strategic leadership, Web 2.0 etc.

From these sessions, a number of items re-occurred. These are worth summarising for the people who attended because they and others may have better answers to the questions than I do.

The first is something we wrote about in 2003, when we produced the CIPD's first research report on employer branding: 'What's in a Name'? There is no doubt that, in some knowledge-based, professionally dominated, industries - healthcare, professional services, consulting engineering and education, what's in a name really matters. This was confirmed by a number of discussions, during which branding was seen to connote spin and anti-professionalism among key managers and professionals. On this issue, my argument has been for some time that the notion of reputation management is more likely to appeal to internal stakeholders in certain companies/ industries and probably more accurately reflect what the process is about - underscoring legitimacy in external and internal labour markets for good governance and leadership, ethical practices and CSR, as well as creating difference in these markets through branding.

The second notion that seemed to strike a chord was the need for HR to be the guardians of 'authenticity' in employer branding. Employer brands which aren't rooted in what really matters to employees and potential employees are unlikely to be effective. Indeed, these top-down 'designed' brands are more capable of creating cynicism through perceived attempts at 'brandwashing' and dissappointment among employees through overpromising and underdelivering. One of the lessons is that HR needs to drive employer branding to prevent it being dominated by corporate communcations and marketing, functions which often struggle with the notion of bottom-up design or co-creation.

This issue raised an important discussion around segmentation: should and can organizations tailor EVPs to segments, and on what basis should we construct segments? Among the many interesting discussions we had on this topic were ones related to how far you go with segmentation and how do you relate segments to high performance, and to what extent do you privilege the 'global' over the 'local'. A number of organizations have begun to segment their employer branding on the basis of lifestyles, but do EVPs that appeal to lifestyles produce significant benefits for organizations? Also some organizations are wrestling with the problem that idenity and employer branding are essentially local phenomena, yet organizations seek to impose and privilege the corporate brand over the local brand (perhaps reflecting the dominance of marketing and comms). Is this the right way around for employer brands in frequently culturally diverse businesses? Or should we go for the equivalent of endorsed branding strategy, which is sometimes used in customer-facing corporate branding? Again, context is all important; there is no 'one best way'.

A third issue was the role of leadership and its impact on branding. It was clear from discussions that the idea of leadership branding was seen as an integral part of employer branding. Either because leaders have an important influence on the reality of employer branding through their actions in 'walking the talk' or other wise, or because we expect them to, the reality is that leaders (and recruiters) really matter in how people externally and internally experience employer branding. So, should employer branding always incorporate leadership branding?

A fourth issue was measurement. Very little is done in this direction, though for nearly all participants measurement is an absolutely critical issue in making a business case and in evaluating effectiveness. So, we had a lot of discussion around the notion of how to measure employer brand equity through psychological contracting, surfacing images, brand awareness, and some of the more conventional recruitment and retention metrics. For employer branding to really take-off (and for HR credibility), measurement has to be a lot more effective than has hitherto been the case, even allowing for the fact that what is measurable isn't always meaningful and the value of intangible assets.

A fifth issue was the importance and use of the term, Gen Y, which is more widely discussed in Australia than it seems to be in the UK (where the demographic problem is more about managing an ageing workforce). As we have pointed out in recent publications and will do in our forthcoming report for the CIPD on Web 2.0, Gen Y is a crude term than may do more damage that good. The problem seems to be associated with the 'fallacy of misplaced concreteness', in which shorthand labelling (of often diverse groups) begins to have real consequences; the more we think of the younger age groups as Gen Y, the more we treat them uniformally as Gen Y, despite the wide variation of lifestyle and behavioural differences within this group. So, do we need to be a bit more sophisticated in our research?


Donald Badman (99.94% accurate) said...

Graeme - great to meet you on Friday at lunch, the group conversation and your perspectives were very enjoyable & informed.

The discussion drfited briefly onto the consequences of Employment Branding not matching Employee Experience.

With so much energy focused on attracting candidates, I'd be interested in your opinion on whether it's possible, and appropriate that a strong Employment Brand acts as a dissuader to candidates applying?

Finally, if you'd like some light relief, I maintain as a homage to some of the more interesting characters and ideas in the industry.

All the best

Graeme's HR Blog said...


many thanks for your kind comments Donald and I shall look up your blog. I guess I'm torn between saying that employer brands should be strong enough to attract lost of interest, because in that way either party is less likely to make mistakes, and saying that employer brands should encourage self selection, externally and internally. Much of the evidence on recruitment suggests that long and realistic forms of engagement between organisation and individuals allow both parties to get a good sense of each other, and employer brands should be realistic and authentic enough to support that 'realistic job/ organisation preview' rather than produce corporate spin.