Employer brand is the answer to the question ‘Why you?’

Lazar Džamić is the keynote speaker at #LoveHR Summit 2024, 11-12 April, 2024, Portorož, Slovenia

Lazar Džamić is a former planning director at an agency and former head of brand planning at Google’s creative think tank ZOO in London. He lectures at various universities across Europe and is the author of several best-selling books. At the #loveHR Summit 2024, he will talk about building an employer brand and why it is so important for a company, especially in times of talent shortage.

I am probably not going to be too innovative here, as the challenges are clear and multitude, especially now when late capitalism is clearly showing some truly dysfunctional traits; and in European Union, with its own specific set of challenges.

AI is a game changer in so many ways, for so many companies, largely in ways that will impact both efficiency and effectiveness of businesses, and especially related to the headcount: how many people we will need to be a viable business in the near future. The answer, of course, depends on the industry.

Another big challenge for many organisations, especially more traditional ones, is how to manage the new post-industrial workforce, especially generation Y (and Alpha after them). They were born in a mobile world, raised on digital experiences and have unique attitudes to life, socialisation, career and environment. This is one part of what we call ‘diversity’ today and for what we need what prof. Miha Škerlavaj calls the ‘Post-Heroic Leadership’ (also his great book I strongly recommend).

The other part of diversity is various physical and cognitive diversities and divergences (there is a difference). Not just legally, but talent-wise, it makes sense to pay more attention now to various unusual talents around us. Dyslexia is now officially a skill in the UK and the MI6 last year ran a recruitment campaign specifically for people with dyslexia.

Yet another challenge, in the face of declining populations in developed countries, if how to allow the experienced older workers to stay longer in the organisation, or to even poach them back from retirement. This is an opportunity for really clever multi-generational culture shifts.

In some countries in the region, yet another challenge is how to maximise the benefits of workers coming from far-away parts of the world, people from different cultures, customs, religions, educational backgrounds… Some multi-national organisations have already mastered this and we can learn a lot from them on a local state level too.

On the personal level, I feel that the major two challenges are to develop literacy in defining the positional and personal ‘jagged profile’ (more on that below) and in defining one’s OCEAN character profile. In my experience, these two things could make the most difference on a personal growth level.

How do you define employer branding, and why is it important for a company?

Simply put, it is the answer to the question ‘Why you?’ 

Why would anyone want to work for you? What can you offer, what can you say? 

What is the promise you are making to potential and existing employees in exchange for their talent (defined as skill, knowledge and personality)?

It is the process of constructing and communicating – then living – the reasons to be considered a preferred employer.

This is what we sumarise, after a thoughtful and not too complicated process, into what we call an EVP – Employer Value Proposition(s). The plural is because we usually have several variants of the master one, fitting various skillsets and seniority levels in the company.

I think the answer to the previous question summarises the reasons why we have to think about it a lot today, at least in developed market-based economies.

In what ways does a company’s culture reflect in its employer branding?

I think the question may have another formulation: how are organisation’s culture and employer branding connected and, even more importantly, how they should be connected?

There are several scenarios here. One is the ‘snake oil’ situation where an organisation tries to present itself in an unrealistically positive light, where the culture and the communications don’t match. The usual ‘purposewash’, ‘greenwash’ and some downright deluded self-congratulations…

The problem is that the culture always ‘leaks’, it is irrepressible, like water, always finds cracks to leak out in a way of reputation: what others (audiences/markets) think about us when ‘we are not in the room’. This is, obviously, a problem many organisations have.

Another challenge is better to have and easier to solve: when the culture is good but is not communicated well. The usual sentence is ‘Why don’t we talk about this more?!’ Well, just do, but make sure you know what those things are…

Essentially, if the culture, employer branding and the audiences we try to attract are not aligned, we have the case of ‘corporate vanity’, or in some serious cases, ‘corporate schizophrenia’ – superficial, glib, cliched branding efforts, or internal cultures, where one thing is said, another thing is done and the third thing is where ‘the game’ is played…

What is the role of leadership in shaping and maintaining an employer’s brand?

It is critical, of course!

If the leadership doesn’t know what kind of an organisation they are or want to be, how to realistically and accurately describe its current and/or desired culture, people and organisational ‘reflexes’ (to quote prof. Hofstede), they won’t know how to maintain it or build it.

Most companies are actually judged on the behaviours of their leaders, externally and internally, especially the latter. The ways leaders behave shapes the culture as it sets the ‘automatic learned behaviours’ (Hofstede again) of the employees – ‘this is how things are done around here’.

This is more than just storytelling – it is ‘storydoing’ and ‘storyliving’!

What strategies would you advise organizations to improve their employer branding in today’s competitive world with a talent shortage?

Frankly, all of the above.

Understand where you are and what can you offer to the prospective (and current, let’s not forget that) employees, and if you have some interesting things to say, say them strongly and over and over again.

Understand your audiences REALLY well, especially the ‘jagged profiles’ of specific positions and then try to find people that match them, while telling them exactly how. Understand their needs, wishes, anxieties and real-life challenges. What can you say about those? How will you make them feel they are coming back home, instead going into unknown?

Patagonia, a famous anti-consumerist and activist outdoor clothing company gives employees 18 hours of paid time for activism – and then pays the release bail for them if they happen to be arrested at a protest!

Some IT companies in Serbia book kindergarten spaces in advance for their existing and potential employees (due to a lack of them) and use that as a recruitment tool.

In other words, a good EVP should have four key elements, as per one recent often-quoted Harvard Business Review research article: material incentives, growth & development, connection & community and meaning & purpose.

The trick is to make it hard to be replicated by the competitors (money is usually the easiest to match!), to put the ‘noise’ into the money issue, for it to be able to work both short- and long-term and to create a strong retention effect.

How can employer branding ensure that it attracts diverse groups of potential employees and also aids in retaining talent?

I think we have covered this both above and below…

How do digital platforms and social media influence the perception of the employer brand?

Hugely, like any other brand and reputational aspect. 

Social media is one of the main spaces for building, maintaining and assessing reputation/brand of an organisation. It is the largest real-time focus group – and collection of media channels – ever, available to us 24/7 and for very little money. But, the questions are ‘How much do we really understand them?’ and ‘Are we internally organised to deliver quality branding in this space?’ 

These are the usual challenges and a lot of organisations underdeliver on both.

So, what role does social media play in this context? How should companies decide where to seek talent? For instance, who should consider using TikTok (and why), and who should stick to LinkedIn, Facebook, or other platforms?

Fish where the fish are.

So, who are your fish: demographically, skill-set-wise, culturally and based on various personal traits?

Then go to places where people like that gather relating to what you have to say and give them something about you that they will recognise as relevant and, at least, interesting. Become what they want to read or view or interact with, instead of interrupting that. 

Do this formula right and the answers to the above questions will become obvious.

Do you believe in employee referral programs – if they bring a candidate from their own network into the company? Why is this beneficial and how should these reward programs be designed to be effective?

I had a personal experience with that at Google, both as a person being recruited and when I was recruiting for my own team. Companies like Google are very big on personal recommendation/referrals, simply due to the fact that a clever Googler must know some other clever people! It could be the fastest way to line up some good candidates – provided your company is worth jumping over to.

So, I was myself recommended for interviews and I did recommend other people as well. While I was there, my understanding was that about half of the new employees at any time came from recommendations. BUT, I have to be very precise here: these are recommendations for interviews only! (and the candidate usually goes through several… I had seven). No one gets the job based only on recommendation.

For many organisations, this is a neat way to tap into some niche skillsets, save on recruitment fees and support specific cultural traits, should they wish to do so. But, an organisation needs to really know first what it is looking for – the ‘jagged profile’ of the position they are recruiting for, a concept created and explained by prof. Todd Rose in his seminal book ‘The End of Average’.

As for the incentives for the current employees, they vary. The most common – but I feel also the most unsophisticated one – is money, a ‘finder’s fee’. However, smart organisations have turned this into a reputational game: you would actually feel embarrassed to recommend anyone who is not a good fit, just because they may be your friends or relatives, and proud if they are confirmed to be a valuable interviewee or even a new employee. This is encouraged in various soft ways that flow out of the culture and some specific feedback you may receive from your superiors or the recruitment team.

What are the most common challenges companies face when building an employer brand, and how can they overcome these challenges?

I think we have covered many of those things above, but for me everything boils down to two key challenges: most of the EVPs are either badly constructed/understood or badly communicated. 

Many EVPs lack both internal and external Clarity, Precision and Distinction. They should be the ultimate exercises in self-understanding.

To resolve these challenges, an organisation has to be brutally honest with itself and deploy creativity, self-confidence and originality to arrive at a compelling EVP.

Could you share another successful example of how an organization attracted top talent through its employer branding?

Silicon Valley – and companies of that mindset – is very good at this and this is one of the reasons talented people like to work there, not just the money. At Google, I was paid more or less the same as I would be in any other big global company in a similar position – but, boy, the difference in cultures!

Some ‘purpose-led’ companies are good at this, Patagonia and Veja come to mind, also Zappos, or some traditionals such as Bosch and Cisco, or consultancies such as McKinsey or Accenture. And some companies in the region such as Atlantic, Delta, Rimac, Nordeus and a few Slovenian ones mentioned in prof. Miha Škerlavaj’s book.

Smaller companies, often, tend to be better at this, as they don’t have ‘legacy’ cultures they would have to ‘break’.

How can the effectiveness of efforts towards employer branding be measured?

There are several ways to do this.

One is a more traditional set of brand image techniques and measures relating to specific attributes that the organisation wants to be recognised for and associated with in a specific market and for specific audiences of potential employees. 

That means a set of quantitative and qualitative techniques, like for any other brand image measurement, but it also means that the organisation has to know, very precisely, what attributes it wants to ‘own’.

They could be various and would reflect the needs and wants of various skill sets, demographic cohorts and seniority levels.

For example, for a junior Gen Y-ers this could mean ‘an organisation with a clear positive purpose’ or ‘a leadership style that supports diversity and psychological safety’. For a senior executive, it could mean ‘an opportunity to shape/disrupt the industry’, for a sales person ‘the best prepared sales pitches in the industry’ and for the CS representative ‘the best communication training around’.

Another frequent method is social ‘listening’ (sentiment monitoring), where the organisation can ‘read’ the amount of conversations it is getting among the specific audiences (share of voice) as well as the sentiment it is generating (positive, neutral or negative) – and why.

Also, what potential candidates say in interviews if they are asked ‘Why us?’ This is also usually supplemented by the quantitative measures such as how many CVs the organisation is receiving ‘cold’ (Google used to receive about 2.5m every year!) and how many of those are from the ‘premium’ candidates (defined any way it works for a specific industry or position).

Or, how about this: how proud your existing employees are becoming because they work for you? Are they telling that to their friends and family?

Ultimately (and I mean it!), how many times the competitors tell you ‘Damn you, you’ve snatched the so-and-so right in front of our noses!’

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