How to Strengthen Your Reputation as an Employer


Many companies are aiming to be more transparent and authentic about their products, services, and costs. For example, McDonald’s has an online FAQ about how the company’s food products are made, while Southwest’s Transfarency initiative aims to give customers a clearer picture of the total fare they will pay, with no unexpected fees.

But when it comes to communicating authentically about the employee experience, companies still have a long way to go.

A new study by my firm, Weber Shandwick, in partnership with KRC Research, found that only 19% of the nearly 2,000 global employees we surveyed feel strongly that the work experience their employer promotes publicly is matched by reality. In other words, what employees saw on a careers site or on their company’s social channels, or what they heard from recruiters, was often inconsistent with what they experienced when they joined the company. Imagine, for example, being promised a culture of innovation only to have every new idea you put forward dismissed. Or banking on career advancement opportunities only to realize that your employer seldom fills open roles from within your organization.

This may help explain other data showing that almost one-third of new hires leave voluntarily within the first six months. Beyond the cost to replace staff, which is estimated at 50%–75% of the new hire’s annual salary, this type of attrition damages coworker morale, disrupts customer relationships, and, in the age of employer review sites like Glassdoor, inhibits companies’ ability to attract new talent.

The timing couldn’t be worse. The combination of weak employee engagement rates globally and the 3.9% unemployment rate in the U.S., a record low, creates the perfect storm for employee attrition. Inauthentic employers, with a reputation for failing to deliver on workplace promises, stand at a disadvantage in the race to fill vacancies.

On the other hand, we found that employers who deliver on the experience they promise enjoy better recruitment, engagement, employee advocacy, and retention outcomes. Their employees are more likely to recommend their employer as a place to work, to post or share praise about their employer online, and to put more effort into their job than is required.

If your company is among those struggling to attract or retain the talent they need, it’s possible that it has a credibility problem. Consider these steps to achieve a more authentic employer brand.

Be True to Who You Are
The most effective employer brands are rooted in a clear corporate purpose and set of values, which serve to attract job seekers who share those fundamental beliefs and weed out those who don’t.

Take outdoor apparel retailer Patagonia. The company has long stood for enjoying nature and protecting the environment. Its employer brand is a natural extension of that, promising an “unusual blend of work, play, family and environmentalism.” The company delivers on that promise through paid environmental internships, time off for civil disobedience training, reimbursements for commuting to work in a way other than driving, and a flex-time policy that allows employees to catch a good swell when they feel so inspired.

Patagonia’s clear articulation of what the company stands for enables a strong fit between employer and employee, resulting in just a 6% voluntary turnover rate among full-time employees (compare this with the retail industry average of 35%). There’s strong brand affinity, as evidenced in this statement from one engaged employee: “Patagonia’s culture and my own ‘culture’ feel inseparable. I often struggle with drawing a line between my personal life and the company’s identity [and] well-being.”

Assess the Gap
Most brands don’t enjoy such close alignment between what they promise and what they deliver. They can benefit greatly from assessing the distance between their recruitment marketing and the actual employee experience.

This assessment includes talking to new hires, conducting employee engagement surveys and exit interviews, engaging in social listening, and paying close attention to online reviews that employees have written about the company. Employers should outline the claims they’re making about the employee experience and assess whether they are or aren’t supported by employee feedback. They should also seek to understand what employees think the company is doing well and determine whether these features could be better promoted externally.

Surfacing and addressing these gaps helps protect against employee backlash and reputational risk. This was the lesson learned by a client in a remote area that had been emphasizing its global reach in its recruitment messaging. The company conducted employee focus groups and found that working there didn’t actually feel like working for a global company. Few employees had been to regional offices or even interacted with colleagues in other markets.

In partnership with HR, my client was able to build connection points between its offices globally and revamp its rotational program, allowing interested staff to complete temporary assignments in different locations around the world. The change led to a better employee experience, improved cross-office collaboration, and gave the company the right to market itself as an employer of choice for globally minded job seekers.

Let Your People Do the Talking
As companies craft their “best places to work” narratives, it’s important to realize that your first and most important audience isn’t potential job candidates — it’s your current employees. Internal marketing around your employee value proposition serves to re-recruit staff, reminding them why they joined, strengthening their commitment to stay, and prompting them to refer others to the company. And in an era when only 12% of employees put a lot of trust in what employers say about themselves, companies must increasingly rely on their employees to be their spokespeople on the employee experience.

It’s an approach that has paid huge dividends for networking giant Cisco Systems. Beginning in 2015 the company made a conscious decision to build a more authentic employer brand. “We stopped posting like we were a 70K+ person company, and…started posting like we were 70K+ people working for the company,” explained Carmen Collins, who runs social media for Cisco’s talent brand. Today the employee voice is front and center on the company’s Life at Cisco recruiting blog, its careers site, and all of its social channels. In fact, the company regularly turns its Snapchat account over to employees to give a real view into company culture, a move that resulted in a 600% follower increase week over week after launch.

Cisco has proved that employee-generated content works. The recruiting blog is now the second most popular among Cisco’s more than 50 blogs. In six months the company grew its Twitter followers by 400% and launched an Instagram account that brought in 2,000 followers and above-industry engagement — and both platforms drove increased traffic to its jobs site.

The best way to turn your employees into content generators and online advocates? Follow through on your promises. According to our study, 50% of employees who think their company delivers on its promises use their personal social media channels to talk about their employer, as compared with 32% of employees at companies that fall short.

Give Yourself Room to Grow
A desire to be authentic shouldn’t stop companies from aspiring to be better. You may not be the workplace of the future today, but if you can show progress in that direction, it should be part of your positioning. In fact, without aspirational elements, your employer brand is likely to be a bland collection of undifferentiated promises that will do little to compel candidates to look closer.

Much like other elements of corporate identity, the best employer brands are a mix of different attributes, such as:

Table stakes attributes. These are what the employer must offer to employees as the price of entry, such as competitive wages and advancement opportunities.

Legacy attributes. These are elements of the employee experience that have always defined the employer and always will, such as Johnson & Johnson’s values, outlined in a credo written by the founding family in 1943, or Zappos’s philosophy on “creating fun and a little weirdness” in the workplace.

Forward-looking attributes. These are things an employer has not yet achieved but is earnestly working toward, often with the goal of setting itself apart from the competition. For example, a manufacturing company may strive to create a digital workplace as a way of differentiating. It may not become Apple overnight, but there should be incremental progress over time.

Before including forward-looking attributes in employer branding, employers should ask their people, “Are we close enough to our goal that this attribute feels attainable?” If the answer is no, they may want to rethink it.

Of course, what is forward-looking today will be table stakes tomorrow, so companies must act quickly to improve the employee experience and reflect those improvements in their recruitment marketing. In the end, companies must acknowledge that their employer brand is inextricably linked to their corporate reputation. Any effort to engage authentically must extend beyond the consumers buying your products, to the job seekers signing up for your employee experience, and to every other stakeholder group.

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