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​Cisco prides itself on being a great place to work with great products to sell. Despite its status as a massive international technology conglomerate, the company’s leaders want potential employees to know that it offers a hip environment, with tuition reimbursement, a “fun fund” for team activities, flexible working conditions and an onsite wellness center.

But don’t just listen to HR or the C-suite. Hear Cisco’s employees as they sell the company.

On the company’s employee blog, Life at Cisco, a worker writes about doing charity work in Guatemala, thanks to a corporate program that provides five paid days off to volunteer (in addition to regular paid time off). The company also matches donations of up to $10,000 to approved nonprofits.

On Twitter, check the hashtag #WeAreCisco to read employee testimonials.

Employees are “one, big, techie family. We like building things to change the world while having fun,” the Twitter account says. On Instagram, Facebook and blogs, it’s the workers―even more than management―who are promoting their employer to would-be hires.

“We had a perception that we were an older, stodgy technology company,” says Macy Andrews, Cisco’s senior director for global university recruiting and employer branding. “And [we’re] competing for talent against start-ups. So we started this conversation―how do we get this story out there that shows who we are, in a really authentic way that breaks through the noise of 8x10 color glossies [of the office]? Who can best tell our stories? We realized it was our own employees.”

In a tight labor market, job seekers are thinking about much more than just compensation and benefits. An employer’s brand and reputation make a big difference as candidates assess their employment options. They want to feel connected to a company, proud to work there and in sync with the company’s mission, experts say. Technology and social media have made it easier for companies to brand themselves, for better or worse, and that represents both an opportunity and a danger for HR.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of branding. “Brand is everything, and it encompasses so many things, ranging from the in-office culture to corporate social responsibility,” says Debora Roland, vice president of human resources in Pasadena, Calif., at CareerArc, an HR recruiting software company. “It used to be, ‘How can I get a paycheck?’ Now it’s, ‘I want my life to be enjoyable. I want to be respected. I want to be challenged.’ ” And prospective hires will research you before they join you, she adds. That means HR departments must make sure their employer’s brand and reputation are being communicated positively and effectively on social media and elsewhere.

BRANDING MATTERS

The numbers show the need to use employer brands in hiring: 72 percent of recruiting leaders worldwide agreed in a LinkedIn study that employer brand has a significant impact on hiring. A Beamery study found that 77 percent of leaders in more than 500 companies believed recruitment marketing was a priority.

And yes, those Glassdoor reviews, best-places-to-work lists and social media chats matter. According to a CareerArc study on the future of recruiting:

  • 55 percent of job seekers who have read a negative review of a company have decided against applying for a job there.
  • 1 in 3 job seekers reported having shared at least one negative review of a previous or prospective employer.

And a Talentnow study found that 55 percent of job applicants abandon applications after reading negative reviews online. Half said they would not work for a company with a bad reputation, even if it led to a pay increase.

That means HR not only needs to help build an employer brand, but, critically, it needs to get that message out to would-be hires.

WORKING AT THE FARM

SEI Investments bought the farm―literally. The company uses the IdeaFarm, an innovation space located in a renovated, centuries-old farmhouse in Oaks, Pa., to showcase its brand as an atypically eclectic and artsy financial services firm.

The entire campus is office-free. The chairman and CEO, Alfred P. West, was the first to give up a walled office, says Colleen Stratton, SEI’s global leader of workforce development. Desks, chairs and filing cabinets are on wheels so people can assemble and disassemble teams easily. The floors are made of recycled tires (it’s an environmental statement in addition to being safe for dropped smartphones), and the company has an “art mart,” where employees can choose artwork to display in their work areas.

SEI Investments

SEI’s culture isn’t for everyone, though. “It’s definitely a pro, and it can sometimes be a con,” Stratton says. “We’ve had people come for an interview on our campus and turn around and walk right back out. But if they’re not going to fit in, in our culture, it’s best that they self-select out.”

Like Cisco, SEI has employees who do the pitching in videos on the firm’s website. Anyone interested in a career at SEI can hear those testimonials before applying. The brand―a serious financial company with a more-casual and creative vibe―is communicated through the voices of casually dressed employees, with the visage of a silo and (fake) cows behind them.

DEVELOPING A STRONG MESSAGE

So how does HR use employer branding to recruit and retain a talented and happy workforce? The first step is to know the brand, tweak it when warranted, and make sure it’s displayed in a uniform and authentic manner.

“Know your audience,” advises Lindsay Pedersen, author of Forging an Ironclad Brand: A Leader’s Guide (Lioncrest Publishing, 2019). “You can apply the same principle to any market, including the labor market. How can we match with [potential employees] in a truly genuine way? You can’t be all things to all people. That’s Rule One for marketing, including marketing to prospective employees.”

And no matter whether it’s the IT department or the sales division that’s hiring, a company needs only one employer brand, adds Joe Shaker, president of Shaker Recruitment Marketing in Chicago. “Figure out what it’s really like to work here” and then communicate it in a way that’s authentic, he says. “If you put [misleading] stuff on a billboard, it makes you look good, but people will leave if that’s not how it really is.”

To clearly identify the brand—and where it might be weak—organizations should rely on employee feedback, from the rank-and-file up to the C-suite, experts say. Beautiful.ai, a presentation software firm in San Francisco, chooses a different person every month to lead an all-hands discussion of the company’s core mission and values. “It’s a good way to get a quick read on whether or not the messages are resonating and sticking with our employees,” says the company’s CEO, Mitch Grasso.

Grand Rounds, a Bay Area health-tech startup, surveys workers twice a year, asking them to describe the company culture in a single word. “That tells us a lot about who we are and how we’re viewed,” says Peter Navin, chief human resources officer. “We marry that to our aspirations, making it clear where we want to be in the next two years. Next is to be super-focused going to market in a variety of different ways―online ads, events, recruiting campaigns, whatever it might be, to tell our story,” says Navin, co-author of The CMO of People: Manage Employees Like Customers with an Immersive Predictable Experience That Drives Productivity and Performance (De Gruyter, 2018).

Tech tools can help organizations anonymously collect and track feedback about the company brand. Tinypulse, for example, offers a product to send a quick, one-question survey each week to workers who can answer through an employee portal or a mobile device. Employees can also offer anonymous suggestions or give a pat on the back to a peer for a job well done. The data then goes on a company dashboard, where management can see how employees view the company brand and how it’s resonating.

That information can be used at every stage of the employment life cycle, says Monica Cruz, SHRM-CP, Tinypulse’s HR manager. “You want to make sure your employees have positive experiences at both ends of the employment cycle,” she says.

At Enterprise Holdings, the employee experience is closely tied to the company brand. The St. Louis-based parent company of several car rental firms touts its status as one of the largest recruiters of college graduates in the country. The company, with 100,000 employees worldwide, highlights its growth and promotional opportunities for first-time job holders.

One program, Driven from Within, gives employees the chance “to change careers without changing companies,” says Shelley Roither, vice president of human resources. For example, in 2018, more than 17,000 Enterprise, National and Alamo employees were promoted or took on new challenges in various positions throughout the world, she says.

“We chose ‘Driven’ because it ties to the transportation industry and the consumer brands, and ‘from Within’ speaks to what truly differentiates us―our culture and the employees,” says Roither, noting that Enterprise’s CEO, Pam Nicholson, started in the management training program.

TRACKING RESULTS

When marketing an employer’s brand to prospective hires, technology is an HR manager’s friend, especially when trying to assess the brand’s strength or impact. Social media engagement and traffic to a company’s career website are among the top indicators of the strength of a brand, according to LinkedIn.

Beyond that, HR should determine what percentage of users become active applicants, says Lauren Smith, vice president for the HR practice at Gartner, a global research and advisory firm. And, she says, “For each branding channel, it’s important to track the returns on more traditional recruiting outcomes such as time to fill and quality of hire.”

Cisco customer success managers in the company’s Raleigh, N.C., office have some fun impersonating superheroes in this photo, a

LinkedIn says a great employer can result in:

  • A 28 percent reduction in an organization’s turnover.
  • A 50 percent reduction in cost-of-hire.
  • 50 percent more qualified applicants.
  • Up to two times faster hires.

Of course, the strongest brands connect with people, and it’s often current employees who ultimately convince talent to come on board. At Belatrix Software, headquartered in Mendoza, Argentina, and with offices throughout the Americas, “Life at Belatrix” videos show the inviting office (including the “playroom,” a casual space where workers gather to play games or just socialize), along with employees talking about not just their work but about their hobbies. “We have to innovate at every moment” to connect with people, says Maria Luz Costa, director of talent acquisition.

“Ultimately, your company is built on human beings,” says Lee Rossini, vice president of marketing and executive branding manager at Limeade, an employee experience platform in Seattle. “Those human beings will be your biggest advocates or your biggest detractors.”

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

BRANDING TIPS FOR HR

More HR professionals are being charged with integrating their employer’s brand into recruiting and retention efforts. Here’s what experts advise:

Know your brand and your target audience. If your company prides itself on workplace flexibility, support for volunteer opportunities or a corporate commitment to social causes, make sure recruits and employees know it.
Make branding part of the entire employment cycle. Start with recruiting and continue through onboarding, career development and even post-employment. Long-term unemployed people are more likely to share negative company reviews on social media, but 70 percent of those who lost their jobs and were offered outplacement services say it improved their impression of their previous employer.
Use websites and social media―a lot. That means establishing an easily navigable company careers page, as well as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts that reflect the company culture, employee benefits and perks.
Engage employees in promoting the brand. Feature worker testimonials in videos, company blogs and Twitter. 

Remember that Glassdoor and other job review sites matter.  More than 50 percent of job seekers used an online job site to find a new opportunity, according to a Harris poll commissioned by Glassdoor. So be ready to respond to negative reviews. Glassdoor’s own research shows that 74 percent of users are more likely to apply for a job if the company answers reviews, updates its profile and shares news about the company environment.

Survey employees regularly. Use feedback to make sure the brand is effective and is fully understood.

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