• David S Cohen

The Seven Truths of Employee Brand


​What exactly is an employee brand? Recently, a number of clients asked me to clarify their thinking on this question. Unfortunately, reading what’s written in reputable publications, they’d developed some unhelpful misconceptions and misunderstandings. Here’s what I told them to set them straight.

What is a brand?

A brand is simply your reputation. It’s based on the consistency of experiences that people have when they work with you, buy from you, or read about you, etc. That impression leads to a sense of predictability as to what they can expect from you. It is the promise you keep. It makes the experience predictable.

What is employee brand?

Your employee brand is the internal reputation your company has among employees based on how they experience their day-to-day work. It’s formed largely by how they expect to be treated by colleagues, managers, and leadership. It is reinforced by the consistency with which decisions are made and how closely those align with the real “lived” values of the organization. In other words, in some organization, the employee brand does not reflect the values leaders and managers espouse because the real values are different than the declared ones.

​What does employee brand have to do with “best places to work” lists?

It depends, but usually not much. Such lists rarely examined the actual behaviors of the work culture, so they provide incomplete information at best. A potential candidate picking an organization from such a list could learn all kinds of nice features like the firm’s “corporate social responsibility” reputation, or the amenities it offers like free meals, day care, and a basketball court. But all of those decorations and trimmings are secondary aspects compared to what the organization is really like on a daily basis. Even worse, some companies imitate the bells and whistles of ‘better companies’ thinking that will help improve their employee brand. There’s no such thing as transferrable validation. Just because something works in one company doesn’t mean it will work somewhere else. Even if the somewhere else is in the same geography and same business.

How do you ‘brand for influence’?

First of all, for the reasons above, your employee brand already exists, whatever your intentions. So you can’t create brand from scratch – it’s a reflection of the authentic values of your company. But if you truly want to influence someone to come work for your firm, you need to be clear about your brand and you need to be able to express that clearly to others who would find it a draw.

Corporate legends are among the best tools for doing so. They are stories of times you lived up to your values with customers, suppliers, and employees in spite of some difficult challenge or crisis. Maybe you cancelled a needed contract because it would have violated your values. Maybe you helped meet the needs of a critically ill employee even though you weren’t required to legally. Maybe you were the first organization in your market to provide same sex marriage benefits because that matched the principles you say you stand for. A corporate legend is an articulation of a time when you did something not because of the profit, fame or glory but because it was the right thing to do.

​Is a clear employee brand worth it?

Yes. When people start their career they choose a job based on pay or, depending on the business cycle, availability. Employee brand is rarely advertised in a way that’s meaningful. However, once someone starts working for an organization, they begin to assess how well their values align with the organization’s. If the fit is not good, they begin to look around for another job. One of the key ways they measure that fit is by how employees are treated in that culture. If your employee brand is built on your values and corporate legends, it can have a significant positive impact on the morale of your employees (new and tenured). They will feel engaged and committed, and they will “spread the word” about what a great place it is to work. This can affect your bottom line in many ways.

How can you do a better job articulating your employee brand?

You don’t need an expensive or protracted process. In fact, you don’t really need to do anything – so long as your values are lived consistently, your employee brand will be an authentic and helpful expression of your organization. In this case, it is not about creating the brand, but articulating what already exists. It is about celebrating your authenticity.

What if you want to change your existing employee brand?

Good luck with that. Research says that cultural change initiatives fail 85 to 90 percent of the time. This is because values don’t often change, no matter how you try to spin what your organization wants to believe about itself. You’re far better off celebrating what’s positive about your organization and staying true to what you believe than trying to change how you are perceived according to some recent trend. You do more good by solidifying your true brand than trying to put lipstick on a pig, as they say.

An external consultant can’t deliver if he or she promises to change or spin your employee brand. But an external consultant who understands the dynamics of how values and brand work together can help you understand your lived values and your true culture in a way that will be appealing to your employees. Employee brand done right can be a powerful force for increasing engagement, productivity, and retention, while attracting the best candidates to your organization.

Celebrate who you are and don’t try to become something you are not. Remember, a great place to work is based on the alignment between your values (your employee brand) and the values of those who join your firm.

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David is a globally recognized thought leader in the areas of talent management and corporate culture. David has been working with companies to articulate their authentic behaviours over 25 years. He has worked with organizations on five continents. To read more on the importance of leadership acting with purpose (making the values real) and the impact of business success please read David's book on purpose, culture and leadership: Inside the Box: Leading With Corporate Values to Drive Sustained Business Success" His first book focused on the writing of behavioural competencies and their application to structured behavioural interviewing: The Talent Edge: A Behavioral Approach to Hiring, Developing, and Keeping Top Performers

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