Thursday, 12 March 2009

Employer Branding: Back in the News Again

I'm sure there's a strong element of selective perception on my part, but I think that employer branding is back in the news again. This product of three related forces - the talent wars, willing producers in the form of marketing consultants who sought to extend their reach and expertise internally and willing consumers in the form of a receptive HR and communications audience seeking a new twist on and language of 1980s culture management - has been hitting the HR press and conference circuit with some force. At one level this may surprise sceptics and protagonists alike, especially those that saw employer branding as synonomous with recruitment and the 'buy' solution to HR strategy. Getting talent in the door and fresh blood to stimulate new ideas was (and still is in some cases) the defining order of the previous decade and a half. However, as I've been suggesting on this site, the 'make' solution to HR problems - motivating, developing and retaining good people - has usually been the most cost effective and sustainable strategy for many organizations (though not all and not in all circumstances!), which I'm glad to say has now become the focus of employer branding.

My comments are made in the light of an excellent article in this week's People Management on 'Employer branding still makes its mark', a recent CIPD panel discussion, a surprisingly well attended Employer Branding Summit on March 10th run by Symposium Events, and insights into the content of future events on employer branding (including, plug, one of our own with the IES in Glasgow on April 16th). All of these have stressed and will stress the importance of employer branding.

To borrow from the CIPDs Rebecca Clake's comment in the recent PM article, 'Budgets are under pressure, and its now that HR needs to demonstrate that it is true to its will need to work hard to look after the people who are leaving and the ones that remain to retain a good impression of how good an employer you are' (People Management, 12th March, 2009, p.13). I'm going to leverage these excellent sentiments by suggesting it is not only HR that needs to demonstrate its principles but the boards of organizations and senior leadership that have bought into the employer of choice message, because it is they that will carry the can for raising expectations and failing to fulfil them (NHS trusts and boards may wish to take note because of their desire to promote themselves as employers of choice). This also works in reverse: some organizations' boards have over-promised on expectations and over-fulfilled them, usually through high bonuses and and increased pay. This privileging of extrinsic rewards, as research by Deci and others suggested quite a few years ago, may have led to people who previously believed in the value of intrinsic benefits as a source of motivation to now focus much more on pay, bonuses and other extrinsic benefits than in the past. These changes apply to industries as different as financial services and healthcare. In short organisations' performance and reward management policies may have taught people only to well about the values of material benefits, and to criticise people now for being greedy is to criticise them for being good students of perhaps misguided organisational policies.

I also suggest that working hard to look after people internally has always been and will continue to be a key focus of employer branding, in part because it is the signalling cues given out by informal recruiters and existing employees that act as the most important influence on prospective candidates (and yes organizations are still recruiting, up to 40% of them according to a recent survey by Taleo). It is also because through the web use of existing and ex-employees - social networking, blogging, reputation management ratings and media sharing sites, etc - many people will come to understand 'what it is like to work here'.

Even more important, however, organizations have had to work hard (or should have done so) over the past two decades to re-establish the trust that employees once had in those that delivered on old-style, relational psychological contracts in return for a willingness to go the extra mile. Much of the solid evidence on commitment to work (though not some of the consulting based engagement surveys?) shows a long term decline: as people are getting materially richer (or were), they are getting less satisfied with work, perhaps having learned the lessons of 'employability' and the 'cash-nexus' only too well.

The CIPDs panel discussion was particuarly illuminating because it brought together leading practitioners, consultants in the field and the odd academic to debate employer branding's future. The key lessons from that debate was that it does have a future, mainly as suggested, in engaging staff and presenting positive images of organizations for the future. It also has a future in helping drive the innovation agenda through building collaboration and enhancing employee voice (my kite to fly). Where that future lies is in creating a delicate and dynamic balance (the graphics equaliser metaphor was invoked brilliantly to explain this) between corporate employer branding and segmented value propositions, and in producing evidence that it works. More on this debate will come from the CIPD themselves.

On this last issue of evidence, one of the best presentations at the Employer Branding Summit was Graham Dietz and Tom Redman's academic contribution which demonstrated an association between external employer brands and some key HR outcomes (Graham, if you read this send me the paper and I will summarise on the blog). Studies like these are much needed, though they need to go beyond cross sectional work into predictive measurement. I was also impressed by the insights of Daniel Kirk from Lambie Nairn on the future of reputation rating on the web and the potential impact on employer brands, and a case study of Diesel by Tim Pointer, which had important lessons for the creative industry and fashion retailing sector. Three others which were presented by communications specialists, Phil Weare, Ian Humphries and Jill Tombs, interestingly head of HR and governance, all focused on the need to create internal awareness of the employer brand and align it with the corporate brand.

Of all the cases presented, however, it was the journey currently being undertaken by the BBC to create and employer brand - solid, well research and creative, this presentation by Madeleine Abdoh and David Roberts has lessons for all. Which brings me neatly to our forthcoming event on April 16th in Glasgow, where David will be speaking. So, if you get the chance, come along to this event in the Hilton Hotel, and look out for the CIPDs next event on employer branding on May 10th.

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