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Employer Branding 2.0: Produce Better-Aligned Candidates

A man in a suit smiling for the camera.
​Lars Schmidt, founder of Amplify Talent and co-founder of HR Open Source.

Communicating employer brand to attract the right applicants has become one of the most discussed facets of talent acquisition over the last five years.

Employer brand goes beyond recruitment advertising—especially if connected with the organization's consumer brand and overall HR strategy. Brand can be a powerful business tool that communicates the company's values, sets it apart from competitors and draws the candidates that best align with it.

Lars Schmidt is a leading recruiting strategy consultant, founder of Amplify Talent and co-founder of HR Open Source. He recently co-wrote Employer Branding for Dummies (For Dummies, 2017) with employer branding expert Richard Mosley, global head of strategy for Universum, a global research and advisory firm specializing in employer branding headquartered in Stockholm.

Schmidt spoke with SHRM Online about the importance of being authentic with employer branding, working with marketing to meld consumer and employer branding efforts, and myths about the emerging practice that irk him. 

SHRM Online: Should employers create a brand or first figure out what their brand is and then shape it?

Schmidt: You'd think the answer to that would be black and white, but it's actually pretty grey. No employer owns their employer brand. The brand is the public perception of what it's like to work at that organization. Employers can and should influence and shape their brand, however. They should be consciously taking steps to tell stories that illuminate the culture and work environment. But the brand is a perception made up of a lot of different data points, including what the employer does consciously and things they have no control over, like feedback on employer review sites, and how their employees talk to their peers about the organization.

The employer's influence and efforts at crafting a brand land when they are rooted in reality and echo the employee experience. They don't [land] when [employers] are painting a picture that's disconnected from the employees' reality. 

SHRM Online: What should employers do to avoid creating an inauthentic brand promise?

Schmidt: Use your employees as a sounding board. If you're creating an EVP [employer value proposition] or developing a careers site in isolation, without employees being a part of that process, you run the risk of them saying, "I don't recognize this." An EVP is partly aspirational, but if all the ways the EVP is being executed are aspirational and not grounded in reality, the employees will say "That's not where I work; I wish I could work there."

From an employer brand 2.0 standpoint, it's less about attracting talent with a highlight reel and more about being authentic in how you represent your brand. It's not being afraid to talk about your lows as well as your highs. Solely being focused on talent attraction is legacy thinking. If you're not sending a balanced message to the market, if you're afraid to share any negatives, then it's not real. Today's job seekers are smart shoppers and more informed than ever.

The ideal goal of employer branding today is creating more-informed candidates who can better self-select how they align with your company and the role, the team and the culture. You can't achieve that just by selling the highs and ignoring the lows. You may get people to accept offers, but when they get there and the lows are deal-breakers, they will leave and tell other people about the reality, which will make recruiting a lot harder. We're seeing more companies embrace radical openness and transparency and being willing to show their warts as well as their positives. They may get less applicants, but they will be more informed with eyes wide open as a result.

SHRM Online: Should employer brand and consumer brand interact, and how should it be done?

Schmidt: Yes they should, but I think we're in the early stages of figuring out what that [looks like]. GE is probably the most popular example of that being done. Go back five years to when employer branding was in its early stages. You had HR people coming to marketing asking to have their own social channels to tell stories. Marketing said, "Whoa, we tell the stories. We touch the audience. We don't trust you to do that."

In most companies now, especially larger companies, the understanding of employer branding is more mature. It's still the younger sibling to marketing, but with campaigns like what GE is doing, the business can start to see that its people can be a product differentiator in the consumer marketplace. The consulting industry is a good example of this, where you can humanize the product, which in the case of consulting is people. It's also a way to provide consumers with an additional look inside the company. Let's say you sell gum. And I like your gum. But if I can get a sense of the people who make your gum, who ship your gum, who work at your company, that can build more brand allegiance, and I'll buy more gum. Employer branding can be a way for consumer marketing to build deeper affinity and engagement with customers.

SHRM Online: How can employer brand work be done on a small budget?

Schmidt: I come from the scrappy, startup, nonprofit world where I had no budget and had to figure it out on my own and be resourceful. I found while working on this book that there's something for everyone, whether you've got a big team, a media ad budget and sophisticated tools, or you're a recruiting manager at a startup. For people just getting started with employer branding, they may be overwhelmed. Some tips include:

  • Don't boil the ocean. Take some time early on to do persona mapping for the key positions you're hiring for. Then you have an idea of who the people you're trying to attract are, what their drivers are, and what they don't want. You can cater your early efforts around connecting with that audience.
  • Empower your employees to share their stories, because it will magnify your efforts. Whether you call them brand ambassadors or brand advocates, you need help because you can't be everywhere at once. Employee-generated content lands much better than something created by marketing.
  • Don't get hung up on an EVP. I've seen EVPs as an underpinning for a broader employer branding effort be very successful. But I've also seen companies not create an EVP and still have a lot of success in how they build their employer brand. You can start telling stories and influencing candidates before developing an EVP.

SHRM Online: How can you measure the success of employer branding efforts?

Schmidt: One of the best measurements is something equivalent to a net promoter score [NPS]. In effect, employer branding is influencing sentiment. That's a hard thing to measure, particularly for TA and HR, which doesn't have the experience in measuring NPS. You see recruiting teams measuring source of applicant and source of hire, and maybe quality of hire if they have a good metric in place, which most companies don't. That tells part of the story, but there are challenges, especially if you have an ATS that doesn't have link-based source attribution. You're relying on candidates to self-identify, which is problematic. I've worked with companies to create a step in the application process that asks if employer branding or social media efforts influenced the candidate's decision to apply. That could help HR track influence.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: How to Target Passive Job Seekers]

SHRM Online: What are a few of the most widely held myths about employer branding that irk you?

Schmidt: That employer branding is just social media. Social media is a tool that can help, but it's not synonymous with employer branding. Employer branding is an approach and a strategy. Understanding that is important.

Another is that recruiting or HR has to tightly control every piece of employer branding content. Some industries are regulated and must be more mindful about what employees are sharing, but for the majority of employers, people want to hear about the company or the job from the people who do the job, not a recruiter or the CEO.

Another one is when employers think they have to be everywhere. "Snapchat is cool, so we have to have a presence on Snapchat." If you suck at it, that's not helpful. You have to be deliberate and conscious about how you use these tools. Be disciplined about the tools you use and really understand why you are using them.


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