HR and employer branding – pretty pictures or pretty good employers?

Written by: James Dunne
Published on: 12 Apr 2016

In days gone by, before anyone had come up with the ‘concept’ of employer branding, I recall that in the university milkround there were a number of companies everyone wanted to work for.  If only we had known, we could have told the nice men (they were invariably men in those days) who came to interview us that one of the reasons we wanted to work for, say, Marks and Spencer or General Accident, was because they had a great employer brand.  We just knew they were (then) great companies to work for, as were all the main banks, other insurance companies and all the big names of British industry and commerce.  Many of these have long been absorbed into much larger conglomerates, some of which don’t share these firms’ previous, outstanding reputations. However, you can rest assured that today’s graduates, trawling their proto-CVs around potential employers, will have had huge amounts of money lavished on them by the latter.  On-site campus events, ice sculptures, Facebook competitions, interactive learning experiences, invitations to the first screening of the new Bond movie, to say nothing of a constant stream of ‘social engagement’.

If you go to the HR department at most big companies, they’ll often spend six figure sums on developing their ‘employer brand’ and all the associated content/social marketing. The employer brand has been a regular category at most recruitment awards events for some time now and since the academic world latched on to it it’s been a big growth area within HR.  Yet at its heart is a simple idea, understood by my fellow graduates last century (even if we couldn’t put a name to it), namely that people will want to work for an organisation that has a good reputation for making people feel valued so they enjoy coming to work and work well when they are there.

The aforementioned six figure sums are spent with creative/recruitment marketing agencies, who recognise a golden goose when they see it.  You can’t blame them, but the biggest mistake some HR professionals make is to confuse the visual manifestation of the ‘brand’ (i.e. the clever imagery and stuff that those creative agencies churn out) with the human element.  The latter is, arguably, much more important. Your logo can be the most instantly unforgettable smear or an award-winning design, but if you’re recognised as a great employer then the vast majority of your employees probably don’t care what it looks like.

The employer brand is, of course, about far more than graduate recruitment.  In theory, its impact should be felt throughout the company.   It’s how you interact with your people, how you treat them, whether you are seen as both professional and pleasant as an employer that makes the difference.  How many C-Suite execs genuinely understand this and affirm these principles in their daily working lives? And, to get to the main thrust of this blog, how many give HR the place it deserves in their enterprises?  And, finally, how many HR people actually really understand what goes on in their organisations and are prepared to report it honestly and openly?  I’ve seen a number of HR initiatives reported that demonstrate how great their firm is at engagement and how much they value their employees.  Usually these sorts of reports appear just a few weeks before some employee relations disaster/whistle-blower strikes…

Cynical?  Yes. Accurate?  Partly.  Otherwise every workplace would be a sanctuary of virtue and reason and every company’s employee policies a model of fairness shot through with professional pragmatism - and no-one would ever want to leave…     

James Dunne, exec-appointments