5 Signs Your Employer Brand Is in Trouble
On Oct. 27, 2015, outdoor recreation specialty retailer REI sent a letter to its 5.5 million co-op members. It would be closing its stores on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. The company would also give all of its 12,000 employees a paid holiday so they could get outside and enjoy nature, something at the heart of the REI message. Later, as the national “shop ‘til you drop” fiesta grew closer, the company released a television ad about the shutdown featuring the Twitter hashtag #OptOutside. They launched a website, optoutside.rei.com, where users could find trail suggestions and other outdoor recreation ideas.
It was a doubling down on their brands -- both their consumer brand and their employer brand. Did the risk pay off? On the consumer brand side, it appears the answer is a resounding, “You bet your hiking boots!” Apart from garnering REI enormous press coverage, the Black Friday closure boosted the company’s online sales on Black Friday by 26 percent. More than 1,408,000 people joined the campaign on the company’s social media channels.
More important, the decision was a full-throated shout of authenticity backing up the co-op’s stated brand and values -- bold and trust-building support of REI’s promise to both its customers and employees.
Jumping on the brandwagon.
Today’s businesses operate in an economy where brand is everything. A brand represents a set of promises made to the consumer. Companies are constantly working to build, enhance and defend their brands. But when the world began this decades-long love affair with the brand, we forgot that the brand’s promise affects employees, too.
Your brand promise or “employer brand contract” consists of everything your culture, marketing, reputation, media coverage and the behavior of your people does to create expectations in your employees. What makes this contract tricky to manage is that it can, and will, affect employee expectations before employees even become employees.
Before employees have their first interview, your brand has already made certain promises about culture, reputation in the community, working expectations and company values. These promises may or may not be explicit, meaning they don’t have to be written down and presented to candidates before they apply for the job. However, they have already formed an idea, gathered through your website, word of mouth, recommendations from other employees, social media, community involvement and even their own experience with your products or services. This brand contract makes certain promises about what the company will offer employees.
Your ability to recruit talent is either enhanced or damaged by your brand. Employers in all industries are reporting being ghosted by potential hires that no-show for interviews or their first day on the job. What is the word “out there” about your company? Does it attract talent, or run off any potential recruit before they even click on the job link? Your employer brand also plays a key role in whether employees will choose to engage in their roles once they climb aboard.
Your brand is in trouble.
The problem is, some blame their ineffective recruiting and high employee turnover on the economy or other factors, rather than taking a good look at how the employer brand may be hurting or helping.
So, how do you know when your employer brand is in trouble? The five signs below are sure indicators that your brand is suffering.
- Recruiting difficulties. Sure, we’re operating in a time when there are more job openings than employees to fill them. But similar to a consumer brand, potential buyers -- employees in the case of the employer brand -- will flock to those with an appealing brand. When it starts being more and more difficult to recruit talent, even taking into account a difficult recruiting environment, your brand may not be attractive. If you are seeing a slowdown in the number of applicants for open positions, if job ghosting is a problem, if your quality of new-hires seems lower, or if your level of employee-employer “fit” seems to be declining, your employer brand may be in trouble.
- Decreased engagement. Every organization should be conducting periodic engagement surveys of its people, both formally and informally. If you do, and you see marked negative changes in engagement indicators from one survey to the next, that’s a red flag that you may have issues with your brand contract. True, it may also be a harbinger of other problems, but lower engagement scores should get you looking critically at what your brand is saying to employees. Research in the Customer Experience (CX) world parallels what we find in the Employee Experience (EX) world -- both promoters and detractors spread the word. In the first half of 2018, employee engagement firm DecisionWise analyzed the survey results from more than 200 firms asked to evaluate the statement, “I would recommend this company to others as a great place to work.” The results showed that for every six promoters (those responding “strongly agree” or “agree”) there was an average of one detractor (those responding with a “strongly disagree”). That's a 6:1 ratio, meaning that, on average, for every six ambassadors you have employed in your company, there is one employee doing what he or she can to tear your brand apart.
- Increased employee focus on pay, benefits and perks. It’s been proven time and again. When employees feel part of a larger purpose and believe that their employer shares their values, they care less about compensation, perks and other “hygiene factors.” That’s not to say those things aren’t important. They are. But if concern for those factors rises -- if you see an increasing number of employees asking about raises or grousing that a competitor has a better benefits package, for example -- that might be a sign that your brand is no longer communicating a purpose or set of values that resonates with them. They look to other factors (more pay, increased perks, etc.) to justify their employment. When that happens, you need to revisit your employer brand.
- Cynicism. Cynicism is cancer to any organization. It starts small, spreads quickly, and can be deadly. Employees are cynical when they become convinced that the organization cannot be trusted to keep its promises, including the promises made in the brand contract. They doubt the future. For instance, you’ll hear them complaining that a new management initiative is “more of the same.” That’s an indicator of a brand contract emergency and needs to be addressed ASAP.
- Fear of change. A consistent, strong brand and culture give employees a sense of safety that keeps them feeling confident, even when the organization is changing. Fear of change and risk hampers innovation and creativity. If your people are exhibiting a greater fear of change, or if innovation appears to be stalled, you have a problem with your employer brand.
REI gets it. Your consumer brand can make or break your organization. So can your employer brand. The employer brand sets expectations around the employee experience. So, ask yourself the question, “What is my employer brand, and is it enhancing or detracting from our success?”