Employer Branding

Why HR needs to think like marketers

By Morry Morgan, February 2011
For Sale

Source: bradleygee @ Flickr

“What’s in it for the employee?”

This is how Oxus China Managing Director, Mark Baldwin, simplifies the complicated concept of ‘Employer Branding’. Baldwin, a co-founder of Chinese online recruitment website and HR service provider, Zhaopin, has since side stepped out of the mass recruitment game and into the delicate field of building brands, but not for potential consumers, rather the potential workforce.“An employer’s brand is now moving away from letting others shape your image to taking control back from the bloggers who may even write negative comments. You no longer need to be at the mercy of others” Says Baldwin. “What it’s like to work for your company might be clear to the people who work for you, but it is difficult to measure since it is an emotion. Translating that subjective feeling into a tangible reason to join your ranks is a skill that few companies have mastered.”

More than a feeling

How people feel about their employer brand is increasingly critical to business success or failure. According to Richard Mosley, Managing Director for People in Business, and co-author of The Employer Brand: Bringing the Best of Brand Management to People at Work, leading companies are beginning to realize the importance in attracting and engaging staff in order to affect overall growth. Of note, says Moseley, are GE, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Nokia-Siemens, PepsiCo, P&G, RBS, Shell and Unilever, who have pursued active employer brand development strategies.

“The three major benefits of strengthening your employer brand identified in separate studies conducted by Hewitt Associates (now Aon Hewitt), The Conference Board, and the Economist are cited as being enhanced attraction, retention and engagement.” Moseley also highlights the research conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council in 2006, who found that “strong employer brands provided access to 20% more of the potential talent market than weak or unmanaged employer brands.”Emile Mac Gillavry, of Maximum Employment Marketing Group, adds that there are also other benefits in building a strong employer brand.“With successful employer branding campaigns there is also an increase in efficiency. Companies with a strong employer brand decrease their cost per hire, because less executive search and head hunters are needed, the quality of the hire is better and overall the time to hire improves.” However, for human resource departments of many large companies particularly in mainland China, employer branding can appear big and scary.

“Many companies are simply not set up for this (employment branding), due to a lack of resources or understanding of the importance. In some cases companies are beginning to explore how a RPO (Recruitment Process Outsourcing) solution could be used to assist in recruiting and maintaining their talent pool.” Says Chris Watkins, Country Manager for The MRI China Group.

“RPO has become a more accepted possibility to deal with the complexities of the talent management problems inChina, however, there is still a learning curve within companies on how to internally validate the ROI with such an approach.”

Enter an alternative – employer branding.

“I tell HR to stop using headhunters because they are simply too expensive. On the other side of the coin job boards result in thousands of under-qualified candidates. Developing your employer brand is your alternative channel, but it needs some explanation.” Mac Gillavry and Baldwin both agree that the solution to this confusion is arranging an employer branding workshop to get everyone, particularly directors, to better understand what employer branding is and how it can save money. “It’s relatively easy to get a positive ROI with employer branding. I have a number of cases that I share, all targeting the massive head hunting costs. After they see this, many clients move some of their headhunter costs to run a campaign,” says Mac Gillavry. He explains that one large electronics company making touch screens had an HR director who was eager to convince management but was not given the budget to run a campaign.“We waved all the fees until the end of the project,” says Mac Gillavry. “They saw for themselves that improving an employer brand is more efficient and actually saves money over the long term.”

EVP as easy as 1, 2, 3

Sounds simple, but what are the steps of building your employer brand? The first step in building an employer brand is to build an Employer Value Proposition (EVP). An EVP is a set of emotional associations and offerings provided by an organisation in return for the skills, capabilities and experiences an employee brings to the organisation.

“We focus on the employee and what they need to bring to the organisation in order for the workforce to be aligned to existing, integrated workforce planning strategies,” saysBaldwin.  “However, that doesn’t mean that the existing EVP is the same as the vision of the company.”Baldwin explains that it takes three steps to build a strong employer brand. Phase one involves planning and scoping. This process typically takes around a week, and involves confirming the project objectives and desired outputs, anticipating the implications and issues of initiating the plan, identifying stakeholders and coming to an agreement on the communications program.

The second phase is only slightly more complicated and requires interviews with senior management, employees and even customers. At this stage the company’s EVP is discovered, in what Baldwin concisely states as a “what’s in it for the employee?” summary. Once the EVP is created, the articulation and development of the creative side of the process can begin. Which recruitment channels will be utilized, and what imagery will be used is decided. Some initial testing is carried out, and voila, you have yourself an EVP. Mac Gillavry, summarises, “In a nutshell, the EVP is the cross over between three areas. The company’s identity of who they are and how their employees see them, the image of how others outside the company see them, and the aspiration or vision of where they want to be. It’s what people say about you when you leave the room, but also how you want to be seen in the long run.”

Touching your candidates

But this is only the beginning. An entire employer brand strategy is more than just the EVP and its dissemination. Mac Gillavry states that a successful employer brand strategy focuses on the four areas of ‘Attraction’, ‘Interviews’, ‘Onboarding’ and finally building an ‘Alumni’ from which to maintain a pool of talent.“Some employment branding companies simply give the client an EVP and then say ‘good luck!’. You can’t just focus on the attraction of candidates, but forgot about how you conduct interviews, onboarding and alumni,” says Mac Gillavry. “For example, what is your rejection process? If you are an FMCG company, and are rejecting hundreds to thousands of candidates, then you could be damaging both your employer and consumer brand if you are not doing it right.”Chris Watkins, Country Manager of MRI Recruitment China agrees.

“When you don’t respond to unsuccessful candidates you damage your employer brand,” says Watkins. “Candidates can be customers as well.” It’s easy to understand that a former cola drinker might switch sides, depending on how they are treated along the job hunting process.” He believes that as few as three to five percent of companies successfully deny candidates.“When you think about recruitment in this way, you can see HR has a direct link to bottom-line results.”

Robert Parkinson, of RMG Selection adds, “And it’s not only about angering your candidate, slash, consumers. A lack of a proper rejection process highlights poor processes of your HR department. Remember that we are 10 times more likely to share a bad experience in life than a good experience, so be sure to show everyone the right level of respect and get back to each candidate. The best form is a phone call, with an honest explanation for why they were rejected, and this ensures that the candidate will consider reapplying in the future. Ultimately, you can hire someone easier because a candidate’s friend’s, friend’s, friend had a great experience. So treat everyone nicely.”

Of course, nicely rejecting everyone who applies, particularly for large organisations, can be tedious. Jack Hu of PageUp People, says, “Physically, it is difficult to reply to everyone, particularly if you have a small recruitment team. However, any consumer brand needs to be wary of damaging its consumer brand when rejection notices are not sent out timely. Our research is that a tardy response can too often leave a bad taste in people’s mouth.” Hu’s firm, which targets firms with 10,000 staff or more, provides recruitment management software, which assists HR to conform to best practices, and even allows candidates to be flagged and filtered differently, making the recruitment process and multiple stages of rejection, streamlined.

“Any robust recruitment management solution will allow you to merge multiple fields in your communication, so you can personalise a message, whether that’s via e-mail or even SMS”, says Hu. “And those candidates, who get further in the process, can be flagged for a phone call, because they have committed more time to the process, are most likely to be dissatisfied if they finally receive a rejection.”“For a company like BHP Billiton, which runs hundreds of thousands candidates through their system per year in multiple countries and locations, an automated system is not only important for maintaining a positive employer brand, it also frees up HR’s time so they can focus on attracting the best candidates for their positions.”

Employer Branding Linked to Retention

James Darlington of Antal International also believes that a strong employer brand helps with retention. His company commissioned a report on the most desirable employers inChina.“This survey aimed to find the most attractive employers in China, and was based on public praise, employer branding, external perception and performance of the firms,” saysDarlington. “The survey covered 10 main industries in China, and involved almost 3000 senior employees.”Automotive, Chemical Industry, Energy, Finance and Banking, FMCG, IT & Telecom, Legal & Professional Services, Luxury, Manufacturing, and Medicine & Health Care were included in the survey and respondents were asked which employer brand they would most like to work for and rank them according to the most desirable employers in the Chinese market. The rankings were based upon how many times a company was selected as one of the ideal employers.

“Clearly in our survey the international companies have outperformed the local firms, with three German companies dominating first, second and third spot for the automotive sector,” said Darlington. “The foreign banks, consulting firms and energy related companies were also on top. However, I was very pleased to see the local legal firm, King & Wood, receive high praise in the survey, proving that local companies are beginning to see the value in having a positive employer brand.”

Zhang Yinhu, HR Director of King & Wood, was very pleased to receive the recognition.Over the phone, just hours away from leaving on Chinese New Year holiday, Zhang stated that the award was a “fantastic beginning to the new year”. He stated that his firm had been successful in promoting its business through client focused awards, including the CCH China Staff Awards, however, this was the first time that the company, as a attractive employer, had been recognized.“The legal industry is in short supply of high quality lawyers, and so being recognized as a desirable employer will certainly help us attract new talent,” says Zhang. “Of course, it’s also great for making our entire team proud of working at King & Wood.”

Employer Branding linked to Marketing

Universum, like Maximum and Oxus provides, employer branding strategies for companies. CEO for Universum Asia, Johan Ramel, believes his firm goes the next step, however, by investing heavily in research.

“We do the biggest research in the world. We get 430,000 students to do the survey and base EVPs on this research. Therefore, when we provide clients with their EVP, it’s actually not us that says what their EVP is, but what the market says. That means that I am not an expert until December each year, when we repeat our annual research!” Ramel’s firm also focuses on passive searchers, that is, employees with an existing job. Says Ramel, “We do a survey on 30,000 young professionals in China each year. These people have been working for one to eight years. We find that if they have been working for more than eight years, it is hard to change their perspective.” He reports that in the 2010 survey, conducted on 27,365 employees inChinathe top companies to work for were China Mobile, National Grid, P&G, Apple, Bank of China, PetroChina, ICBC, China Telecom, Sinopec, and Valley Song.“Of course this can change year on year, so it is important for companies to conduct these kinds of research regularly, say, within every five years.” 

And finally, Mark Baldwin of Oxus believes that the perfect Employer Brand should be directly linked to your corporate, consumer, brand. “Why would you send one message to one group, and another message to another?” says Baldwin. “Just do it applies as much to the end user as it does to the internal culture of Nike. That’s smart!”“Ultimately,” says Balwin, “Human resource professionals have to start thinking a little like marketing professionals. If you want to succeed in this competitive labour market you have to make yourself more attractive.”