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  • Brett Minchington

A renewed focus on employer branding

Over the past six months, like everyone, I have observed the spread and impact of COVID-19 around the world. I have watched with interest how governments, businesses, educational institutions, industry associations and citizens have responded to the pandemic. The stand out consistency in the response efforts has been a lack of coordination between key stakeholder groups around the world that has given rise, to varying degrees, major economic and social distress. Sometimes it seems as if we are closer to a ‘new normal’ and at other times it feels like we are making no progress at all. Maybe we are just navigating the way forward the best we can until we discover this ‘new normal.’

We are facing new challenges in the coming years due to the impact of the pandemic and the numbers are staggering:

  • 15.3 million confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide, 630,343 deaths (as at 22/7/2020) worldometers

  • Global fiscal support now totals $11 trillion IMF

  • The world economy is expected to shrink by 3% in 2020 - a downgrade of 6.3 percentage points in just four months. IMF

  • Working hour losses for the second quarter of 2020 relative to the last quarter of 2019 are estimated to reach 14.0 per cent worldwide (equivalent to 400 million full-time jobs) International Labour Organization

  • Since the pandemic began, internet usage has risen by up to 70%. World Economic Forum

There are also hidden numbers in the millions of people experiencing mental health issues due to the pandemic and/or likely to encounter them in the coming months and years.

We are contemplating what this all means for our family, friends and our work which nowadays seems to all blend into one. Personally, I have followed my passion in employer branding for the past 16 years and am concerned about what the future holds for the industry and its practitioners.

Upon reflection I am constantly asking myself the question:

Has the pandemic led to an environment for employer branding practice to finally breakthrough and be viewed as the strategic function to build successful companies through inclusive, purpose driven and people focused experiences?

When I published my first book in 2006, ‘Your Employer Brand attract, engage, retain,’ for the field of employer branding to reach its full potential, I envisioned a world where:

  • Companies are people focused.

  • CEO’s believe their core focus is unlocking the potential of their people, moreso than maximising shareholder wealth.

  • Poor leadership is self-regulated as the voice of employee advocacy would call out examples of pool leadership.

  • Work and life outside of work is aligned to fulfilling people’s lifestyle needs holistically.

  • The workplace is an environment that inspires people to do their best work.

  • Companies care about the impact their initiatives to build wealth have on their employees, customers and communities and will be judged by these stakeholders accordingly.

I choose the title for the book as I had come to the conclusion following extensive research that employer branding practice could offer companies much more value beyond an EVP or recruitment campaign, even though that’s where the primary focus and investment was back then.

It was an ideal time to launch the book, though it wasn’t planned as such, it just aligned with my passion to write my first book. Over the next two years the economy continued to soar, just about every article I read about employer branding was really talking about recruitment marketing.

Figure 1: My first book, circa 2006

In 2006 the world I imagined for employer branding to shine seemed decades away. Social media and technology were only just starting to scale, a long way from today where they have integrated themselves into our daily lives’, to the point where they are subconsciously influencing our behaviours.

Since the beginning of the pandemic I have read and bookmarked literally thousands of articles about how companies should respond to the pandemic. Amidst many heartbreaking stories, the news across social media has contained many positive stories about the role people and their companies have played in the response to COVID-19. During lockdowns we have read about innovative companies who quickly pivoted to make face masks, sanitizer, and ventilators and heart-warming stories about people such as Captain Tom Moore who has raised more than £23m for the NHS by walking 100 laps of his gardens before his 100th birthday.

The common sentiment has been overwhelming positive and supportive. Leaders have been showing empathy and compassion at levels never before seen at such scale.

Gallup found that in early May, the percentage of 'engaged' workers in the U.S. -- those who are highly involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace -- reached 38%. This is the highest since Gallup began tracking the metric in 2000.

Some of the articles that have made an impact on me during this time and I encourage you to read include:

Each resource had a strong impact on me for different reasons. The articles from the Marriott and Airbnb CEOs show the power of humility, honesty and strong leadership in times of crisis. The statement from Paul Wolfe confirms why Indeed is the leader in their field. Indeed also anticipated and demonstrated empathy and care for their workforce at the beginning of the pandemic when they enabled their 10,000 workforce to work remotely in the space of a week and before any government mandated lockdowns.

The final article is from a company you may not know. It is from a leader I coach who wrote an article to express her thoughts why employer branding during the crisis is more important than ever. It is an article straight from the heart and reflects her own leadership experience in the beginning of the pandemic.

The articles are all great examples of leadership, the type of strong leadership that must underpin your employer branding efforts. Employer branding does not only have to produce short term results, it is critical to think long term, especially during these uncertain times when the nature of work itself is being questioned.

We are now living in a new era with an opportunity for employer branding practice to evolve like never before, when through the sudden onset of the pandemic, companies have shifted their focus to their people and their well-being. It is a mindset that will be a game changer”

The economic, social, technological and geopolitical impact of the pandemic is widespread and opinions on how to respond are diverse. What will set this recession apart from previous ones is that this time we are being challenged to question whether the current model of capitalism is working to create a sustainable world that is fair to its citizens and its environment. There are increasing calls from organisations such as the World Economic Forum to put environment and social leadership at the centre of response to the economic stimulus and to create a new focus on stakeholder capitalism, as distinct from shareholder capitalism or state capitalism.

The structure of the business world prior to the pandemic was not perfect. At times it seemed chaotic. Rising inequality, low wage growth, social and economic injustice, increasing government debts, environmental impact and a lack of basic human rights in some countries were just some of its flaws.

Until a vaccine or reliable treatment for COVID-19 is found, it is likely that outbreaks will continue as we are now witnessing in cities around the world. Unfortunately the human and economic loss that the pandemic has brought continues to cause untold social and economic stress which will become even more evident over time.

The role of employer brand leadership

Leadership focus and investment in employer branding usually moves in sync with the economy and hiring. When markets are up and companies are growing and hiring is increasing, the interest and demand for employer branding services is up and in recessionary environments, such as many countries are now facing, interest and investment drops off. This has held true since the last economic downturn brought on by the global financial crisis in 2008.

During this time up until around 2015 most employer branding activities were focused on developing an EVP and external communication initiatives with very little, if any, focus on how to align the people experience across the full employment lifecycle with the EVP. It was all short term thinking. It’s no surprise than turnover rates have continued to increase in line with this short term focus. There was very little thought into how to leverage employer branding to engage and retain talent over the long term and the function lost the support of many senior leaders.

Prior to this time, marketers had already embarked on the journey to better understand customers by mapping their experience journey and addressing the gaps. However this expertise never made its way into improving candidate and employee experience until many years later.

Since my first book in 2006 I have held the vision that employer branding contributes more as a business function and now, as we again face recessionary times, companies are facing hard decisions about the role of employer branding in shaping their response to the pandemic and what their company will stand for on the other side of it.

Companies have two options:

  1. They can unlock the potential that resides within their talent ecosystem and build external partnerships to develop new business models and people structures that are agile, integrated and drive high levels of candidate, employee and customer (and investor) sentiment, or

  2. They can shift their focus and investment to other priorities such as decreasing their headcount to improve their profitability and/or restore their share price.

While it is unlikely many companies will be spared the need to reduce their headcount during the pandemic, decisions around this should not undo the many years of investment into building a strong employer brand since the 2008 economic crisis.

The Employer Brand Business Model I developed and published in my book ‘Employer Brand Excellence,’ (2018) talks to option 1. It provides a framework for aligning employer branding as a business function (see figure 2). It focuses on agility, integration and tracking sentiment as key performance metrics which require strong collaboration across functions and external partners, not the departmental, siloed approach many organizations have become accustomed to.

Figure 2: The Minchington Employer Brand Business Model

In 2011 I launched the ‘Employer Branding College’ with the purpose of educating leaders around the world in strategic employer branding to build engaging work environments that people were attracted to work in and contribute their best work while also satisfying the social and economic objectives of their organization. I strongly believed Universities would be too slow to include it in their courses so I set about to provide an educational platform to develop the next generation of employer brand leaders.

Today, very few Universities are educating leaders about employer branding. In the small number that are, it is usually hidden in the curriculum as a few bullet points in a recruitment module as part of a Bachelor of HR course.

In 2020 we now have Employer Branding College graduates throughout 47 countries (see figure 3) with the competencies to lead an employer brand strategy at a senior level which demonstrates there is a growing community of leaders who believe employer branding can advance the economic and social objectives of their organisations by adopting new thinking, new business models and agile organisational structures.

Figure 3: Employer Branding College Global Alumni Community 2011-2020

The original curriculum in 2011 was designed to develop graduates with five leadership qualities. These qualities remain today upon which our curriculum decisions are made:

  1. An International perspective towards learning, collaboration and work.

  2. Operates effectively and efficiently with sufficient knowledge and depth to begin employment as an employer brand leader.

  3. Is a life-long learner with the skill to pursue personal development to continually enhance learning, skill and experience.

  4. Can work autonomously and collaboratively as an employer brand leader.

  5. Is committed to act with ethical action and is a socially responsible corporate citizen.

We also expect graduates to confidently answer seven questions commonly asked by the CEO:

  1. What is employer branding?

  2. Why is it important?

  3. How does it deliver value to organisations?

  4. Which companies are doing it well?

  5. Is it about recruitment, retention or both?

  6. How do you measure the ROI?

  7. How do we organize our people resources to optimize our strategy?

I often ask these questions in 1-1 coaching sessions with leaders during their first month of study and while few record a 100% success rate (nor would I expect it), it is clear from the start that:

If the strategic employer branding function is to achieve its rightful place inside an organisational structure, the leaders responsible for it have to be its best ambassadors. Companies need to provide them with the education, support and tools to lead the function successfully.

Companies are showing the way

Forecasting the future is not an easy task. In 2009 on the dawn of a new decade, I forecast what employer branding could look like in 2020. Upon reflection some of these forecasts happened quickly, others took a few years to emerge and some are still evolving.

In May 2019 the Global Employer Branding Industry achieved the goal of developing 100 employer branding case studies across four editions between 2016 and 2019.

I was fortunate to coordinate and publish the ‘Employer Brand Excellence-A Case Study’ series (see figure 4) which highlights the success that can achieved in strategic employer branding through trusted partnerships between the world’s leading agencies and their clients.

Figure 4: ‘Employer Brand Excellence’ Series 2016-2019 view

The series has since inspired leaders around the world to be bold and brave in seeking to position employer branding as a business function at a time when senior leadership’s understanding and focus on employer branding was limited to recruitment. Based on the feedback from leaders over the past 15 years, this singular approach is not working effectively nor is it leading to the type of workplaces that companies are spending millions on trying to portray to the market.

A review of career sites and social media sites around the world will show that many companies invest in looking good online using highly crafted images and videos (the ‘above the line’ experience) but when you research further or speak with employees who actually work there, they will tell you a very different story (the 'below the line' experience).

There is no point in having a fast time to hire or thousands of impressions on a sponsored Facebook post if internally decision making is slow, hiring technology and systems are poorly integrated and sentiment among candidates, employees and customers is inconsistent.

To succeed in thriving in the ‘new normal’ companies will need to significantly increase their investment and focus in initiatives that impact the way their key stakeholders feel about their experience with the company and allow them to show their true self. This will be the key to building competitive advantage through people.

This is going to inspire (or force) many companies to rethink their business model and organisational structure. It also raises some important questions to consider among senior leadership including:

  • If people are our greatest assets, how are we organizing our organisational structure and work flows to optimize their experience across the employment tenure from pre-hire to retire?

  • What internal capabilities do we have to manage our employer brand over the long term?

  • How do we align initiatives across the organization into a focused, coordinated approach that upskills and engages employees to support the delivery of a customer experience that contributes to economic and social profit?

  • How are we rethinking our business model to leverage talent and external partners in our resources ecosystem to build a sustainable business?

  • What proportion of our employer branding activities are ‘above the line’ compared to ‘below the line,’ experiences and how can we allocate funds from non performing areas of the business to address gaps in experience? (see figure 5)

  • What is the optimal balance between human touch and digital touch to maintain productivity, experience and well-being?

Figure 5: Where is your focus and investment in employer branding?

Measuring the right performance drivers

For years companies have sought the right metrics that would determine employer branding success. The reality is there are no set of metrics that fit all circumstances. Most of the metrics currently used are poorly correlated with business performance.

At the Employer Branding College, we teach leaders to firstly, clearly define the employer brand objectives in the context of organisational objectives, then align the short to long term metrics to these and update them as circumstances change (e.g. acquisition, restructure, growth, decline, etc.).

How companies perform on social and community impact is also going to become an important part of how you measure the success of your employer brand.

You need to focus on the metrics that matter and those that demonstrate business impact and ROI over the long term. The reason why many strategies fall short in delivering business impact is a result of short term thinking that fails to address structural and/or experience issues driving long term cultural issues inside the organisation.

The roadmap ahead

The shining light is that we have a choice on how we respond to arriving at a ‘new normal’ as a result of living through a pandemic. We have a choice on what we do next and how we shape our companies to create a socially responsible and economically sustainable business. Whichever choice you make, your people will be impacted.

Empowering employees so they feel truly connected to the purpose of your organisation and proud of the contribution they make, no matter the role they play, will be critical to your success.

I have identified three key strategies to build competitive advantage through your people that will also define the success of employer branding as a leadership practice in the coming years as companies navigate their way through to the other side of the pandemic.

1. Refocus your employer branding investments

Whether you choose to focus on employer branding as a recruitment function or a business function, don’t expect a business level impact if your investment and focus is limited to recruitment. Be wary of those who promote otherwise. If you are purchasing a technology platform to enhance the way you communicate with your target audience with the promise it will increase employee engagement, don’t expect it to have an impact on experience if improving experience is not part of your broader strategy.

Increase your investment in ‘below the line’ experience initiatives that enhance the way you make candidates, employees and customers feel about your company. Consider if the investment you are spending on ‘above the line’ initiatives is having a long term impact on the business and whether some of this investment is better used by reallocating funds to invest in employer branding initiatives which result in more sustainable outcomes (e.g. strong culture, ambassadorship). If you are only investing in EVP development and communications then you are missing the bigger picture by under valuing the true value a strategic approach to employer branding with the involvement of leaders across the business will bring.

2. Define your business model and organisational structure

The tasks required to build a strong employer brand will vary depending on the current situation in your company. If your company had a poor culture going into the pandemic, then it is unlikely to turn itself around now that your workforce is working from home, unless changes are made. It is a challenging time where many employees are finding it more difficult working from home than in an office due to home schooling, parental/caring responsibilities which may often be compounded by mental health or financial stress issues.

The future is uncertain, I guess it has always been. In the 'new' working environment companies must have a social conscience, promote well-being and foster an environment that embraces diversity, inclusion and belonging.

If you begin with your people at the core of your business model and build out from there, you will impact your employer brand in a way that will lead to a positive economic and social impact.

Identify the most effective organisational structure for the employer branding function by appointing a senior leader with strong project management and leadership skills to build a team by leveraging many of the untapped talents and latent expertise which exists across your workforce and close any gaps by engaging external specialists to partner with.

3. Build employer brand leadership capability

I have coached and trained more than 1000 leaders in employer branding over the past 15 years with many seeking to develop the key business competencies to be a successful senior leader.

If employer branding is to realise its true value as a contributor to economic and social performance, current and future employer brand leaders need to develop their leadership competencies in the area of business strategy and planning, trends analysis, people leadership and management reporting.

As an industry we need to demonstrate our contribution to organisations beyond EVP, talent acquisition or recruitment marketing expertise. These important areas are part of your employer brand architecture, however, they should not be managed in isolation. Leaders responsible for the employer brand should educate and influence the senior leadership team in the value a strategic focus on employer branding brings and at the same time take their place within this leadership group.

………….and some final thoughts

The closing paragraph from my 2010 article about the future of employer branding in 2020 is just as relevant today:

‘If the economic downturn has taught us one thing, it is the value of the three business performance pillars of trust, communication and leadership in building competitive advantage. The rate of technological innovation is increasing at rapid speeds and the greatest challenge for business will be to manage the needs of shareholders and employees to ensure that profit is returned in a manner that is both healthy for the environment and for employees. We should not forget these pillars have always been within our reach, the challenge will be how we balance our focus on them whilst managing the complexities of the workplace towards 2020.”

Today, we must now collectively focus our minds on addressing the complexities of the workplace towards 2025 and understand the role employer brand leadership can contribute in reaching a ‘new normal.’

Interested in becoming a Certified Employer Brand Leader and joining our Global Alumni of leaders from more than 60 countries? Click below for details on our next course including 1-1 coaching with the author Brett Minchington:


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