I noticed something in the security line at the airport. As I threw my bags on the conveyor belt, all three people ahead of me had backpacks with a company logo. One guy even had the matching logo baseball hat, which he had carefully placed in between his bags so it wouldn’t get crushed. Of course, I looked up all three companies when I got back to my computer. Here’s what they had in common: 1) an “about” section on their website, highlighting why employees would want to work there; 2) a values section that wasn’t just a generic list of throwaway statements but a clear list of behaviors and how they leveraged them; and 3) positive Glassdoor reviews. Notably, each negative review had a response with a statement of how the company was going to address an issue versus a defensive retort.
All of that from a few t-shirts and a baseball hat I spotted in the TSA line. That’s powerful brand marketing—and it was free.
“We need to work on our employment brand and value proposition” is something I often hear from leaders at companies of all sizes. Unfortunately, it’s usually a reaction to something instead of an intentional strategy. Attrition may be trending up; Glassdoor reviews could be trending down; leaders might be checking out. Whatever the issue, more and more companies, big or small, are thinking about how to build, and rebuild, a strong company brand and culture. Yet, these efforts can quickly turn into a vacuous exercise if not anchored to a sustainable strategy.
An employment brand is the perception that prospective, current, and past employees have about working at a company. It’s culture, amplified.
Venture capitalist Kirsten Green recently shared: “People think a brand is a logo or a color palette. That’s not good enough. You have to be engaging with people.” That engagement is expressed through culture, and a powerful employment brand can only happen inside of a strong, healthy culture. Culture—which is a system of behaviors, practices, and processes—strengthens or weakens the employment brand. When strategically operationalized and productively embedded in how work gets done every day, culture attracts, creates, rewards, and reinforces an engaged workforce of brand ambassadors who evangelize the company.
Based on my own experience and some of the research that has been done on employment brand and engagement, employees generally want three things: 1) meaningful work that can make an impact; 2) growth opportunities to develop as a leader and a human being; and 3) safe environments in which they can experiment and iterate with their colleagues. This is another version of Dan Pink’s Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose. When employees experience all three, they become proud ambassadors of a company.
The five phases in the employee lifecycle—Attracting, Interviewing, Onboarding, Experiencing, and Offboarding—are moments of truth. Each phase gives a prospective or current employee an opportunity to find meaning, grow, and feel safe, ultimately, reinforcing why they joined the company or questioning it altogether.
Listed below are typical questions a prospect or employee might ask or think through during each phase of the employee lifecycle, along with how I recommend a company act in response. In turn, their employees will more likely become ambassadors who will champion the brand even long after they’ve left:
1. Attracting: Curious to Interested
Curious prospective employee: How might my experience at this company be different? Will I be able to make a big impact? Is this the kind of company for which I’d be proud to work?
Company: Leveraging your values and behaviors statements, make it obvious what people will get from working at your company. Clarify how you are different and how and why employees are valued.
2. Interviewing: Interested to Excited
Prospective employee: What is the organizational story from your point of view? What is the most exciting part of your job? How will my role help the company?
Company: Have a clear interview process with a clear decision-maker (the hiring manager, ideally). Make sure everyone knows their role in the process and the questions assigned to them. If each person focuses on a value or behavior, then make sure the interview panel understands what “good” does and does not look like. And, I know it’s challenging, but don’t be late to the interview.
3. Onboarding: Excited to Safe
Employee: How much emphasis is put on effectively integrating employees into the company vs. immediately getting to work? What are my success metrics for the first ninety days? When do I meet with my manager? Do I have a mentor or buddy assigned to me? Do the leaders reinforce company values and behaviors?
Company: Go beyond Day 1 Orientation when thinking about onboarding an employee. Onboarding is not the orientation. Onboarding is not HR’s job. Onboarding is the process by which a company ensures a smooth transition not only for the new hire but also for the team at large. Spencer Harrison, Associate Professor of Insead, takes onboarding one step further by calling it inboarding. What are we allowing people to bring into the organization before we try to put things onto them?
I recommend each hiring manager develop a tailored onboarding plan that extends to the new hire’s first 90 days. The plan could include “rules of the road.” This could consist of key people to talk to as well as clarification on how teams work together, how group lunches work, when “All Hands” meetings take place, special words or acronyms that are used, and Slack channels they need to join.
4. Experiencing: Safe to Trusting
Employee: Am I clear on my roles and responsibilities, my objectives, and my team objectives? Am I making a meaningful impact? Am I clear on how I’m developing and growing? Do I feel safe share different perspectives or speak up when I don’t agree?
Company: Check in on employees frequently. Don’t wait for a formal feedback process to give feedback. Give it in the moment. Don’t wait for the engagement survey to provide data on employee sentiment. Don’t wait for the end of the quarter to reward behaviors that are especially consistent with values. Acknowledge a specific task, tell a story about how an employee is making an impact. Embedded organizational processes are only as good as the daily practices that support them. Ask employees how they are feeling. They will tell you.
5. Offboarding: Trusting to Proud
Potential Employee Ambassador (or not): I’ve decided to leave. How do I do this in a way that works best for me, my team, and the company?
Company: Make sure the off boarding process is as strong as the onboarding one. Clarify when the employee is leaving and who will be handling his or her responsibilities in the interim. Do an exit interview—an actual face-to-face one. An exit interview is a powerful opportunity to learn from the employee what you can do to improve for future employees. Don’t waste this moment of truth on an automated checklist sent to employees as they are walking out the door. The exit interview also provides a final opportunity for the employee to share concerns and experience being heard, which can help improve or keep positive the employee’s perceptions of the company. Elucidating questions could include: What, if anything, could the company have done to keep you? Why did you begin talking with other companies? Did you feel that you were equipped to do your job in a way that worked for you? How would you describe the culture of our company?
All employees are initially excited and proud to work for a company. On their first day, they eagerly dig into the ubiquitous tote bags, excited to use all of their branded goods. They wear the t-shirt, fill up their water bottles, and use their notebooks and pens to capture notes, analog-style. These artifacts represent the organizational culture. More importantly, they represent employee pride.
Even long after they have left the building, employees will keep wearing that t-shirt, refilling that water bottle, and putting groceries in that tote bag—if they feel good about how they were treated in each phase of the employee life cycle; and, more importantly, if they felt respected and valued as they walked out the door for the last time.
And as a company, you can feel good about creating not just another brand ambassador but also an employee experience that helped yet another person find meaning, growth, and trust in the work they do.