Three words that will pull a deep sigh out of even the most dedicated employees:
It’s estimated that an average, untrained adult who is new to fitness could run about a quarter of a mile before they would need to stop and walk.
It’s 2023, and a quarter mile is the same distance you need to travel before you see a “now hiring” sign in front of a business. That might even be generous.
In the three years since Covid-19 triggered the shakeup leading into this period of Great Resignation, we haven’t seen a change in the business community’s top issue. Employee recruitment and retention remain the top priority expressed in nearly every gathering of business leaders and HR professionals in this post-mask United States.
Recruitment and retention challenges have driven us to partner with Riveter Design - tag-teaming this particular issue for clients in diverse industries since 2021. For both Riveter and Wayforward, our client engagements are always bespoke. We tailor our services to meet the specific needs of each company. There are no canned products or services we provide. But the struggles with finding and holding on to people haven’t abated for my clients or theirs.
The continued demands for solutions on this topic eventually drove us to spend time formalizing the processes we’d been applying to our client's challenges, and building it into a package that we dubbed Employer Branding: Becoming an Employer of Choice. Essentially productizing our approach not only allowed us to help more clients, but to do so more efficiently and effectively than we were before. And to adapt it to fit well from organizations with 30 employees all the way up to several hundred.
Internally, our foremost challenge with Employer Branding has become our bandwidth in meeting demand. Finding and holding onto people has remained a pervasive challenge across the country - and so few leaders are offering effective, sustainable solutions that companies can apply. Despite our naturally scalable model and highly agile way of working, there was only so much we could do to ensure clients invariably got top talent assigned to their needs.
When we encounter an obstacle in our work, we invariably turn to our core values. One of those values is a mantra we find ourselves repeating often. It’s community over competition. In fact, that value was the driving force behind writing these thought leadership pieces on the Wayforward website to begin with (like the last piece I wrote on this topic a year ago, and this one on turnover). In each of them, the main purpose is to “give away the farm” - to instruct others on how we approach an issue so they could do it themselves.
So in recognizing the limiting factor of implementing the Employer Branding solution for clients was simply our own time, we made the decision to take it educational.
Instead of directly working to help one organization at a time, the act of building an educational approach to “EB” as we’ve come to call it (even the name had to get more efficient) allowed us to engage in a one-to-many relationship. Assuming their staff had the bandwidth to get the work done, and the internal objectivity to do what we were advised, we could teach businesses how to apply the exact same approach themselves.
So in the spirit of taking it educational, it occurred to us that the previous article on this topic could use a refresher. Let’s revisit how exactly one can approach EB at their organization. And also inject the benefit of some of our most interesting experiences doing this work for a diverse set of organizations over the past year.
Employer Branding is based on the idea that businesses are generally very good at marketing their products and services, but less so at marketing themselves as an employer. The reason for this is that most successful companies have a strong objectivity when it comes to that product, and they know their customer very well.
Companies also tend to have developed a responsiveness to customer problems with their product that is born out of that objectivity. In fact, many businesses came into existence out of the desire to solve a problem they saw a group of people having. That drove their desire to deeply understand that group of people in order to craft the best solution.
When it comes to employees and prospective employees, we don’t often see that same level of sophistication or even the same mindset around how to approach them. But we saw the business community grappling with this problem. That drove our desire to deeply understand what was going on so that we could craft the best solution.
What we just described, and everything to follow, will not sound like traditional human resources talk. It might sound even fluffier than that. But why are we doing it? Because according to LinkedIn’s 2021 Annual Report, the companies with strong employer brands saw results like this:
Convinced that’s worth your time? Keep reading.
One of the most abused buzzwords in business today is “strategy.” It’s like nails on a chalkboard to hear it when people mean something else. But believe us when we tell you that employer branding is deeply rooted in strategy.
Through a combination of research methodologies, you will gain a deep understanding of what makes your company unique - so you can share your story with targeted prospective employees.
You’ll share it by focusing on key tactics specific to your organization that will improve recruitment dramatically. Telling your target audience why your company is an employer of choice while creating a recruitment-specific pipeline using your existing customer relationship management methods and the communication you already own. In other words, getting the word out about your organization without reinventing the wheel or spending advertising dollars.
Research doesn’t sound sexy. It sounds boring, expensive, and slow. But it isn’t. Even in an organization with 500 employees, the research should be complete within a month or two. And there is never a bad time of year to begin this process.
The trick to approaching the research phase is to go right to the source for insightful information on what drives your employees, and driving personal connection with them while you’re at it. But also recognizing that the people you want to hire need facts to base big life decisions. So you’ll mine your own organization for data that crafts a compelling story of why it’s smart to tie their destiny to yours.
First, begin by interviewing the leadership of the organization. Whether that’s ownership, senior management, or the C-Suite. Since it is the employees – not leadership – that will define the employer brand, this may seem counterintuitive. But this is key to making sure that all this information is actionable.
You want the employer brand to be in perfect alignment with the overall business strategy. Any gaps between leadership perceptions and employee experience tend to be where the root causes of retention issues lurk.
Then, conduct in-depth interviews with a representative cross-section of employees. This allows you to laser in on what they value and appreciate most. It will dispel assumptions and incorrect conclusions amongst management about what employees might want or need. And highlight points of frustration or friction that may be problematic in your candidate and onboarding process - or driving turnover in existing employees.
You don’t have to interview every employee. You just want a strong enough sample to be valid. A representative sample of the employee population. Depending on how your company is structured, a good rule of thumb is 1 in 5 employees.
To create an objective cross-section, be sure to include: department, role, length of employment, shift, location, and personal demographic factors.
If you have a more homogenous population (for example if 60% of your employees are in the same type of roles, such as floor nurses or field repair technicians) you won’t need as many. If you have a very complex and decentralized organization made up of many different small groups – you may want to err on the side of more interviews.
Conducting IDI’s has the outcome of an increased understanding of organizational perspectives, organizational alignment, and heightened trust between leaders and frontline employees. It’s one of the main reasons we use this method rather than a survey method - in addition to significantly better information.
For an in-depth review of how to conduct IDI’s, check out this practical guide.
Before you start interviewing employees, it’s wise to communicate with them about what’s going on ahead of time. Explain to employees:
The very act of holding these interviews can have a positive impact on employee experience. Taking the time to listen to your people demonstrates an emotional interest in their well-being and shows that they are valued. Often the discussions during the interviews themselves will spur employees to organically begin to solve challenges on their own. But it’s important for leadership to define ahead of time a specific approach to action planning. This instills confidence that there will be action.
Be aware that feedback may fall into any of six different categories: processes, people, equipment, materials, environment, or information.
Who should do the interviews?
Interviews should be held by a figure that employees trust and are generally open with. This person should be skilled in open-ended, psychodynamic interviewing. These two points are key to avoiding projecting the company’s assumptions onto feedback or missing important information entirely.
We strongly advise employers to hold front-line employee interviews one-on-one. You may be tempted to use small groups to speed up the process. This should be avoided as it will almost surely taint the reliability and validity of your information. Some organizations are also tempted to use a survey to gather this information. There are many reasons why IDIs are used instead of a survey, and they’re detailed here.
However, the results of the interview data should later be combined with surveys on specifically focused topic areas when moving to action planning and implementation. This is valuable once you have zeroed in on what’s important and are now able to craft survey questions in an actionable way.
3. Competitive Analysis
Assess who else is competing in the spaces you hire candidates from. Map out what everyone else is saying (or displaying) about themselves as employers. Examine the candidate fields where your best hires have come from. Realize that you may compete in the same talent pool with other industries - especially for entry-level positions.
Spend a few days trolling your competitors’ websites, career pages, and social media presence. They have employer brands too, whether they realize it or not. Most companies that are not self-aware and accurately curating their brand as an employer has left it up to chance. Or they’re simply being who they are and the brand has developed because of it.
Either way, pay attention to what you see. Are they polished and traditional? Funny? Cutting edge? Down to earth? What angle do you think they’re taking? Who are they trying to appeal to? What kinds of things are they highlighting about themselves? What do you think and feel about each company? Be really honest with yourself about that part. The candidates sure are!
You should be creating an organized chart of each competitor that’s easily cross-referenced. This will allow you to create the landscape within which you will hone in on the intersection of A) the things that are important to your employees, and B) no one else is talking about. In other words, if everyone is talking about remote work, flexible schedules, or competitive compensation, that is not going to be the thing that makes you stand out. It’s just noise.
This process is intended to develop a clear picture of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats across the candidate landscape you are competing in based on your industry, labor market(s), and region.
To understand what candidates are experiencing, you need to understand the first impression experienced by your most important candidates from the second they first engaged with your organization. That is at the point of your current sourcing pools - whether those be job postings, university relationships, or social media.
One expedient way is to stack your IDIs with recent hires to get at this information. But if you have sources that haven’t generated recent hires - don’t just abandon them - make sure you’re examining them too. It’s critical to understand (and not assume) why or why not certain pipelines generate candidates while others may not.
Obtain detailed and realistic feedback from candidates’ perspectives on how your company plays in these arenas. Evaluate the caliber of the relationship forged once contact is made with a potential candidate - from the first touch to the signed offer.
What are they thinking and feeling at each and every minute step of the process? You should find yourself asking, “And then what happened next?” a heck of a lot. Your leadership team should come to thoroughly understand the first impression experienced by a candidate once they’ve engaged with your organization. Then the most important thing is to act on these (former) candidates’ recommendations to refresh the process.
You’ve landed a fantastic candidate, and they start on Monday. Now what?
The first days and weeks of employment at a new organization are a critical, high-stress time that highlights significant factors in long-term retention. This time is enormously important to forging an emotional connection between a new employee and the company. Yet it’s so rarely used for that purpose. Many companies seem to be inadvertently trying to do the exact opposite.
Objectively assess your onboarding process for positive and negative drivers of retention and overall employee satisfaction. This information can also be captured from IDIs with recent hires. But often requires further analysis with your HR or onboarding team.
One of the best things you can do is have an outside, impartial, objective observer shadow new hire orientation for a few days or weeks. Someone who can honestly and specifically articulate what they were thinking and feeling during the experience. In some organizations, a valuable method can also be anonymously placing a senior executive in new hire orientation and initial weeks of training as the shadower.
You can also employ methods like new-hire journaling and new-hire buddy programs. Make adjustments here based on that feedback and put control plans in place to ensure both initial buy-ins of the onboarding team and continued quality assurance.
The information that employers typically use to lure candidates - things like starting wages, benefits, etc. - may not create a compelling emotional connection with prospects. They may not be their key decision factors or could be causing internal challenges or even turnover without you realizing it. Try instead to quantify careers, day-to-day satisfaction, real human interactions, and pride in outcomes. Hard numbers and facts that make working for your company look like a smart decision.
1. Calculating key recruitment and retention metrics
The outcome you’re after here is to quantify your organization in a way that can be leveraged. Pulling insights from data that already exists to avoid reinventing the wheel. Most HR departments have treasure troves of data that are being underutilized, or they don’t know how to report it. It can tell a story that will guide your efforts and even help you make better decisions around recruitment and retention. Within every problem you’re having with these topics, you likely have data that can answer who, what, where, when, and how.
2. Capturing existing data to fuel compelling content.
Identifying compelling stories from the experience of your people may not feel like data. But it is. Earmarking potential employee evangelists to populate your promotional activities in the next phase is really important. During your research phase, capture stories that will hook someone’s attention. Candidates place three times more trust in statements from employees than in those from managers or leadership.
Okay, so we’ve done all this analysis. We have a huge pile of information. What do we do with it now?
The Employer Value Proposition (or EVP) is the cornerstone of the company culture and employer brand. You want yours to be concise and persuasive while articulating why a qualified candidate would want to work here. It needs to stand out among all the other noise out there.
Landing an effective EVP requires some deep thinking.
Why do our best employees (in the roles we are recruiting for) want to work for us? What makes us unique among other options candidates have? What do we consistently stand for in the eyes of our employees? What makes us desirable employers?
Your answers to these questions should be informed only by what you’ve heard from your employees. Not from the opinions of leadership or HR. That’s been the point of gathering all of this information.
Leveraging the insights from your research, write an ownable and meaningful value proposition. The EVP, including strategic rationale, once adopted, serves as the guiding influence for the tactical execution of an employer branding and recruitment campaign.
Practically, start by organizing your research into three categories:
Armed with your research and EVP, it’s time to get to work implementing your new employer brand through both internal and external tactics.
Internally, you’ll formalize employee experience positives and close the gaps in the negatives. To keep you organized and on track, these are the facets we routinely find organizations need to put work into during action planning:
Capturing and formalizing your employer philosophy ensures that the way you engage with your people is intentional and standardized. The good is now officially a part of the way you do things, and the gaps are closed.
Creating a consistent and future-proof employee experience ensures that your employee experience is systematized and no longer reliant on individual personalities
Externally, implementing the public-facing recruitment materials.
Elevating your recruitment efforts means taking the internal work you’ve done to systematize employee experience, and turning its value outward to forge connections with candidates. This means launching tools based on your EVP and aimed at establishing an emotional connection with prospective candidates.
Before considering paid promotions, be sure that you’re looking at using tools along channels you already own. There are a number of owned and earned strategies we typically address to be consistent with the EVP.
We'll be diving into the execution of the program in a future insights piece co-authored by our partners at Riveter.
This initiative requires a shift in approach from episodic recruitment (“I need to fill this role now”) to ongoing recruitment - continuously recruiting and conducting informational interviews for key positions within the company, especially in targeted growth areas.
This strategy ensures a curated and pre-vetted bench of interested and engaged candidates when you are ready to hire. The right tactics to shift to ongoing recruitment often include a job description refresh to align with the company’s core values and EVP, and candidate profile creation to allow you to move into a practice of informational interviewing.
Creating or refining your employer brand can be tackled in-house, leveraging the experience and insights of your current team. However, if you would like external guidance on attracting and retaining the best people, we invite you to learn more about our collaborative employer branding offering by checking out the Employer Branding site here.
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