Managing Employer Brand During the COVID-19 Outbreak

Messaging has spanned the spectrum of good, bad and ugly

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer May 21, 2020
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​The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of employer brand during a crisis, but there is no playbook for this unprecedented time.

Employer branding—influencing an organization's reputation as an employer—significantly affects the volume and quality of applicants a company attracts, and it makes a difference to employee productivity, job satisfaction and retention.

"Regardless of what your EVP [employer value proposition] states on paper, how your company is treating its employees, customers and community during this critical time is defining what your employer brand really represents," said Lori Sylvia, the founder of Rally Recruitment Marketing, an online community with over 24,000 HR and talent acquisition practitioners in recruitment marketing and employer branding. "And what happens now will have a lasting effect on your company's culture, your reputation and your ability to attract, recruit and retain talent today and in the future."

Employer brand and consumer brand are more connected than ever right now because people want to know how organizations are taking care of their employees, said Jillian Einck, director of employer brand at New York City-based recruitment marketing agency Recruitics.

"Job seekers are going to remember which employers rose to the occasion and how companies managed and led through this crisis," she said. "Doing things that are not seen as people-centric during this time will have a detrimental impact to both consumer and employer brand."

Sylvia said that when COVID-19 was first declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, most employer brand teams understandably didn't know how to react or respond. "Hardly anyone had the presence of mind to reframe their recruitment marketing content plan that week, never mind communicate directly with their talent community," she said.

"I only started to see COVID-appropriate content in early April, starting with messages from leadership; and then moving to what the company was doing to support their employees, customers and communities; and more recently featuring the stories of employees and what they're doing to help."

She added that "it seems strange to get e-mails from retailers promoting flash sales while also receiving messages from their CEOs about how they're handling COVID-19. I understand that companies need to continue selling their products and that keeping our economy going is just as important to our future. However, it raises legitimate questions about what the right approach is to marketing and sales during a crisis, and specifically for our community."

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Employer brand messaging has mostly promoted themes of community, support and care, according to a LinkedIn analysis published April 21. The posts that have resonated the most are about how companies are stepping up to help relief efforts and offer "messages that put people first," as well as posts about working from home and promoting public health.

Chloe Rada, director of talent administration, technology and branding at global facilities services company Sodexo, said the experience of managing employer brand during the pandemic has been like "building the plane as we fly it. But if you're not leveraging the crisis to profoundly transform your role as recruitment marketers, you're not tapping into the skills you've been honing for years."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Recruiting Internally and Externally]

Tips for Managing Employer Brand

Since the onset of COVID-19, employers have produced a spectrum of messaging—good, bad and ugly. Some of it, especially early on, ignored the magnitude of the crisis. Some has come off as inauthentic and derivative, and the worst appear to be exploiting the calamity.

Experts and practitioners provided these tips for effectively guiding your employment brand as we continue to navigate this new frontier.

Partner with communications and marketing. This is the time to build this relationship, Sylvia said. "Communicating the actions that your company is taking during this pandemic is relevant for every one of your internal and external audiences to hear, and it will have more impact if you can do it with one voice."

Rada said of Sodexo, "In a few days, we put together a COVID-19 response plan involving ongoing communications that provided information and guidance for the various audience groups, including employees, recruiters, hiring partners, candidates and customers."

Rada's team started by mapping out what each audience group was likely experiencing in order to understand the types of communications that would need to be created or modified to address each group's questions and concerns.

Tony Prudente, senior specialist, talent marketing and engagement at consumer electronics company Brother USA, said that "early on, it became apparent that all the comms [communications] functions throughout the company had to work more closely together to talk about what everybody's doing and align in the messages we're delivering, which have increased exponentially."

Experts recommended employers update job listings with a message about COVID-19, directing people to a careers page and letting them know that hiring is ongoing or on pause.

And don't forget to keep current employees informed about the organization's hiring plans.

"You can't forget about the internal piece, because your employees need to feel secure, too, and feel like that message is getting across to them, as well," Einck said.

Be transparent about negative actions. Pay attention to how layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts are communicated internally and externally. "There's been an over 70 percent increase in Glassdoor reviews mentioning layoffs," Einck said. "We know that this is a given right now, something that some companies are having to do, and candidates and employees understand that. They know that business has changed, and revenue is down for a lot of industries—it's really more about how employers are reacting to those challenges, how they handled the layoffs, as opposed to the decision to conduct the layoffs."

Set the right tone. Rada said messaging needs to be assessed and reassessed routinely to ensure that employers don't come across as tone-deaf to the current situation or pushing an agenda. "Acknowledgment is an important factor during crisis communications," she said. "Radio silence communicates insecurity or lack of concern. All employers should have a public statement on their careers page about how they are responding to the COVID-19 crisis."

Sylvia said that while you're still trying to attract candidates, this "probably isn't the time for the typical rah-rah culture posts … Humor is also tough because it's so subjective and could be taken in poor taste and pose a real risk to your reputation."

Rian Finnegan, senior manager of employer brand and recruitment marketing at Instacart, said the online grocery delivery service "went from being a nice-to-have service to an essential service overnight. But given the circumstance," she explained, "it's not like 'Yay, we're hiring!' We have to be conscientious about tone. It's been important for us to instead build on the pride our workers feel as an essential service."

Employer brand professionals can play a valuable role documenting what happens at the company when times get tough, Sylvia said. "Explain how your company is supporting employees during this crisis. Look for powerful moments, both big and small. Share the stories that are helpful and informative and even inspiring. But a note of caution: Do this to inform, not to self-promote."

Prudente at Brother USA said he's grateful that leadership has taken action that backs up the brand, such as prioritizing the health and safety of warehouse workers and advancing bonus payments to employees. "I've been most proud of our leadership stepping up to the plate," he said. "I can only do so much to deliver the message. I need leadership to prove it and back it up."

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