15 Nov 2019 10:33am

Employer brand: who the hell are you?

Gone are the days when slapping a job description up on a vacancies board would be enough to find the perfect candidate. Rachel Willcox talks to the experts about forging a killer employer brand that will win the war for talent

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Caption: Gallery Stock

Official figures showing the latest UK unemployment rate at an estimated 3.8% – the lowest since 1974 – certainly make tub-thumping fodder for politicians, but they also create no end of headaches for employers. Earlier this year, recruitment company Robert Half said skills shortages had intensified competition for top performers; 40% of respondents to its survey of chief financial officers said finding qualified professionals was a challenge – with finance management, financial planning and accounting the hardest roles to fill. A good salary and benefits package is not enough to lure candidates in. According to the 2019 Employer Branding Insights Report from Wonderful Workplaces, 94% of jobseekers consider employer brand when deciding whether to even apply for a job. And yet employers struggle to communicate their values and brand effectively, according to 46% of the survey’s 841 respondents.

Ella Robertson, MD international at One Young World, the global forum for young leaders, said today’s young people are more discerning when it comes to choosing a brand to work for. “A recent Deloitte survey revealed that 87% of young people look beyond the financial performance of a company. Only 20% say they would stay at a company that puts profit first for more than five years,” Robertson says. “Employers that are looking to attract the best talent need to keep pace with this attitudinal shift – making sure that their brand reflects it in not only its communications, but also its actions.”

By employer branding, we’re not talking about whizzy logos and fancy mission statements. “It’s about clearly demonstrating the firm’s unique DNA to potential recruits, enabling it to stand out in a competitive marketplace,” explains Jason Ball, founder of digital marketing specialist Considered Content. “A successful employer brand will satisfy four key criteria. It will be relevant to a suitable candidate’s skills and aspirations. Its claims will be believable in the market. It will clearly deliver on its values. And it will be different from others it competes with for talent.” Fiona Broomfield, head of content at reputation management company Igniyte says you want people to know that your company is a great place to work, not just in terms of the salary and benefits you offer, but also training and development opportunities and the culture. Social media, advances in technology and career review sites give jobseekers new options to research prospective employers online.

“Jobseekers don’t want to work for companies with negative associations, such as those that pay low wages, have bad reviews, poor ethics, handle PR disasters badly or sell products and services that people complain about,” says Broomfield. Being an employer of choice is just part of the story, Ball maintains. “It is just as important that your brand communicates who you don’t want as who you do. For many hires in professional services, it will be six to 12 months before the firm sees a positive return on the time and cost of its recruitment efforts.” Employees who are a better fit with the culture, values and expectations of the firm will lead to higher performance, greater loyalty and will be happy to recommend the firm to others. In a sector where the largest firms tend to get grouped together under the banner of the Big Four, no one said that successful differentiation from your competitors would be easy.

But the bottom line benefits to successful employer branding are compelling to say the least. A study by LinkedIn found that companies with a great employer brand benefitted from a 50% reduction in cost per hire, were approached by 50% more qualified applicants, and the time to hire was up to twice as fast. Wonderful Workplaces’ own research found that 71% would consider applying for a ‘unique opportunity’ and 45% for ‘an amazing brand’ even if they’re not actively job seeking. The trick, according to Ball, is to focus on becoming “authentically differentiated”, and yet too many firms trumpet their “unique” values and culture, seemingly oblivious to the fact these are often carbon copies of others in their space.

“Today, they’re all rooted in demonstrating things like integrity, respect, openness, diversity, so these things are the price of entry. Spend time really identifying what makes you meaningfully different as a place to work and be ruthless about communicating that,” Ball says. Martin Martinoff leads ICAEW’s Audit Futures programme and spends much of his time thinking about the challenges of attracting people to the profession. He admits that recent accounting scandals have dented trust. And while there has been no discernible impact on the larger firms’ abilities to recruit, focusing purely on the numbers misses the point.

“It’s about the breadth of people they want to recruit and whether the most creative people are attracted to the profession. Employer branding needs to keep pace with the changing profile of recruits and the importance of diversity,” Martinoff says. For any firm looking to increase diversity, it is critical to understand the talent gaps and the reasons why you are not attracting from certain sectors of society or world views. There’s no doubt that accountancy sector players could do far more to bring to life the benefits of working for their organisations. But without the deep pockets of the Big Four to invest in expensive branding consultants, where should smaller firms be focusing their efforts to develop a killer employer brand?

The starting point is to make sure you have an accurate picture of current perceptions. Interview employees at all levels of the business who represent the kind of talent you want to attract, Ball advises. Why did they join? What makes them stay? Has their experience matched their expectations? Where do they see the firm going? Use this insight alongside feedback from exit interviews to build on and improve your employer brand. Ask yourself if the way you communicate internally is engaging and motivating your current employees. Most successful employer brands listen to their employees, so give staff a platform. “This may unearth some ugly truths, but it should also let you know what you are doing well. It will give you an opportunity to work with your employees on making improvements, making them happier, and in turn greatly improve your employer brand,” says Martin Parr, a finance and accountancy specialist at recruiter Sellick Partnership.

Make sure the content on your website and social media profiles is up to date, compelling to prospective candidates and consistent across platforms. “The more insight a prospective candidate has, the more likely they will feel inspired to apply,” says Karen Young, director of Hays Accountancy & Finance. More than half of finance and accountancy professionals say they would only consider applying to an organisation that promotes its financial performance, according to Hays’ What Workers Want 2018 report, and around 60% say they actively look for this information when researching a potential employer. But less than a quarter of employers in the sector believe it to be important. Similarly, around 60% of applicants want to find information about the employers’ working environment, but only 36% of employers make this information available, Young warns.

You ignore the power of peer-to-peer at your peril. Testimonials, case studies and behind-the-scenes insights from staff will pique interest and resonate. Careers hubs are another good showcase. “Often the differentiator isn’t the kind of work you’re doing, it’s about the environment. People stay for a reason – if it’s a great learning environment, empower them to tell that story. Employees have 10 times the reach of the company itself,” says Katie Logan, associate director at communications consultancy MSL. Jamie Bampton, attraction marketing manager at Deloitte, says user-generated content is one of the most powerful tools in the firm’s armoury to attract the 6,000 new staff it hires each year.

“It has been a great way to showcase how recruits came to work at the firm, what they do on a day-to-day basis and how you can progress in your career. It’s about telling your story across every touchpoint where a candidate makes contact with the firm. My advice to other firms is to focus on your target audience and think about what will resonate with them.” Similarly, encouraging past and current employees to review your business on sites such as Glassdoor, Indeed and RateMyPlacement can be an excellent – and inexpensive – way to improve your employer brand. But it’s important to subscribe to the all-feedback-is-good mantra. “Monitor them and claim your company profiles on these platforms so that you can respond to all reviews. If you encounter something negative, find a way to resolve issues swiftly and offline. Invite your employees to share their experiences on these sites too,” Broomfield says.

Stephen Cheliotis is CEO of The Centre for Brand Analysis and chairman of the UK Consumer Superbrands, Business Superbrands and CoolBrands Councils. Cheliotis is pretty scathing of the accountancy industry’s track record on employer branding. “I don’t really know what the difference is between the big or medium firms – they seem to be interchangeable,” he says.

His advice is simple: “This is not about trying to tick all the boxes, but if you’re not thinking about purpose, values and the deeper emotional things you can offer staff, you’ll lose out to the competition. It’s not about hiring consultants, it’s about listening to employees, engaging with people and articulating it in a better way. Make people part of that process.” And above all, be transparent and authentic – avoid brand washing like the plague.