Need to know:
- As both competition and transparency increase, employers would do well to look at their brand values and how these fit with the expectations of the modern workforce.
- Flexbility, sustainability and opportunities to learn and grow are all increasingly important, particularly as employees continue to blend work and life.
- The positioning and communication of key benefits can be the secret to creating and leveraging a strong employer brand.
UK employment is at its highest since records began in the 1970s, according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in March 2019. So, with the war for talent at its most competitive, organisations must create an eye-catching brand to stand out.
Yvonne Smyth, group head of diversity and inclusion at Hays, explains: “A strong employer brand will capture hearts and minds, unlocking the passive job seeker and tapping into a pool of talent that didn’t even know the organisation existed. It can be very powerful.”
For the modern workforce, particularly among younger staff, employment has become about more than just pay and security. A clear brand can help exhibit the values, mission and social impact of an organisation.
This information is likely to be visible whether an employer wants it or not, says Rich Veal, global practice leader, communication and change management at Willis Towers Watson. “Thanks to social media and review websites such as Glassdoor, there’s more visibility around what it’s like to work for an organisation,” he explains. “Building a strong brand that sets out the organisation’s values and tells people what it’s like to work there can help.”
Understanding the needs of the current workforce is a must, says Sarah Robson, senior communications consultant at Aon Employee Benefits.
“It’s all about employee experience,” she explains. “We had employee satisfaction in the 1990s and engagement in the 2000s, but now employees are looking for the right experience. Social media has made people more self-aware, with work [being] an important part of who they are.”
Employees want their work to be about more than the nine-to-five slog, so flexibility is important, both in terms of the hours worked, but also how the work itself is done.
This also fits today’s more diverse workforce. Sarah-Louise Bussey, head of talent at recruitment firm Macildowie, explains: “Employees value flexibility, whether it’s a return-to-work [parent] fitting [their] hours around childcare, or a millennial looking for remote work in the technology sector. Given the pressures of today’s lifestyles, it’s something everyone needs.”
Personal development is another key part of the experience, as the world of work becomes ever more blended with all other aspects of an employee’s life.
Employees value options such as sabbaticals or support to help them study or learn new skills, says Eissa Khoury, executive director, culture and engagement, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at brand consultancy Landor: “They want the opportunity to grow and learn while they’re working. It’s about making work meaningful.”
As well as looking after themselves, employees are ever more driven to care about the values of an organisation and whether it is having a positive social, economic and environmental effect.
The Attenborough effect, for example, is leading to the overhaul of many organisations’ environmental policies, says Robson. “There’s been a big push on this, whether through [lower] use of plastic or [an organisation’s] corporate social responsibility policy,” she explains. “Employees want to know they’re working for an organisation that isn’t adding to the problem.”
With employees switched on to the importance of an organisation’s impact on both their lives and the world around them, benefits have an important role to play.
Financial wellbeing products are just one example, says Veal: “Employers are keen to show they care and want to look after employees’ wellbeing. Giving them access to financial information and support emphasises this message.”
Although every employee benefit has the potential to reinforce a brand message, some will send out a stronger signal than others. For example, childcare benefits and enhanced parental leave policies, if positioned and communicated effectively, show that an organisation supports employees and their families. Meanwhile, perks such as gym membership, employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and private medical insurance (PMI) indicate that it cares about health and wellbeing.
Some brand values, such as the environmental angle, may require a little more creativity. For example, a bikes-for-work scheme can be positioned to tell employees that a business champions sustainability. Other options could include volunteering opportunities and matching employee fundraising.
It is not enough to put together a comprehensive package; to fully align benefits and brand, communication is key.
Building a narrative can be particularly powerful, says Smyth: “Storytelling can bring the benefits and the brand values to life. Employers need to keep communicating the benefits they offer, drawing out the links between them and the brand values. It can feel repetitive, but if they’re silent, employees assume they don’t offer anything.”
It can also be worth creating a distinct identity for the benefits package itself, much as might be done for a range of products being offered to consumers. “It’s about creating something that’s just for employees,” says Robson. “They will know instantly that it’s part of their benefits, which can really help to promote them.”
As well as focusing on how their own benefits are positioned, organisations should consider how they stack up against the competition.
Andy Curlewis, senior vice president, brand, digital and communications at Cielo, explains: “Employers should look at how they compare to other organisations in their sector, but also at [businesses] that are regarded as aspirational, even if they’re not in the same market.”
Building an employer brand might feel like hard work, but for many organisations it goes hand in hand with external marketing efforts. “It’s vital for [an employer] with a consumer brand,” says Bussey. “A bad experience for employees can affect the consumer brand and quickly turn customers off.”
A strong brand can also benefit organisations that need to stand out from the competition. Call centres, for example, have become employer brand experts because the nature of work varies little between them, says Robson. “Many of them use their brands really well, showing what it’s like to work there and the fun that employees can have,” she explains.
Employer brands can also work well for smaller organisations. They might not have the pulling power or pay capabilities of a large business with a well-known name, however, putting the right messages out on social media can create a positive effect on recruitment, while an engaging culture will reduce turnover.
In some cases, an employer brand, however strong, may not always be enough to change an organisation’s appeal. In professions such as law or higher education, where success is reflected in, and often governed by, established league tables, brand messages may well be overshadowed.
Curlewis says: “If someone working for number six is headhunted by number 15, they’ll have a good idea of how much additional remuneration they’d want to make up for the loss of status.”
However, with employee experience becoming increasingly important, and pay seemingly slipping down the list of priorities in favour of a positive lifestyle and healthy work-life balance, focusing on culture, values and brand may well be the secret to taking the lead in a competitive market.