HR Communications

Which Should Come First: a Great Workplace or a Great Employer Brand?

Mike Parsons, Managing Director APAC, Universum

Is it possible and advisable to work on building a great employer brand even if your workplace is not-so-great (yet)? Or should you work on making the workplace better first before attempting to work on your branding? This article aims to answer the chicken-and-egg question based on real-life cases and experiences.

Fact: Not every employer offers a fantastic employment experience. No matter what industry you put under the microscope, there is always a large chasm between the haves and have nots in terms of the quality of the workplace and employment experience they offer. What then does this mean for employer branding? Is it only for the best in class? After all, employer branding is, in essence, all about influencing your future workforce through communicating the strengths and uniqueness of the employment experience you can offer them. And unfortunately, it only works when what you communicate is true unless you want a very expensive attrition problem.

That being the case, it can be easy to think as an employer that if you don’t offer the compensation of Goldman Sachs, the innovation of Google, the purpose and meaning of the Red Cross, or the development opportunities of PwC, it’s probably better to keep your mouth shut until you do, right? At its core, employer branding is like any other form of branding in that it’s intended to steer perception and build positive associations. Employer branding is not change management. Surely the best thing to do is get your shop in order first, then communicate?

This chicken-and-egg paradox is something that plagues me and my industry colleagues. If you want to create a brand, you need a strong workplace and culture first. However, how will you ever create a strong workplace and culture if you have a weak and unmanaged employer brand and can’t get top talent to join you, and those that do always leave? Knowing where to start can be a real head scratcher. So, here is my advice.

Time is the most precious commodity
Like with most things, procrastinating with working on your employer brand is generally a bad idea. Waiting for a cultural revolution to happen first before you act could mean waiting for a very long time. It’s always far better to start managing your brand through at least the core channels, even if you’re just covering the basics. Employer branding is a journey and isn’t something you turn on and off at different times. Even when I’ve seen employers make a fairly soft start (you really don’t need to start with a bang), it usually isn’t too long until they start reaping many of the benefits of a strengthened employer brand. One of the most common things I hear in the first six months of brand activation is, “I wish we’d started this sooner.”  

The best stories don’t happen overnight
True, it’s much easier to build a coveted employer brand if you’re rich in compelling content and stories that can drive your communications. However, great stories usually happen over long periods of time, often over a couple of years. Think along the lines of inspirational tales of trainees who are now running successful teams, or when supportive leaders helped team members through challenging periods in their career. If you feel you don’t have these stories now, and you think it would be wiser to wait for them to materialise, that could mean waiting for a very long time. During that time your employer brand will remain the subject of uncontrolled communications, pushing your brand further and further from where you want it to be and making controlling it in the future harder and harder. 

Dig deeper and you’ll be surprised
Yes, not all employers are equally great, and not all have the luxury of plentiful content and willing subjects. However, no employer is totally devoid of great things to communicate; it’s just that some need to look a lot harder than others. If stories and themes are not immediately apparent, dig deeper. Bringing managers and departmental heads together to brainstorm and share perspectives almost always uncovers hidden gems. Create sessions and initiatives to involve your staff, formal and informal. Get a network going and get talking to people all over the organization. Amazing things you never knew will start to bubble to the top.  

Data will reveal what you didn’t know
If you don’t think you have a workplace and culture worth boasting about, well maybe that’s just
your opinion. An internal survey among a wide cross-section of the workforce typically always reveals themes and stories that fit the criteria for being content-worthy – because they are true, attractive to talent, and align with the vision and values of the company. The same can work with external target talent, as it often pays to understand how they really view you and what they think your main strengths are. When you use data to help find these themes and direct your communications, the fog always starts to dissipate. 

Stories create belief and buy-in
By putting authentic content in front of your target talent and existing workforce, you’ll start fostering positive perceptions. Even if you aspire to have more to boast about in the future, the positive stories you communicate now, when told well, will not only attract new talent but also show your existing workforce many of the great things happening in the workplace that they might not have been aware of. This enlightenment is a powerful thing. It has the power of creating believers and, in time, employee advocacy, which will help you immensely in building a more positive and attractive workplace. In employer branding, this type of development is a virtuous circle. This will bring you closer to that ideal workplace you aspire to build. 

Experience can attest that things are never hopeless and taking control of your employer brand will always have a positive impact on your workplace. Just like you wouldn’t delay managing your consumer brand until you had perfect your product, you should never delay your employer brand. You certainly shouldn’t wait until you are totally happy with your workplace first, because it might lead to you waiting for a very long time, or not see that day at all.Working on employer branding content, even when done modestly, helps to foster a better workplace and put the important elements like culture in the spotlight, creating a greater sense of pride and belonging among your workforce. Come on, what are you waiting for?


Mike Parsons is a recognized and published thought-leader in the space of employer branding, runs the Asia Pacific arm of Universum, the world’s largest and oldest end-to-end employer branding specialists. Data is at the heart of everything for Mike and his colleagues at Universum. Not least because Universum conduct the world’s largest and longest-running annual talent survey, collecting and analyzing the preferences of over 1.3 million students and young professionals from over 50 global markets each year.


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