Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why Employer Brand is Critical to Retention and Engagement

Trends related to talent shortages, globalization and offshoring, not to mention the economic slowdown, have ensured that talent managers are focused on engaging and retaining their current talent pools. To ensure top talent stays where it should - within your organization - talent managers must consider how to create a positive employee experience as a piece of an employer's overall brand.

The Importance of the Employee Experience

The bigger the consumer brand, the more likely it is that an organization will attract top candidates, at least in the initial recruiting stages. However, your company brand is only as good as the employee's experience of that brand promise. If the consumer brand is strong but the employer brand is weak, an employee may feel deceived or undervalued and think, "This company is not what they portray to the public," or "they are not committed to their people." Neither is a good message to send to potential or existing talent.

The employee experience starts with an employee's first interaction with an organization. That first impression may extend far beyond company offerings in position, salary and benefits. Today's workforce is equally concerned with opportunities for career advancement, rewards and recognition, management style and company culture. Together these blend to make up the employer value proposition and employer brand, that impact the employee experience and, ultimately, the hire's decision to join and remain with an organization.

"Early-stage companies must put their best foot forward to attract top talent, as they don't necessarily have a visible consumer brand," said Blake Wolff, COO of Astadia Inc., a management consulting and on-demand technology solutions company. "Once new hires have joined the organization, the employer should reinforce the brand promise with an environment of open, honest communication and a well-developed career development program."

Connect Employer and Company Brand

One leading high technology organization has a mission to foster highly customer-centric employees. Its mission to deliver superior customer service and satisfaction is reinforced throughout the recruiting process. This mission drives the branding and messaging for all its online recruiting campaigns. Resulting candidates are deemed a good fit for a position if they demonstrate proven customer-centric knowledge and skills. By ensuring their new hires' skills and prior experience match core company culture, the organization is setting a strong framework for success.

But the importance of brand doesn't stop at the recruiting process. Financial services firms are known to support formal career tracks for their talent in order to create the right kind of employee experience. Many have received the "Best Company to Work For" label that aids brand building because employees like to know that an organization is committed to employees' long-term growth and development. Companies that incorporate this commitment into their employer brand and message will have an advantage because the employer brand validates why top candidates came to the organization in the first place.

"A thoughtful employer brand can be just as valuable as a well-executed consumer brand," said Gordon Rudow, CEO of San Francisco-based Bonfire Communications, an agency that specializes in building company brands. "Just as a good consumer brand inspires trust and loyalty, so does a strong employer brand help attract, engage and retain the best people and harness their performance."

Many talent managers partner with the marketing department to help build an effective employer brand. It makes sense to leverage the expertise of marketers that spend their days building brands and running programs to attract and retain customers. They know a customer today is not necessarily a customer tomorrow, and HR and business leaders can apply marketing concepts to their recruiting and branding efforts to build a competitive edge.

Employer Brand, On-Boarding and Company Performance

On the first day of work, an employee is exposed to a company's values, mission, culture and attitudes. This usually happens during the employee on-boarding process. The new employee soaks in the company atmosphere via provided materials, messages from colleagues and communications from HR and business leaders.

Imagine an employee who has a negative first impression because the company mission is unclear, on-boarding instructions or product materials are inconsistent or colleagues are complaining. Given those mixed messages, that person may wonder about the viability of the company and may not commit fully to the organization or his or her new role.

Then imagine an employee arrives for the first day of employment and finds a solid company message on the organizational culture and mission. Colleagues are upbeat, and company product and service information is clearly and consistently presented. This employee likely would be more excited to be part of that team than the former. Further, the employee presented with positive, consistent employer brand message is more likely to refer a skilled peer to the organization.

"A new hire's on-boarding is only the beginning of the overall employee experience," Rudow said. "That initial interaction is reinforced by a series of touch points around the company's mission, vision and values, learned through the attitudes and behaviors of colleagues and executives. Those touch points become the foundation of an employer brand."

On-boarding programs are a perfect opportunity to reinforce the employer brand and generate a positive employee experience. For example, a leading media organization has a comprehensive way to help new hires get acclimated quickly and get them excited about the company and its brand. Each employee goes through a formal online on-boarding program in which they hear the company mission from the CEO, learn about the company culture and history, and learn about its core products and value propositions. They receive buddies or mentors to guide them on their career paths.

The company's focus on the employee experience via a formal on-boarding program has had a high impact on engagement and performance. Employees know how to do their jobs, are clear on company values and messaging, and feel part of a greater purpose. Activities and messages are delivered through a Web-based on-boarding application that standardizes how the information is delivered and also manages activities such as shadowing a manager or attending a specific course or seminar to help them grow in their roles.

On-boarding programs also are an opportunity to set expectations around performance and establish employee guidelines for a successful working relationship with the organization. Astadia connects company strategic objectives to employee actions immediately. During the first day of employee orientation, an Astadia executive reviews the company's strategic objectives and outlines the importance of aligning them with individual objectives and tasks. Then the annual employee review process measures individual objectives success and how that success impacts the company's strategic objectives.

A company's strategic objectives and mission should be clearly communicated early and on a continual basis throughout the employee life cycle because they make up the core components that drive the employer brand.

Happy Employees Can Be Great Brand Ambassadors

Imagine a happy new hire has been working for the organization for a couple of months. Now imagine this employee in front of a potential customer, partner or other influencer. If this individual shares the vision, mission and can clearly articulate the value of the organization's products or services, he or she is a strong ambassador for the company brand.

"All too often, companies overlook the role their people can play as frontline champions of their brand," Rudow said. "But the more these companies develop their external brand, the more they realize the value of starting from the inside out."

Companies need to continually align employee knowledge, the corporate mission and brand messaging. If an organization is launching a new product or service, make sure employees are appropriately trained to speak about that product or service.

"Our client's perception of our brand is based on the actions, statements and successes of our team," Wolff said. "With consultants deployed globally, we work constantly to increase the consistency and impact of our internal messaging to drive positive external branding. Mentoring during an employee's first few months at Astadia has not only positively affected performance, but also has significantly helped in getting employee buy-in and engagement in regards to employer brand."

Solicit employee input regularly to see if the organization fulfills the employee brand promise. This can be done through annual employee engagement surveys, or through more frequent, informal surveys. Feedback received will help the company ensure it is investing in the programs that matter most to its talent.

Further, company brand and experience can and should extend out to an organization's network of partners, resellers and distributors. Just as internal employees are brand and company advocates, a company's trusted network of indirect sales channels should be, too. Many organizations use extended enterprise training solutions to share best practices, vision, mission and brand with their partners.

For remote partners, Web-based systems can facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration of brand and related materials. Many organizations also request partners be certified on their ability to deliver consistent brand messaging.

Beyond Employer Brand

Companies spend billions every year on their consumer brands to attract new customers and open new markets. These vast sums are meant to entice the consumer to buy and continue buying throughout the product and company life cycle.

Leading organizations may suffer if their employees don't understand or can't articulate company value to the marketplace. Formal employer brand programs will help attract, retain and motivate top talent in a market in which the talent pool is shrinking and recruiting costs are growing.

[About the Author: Julie Norquist Roy is director of marketing for Cornerstone OnDemand.]

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