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5 foundations for a strong ‘real life’ employer brand

What do your people say to you about their job? And what do they say to other people? Is it the same? Either way, you have a ‘real life’ employer brand – so make sure it’s the one you want.

An employer brand isn’t about attracting people with a glossy brochure. It’s actually the opposite – an attractive brochure may get people though the door but the ‘real life’ employer brand makes them stay, or leave.

A real employer brand is word of mouth – it’s what the people who work for the organisation say to other people. You can spend endless amounts of time telling people outside the organisation what a ‘good place it is to work’, but the people inside the organisation need to agree. This is what counts. And word of mouth via social media makes it easier than ever before for people to find out what people really think about current, or past, employers.


Finding out your ‘real life’ employer brand… 

At the heart of any employer brand is the psychological contract. This is the ‘deal’ that is made with people when they join the company – usually unspoken expectations. They cover many different areas, but there are expectations on how people act and respond in certain situations (on both sides), and some of these expectations are based on discussions at the interview. 

If the ‘deal’ expections are not met then people are likely to be dissatisfied with their employement, and are likely to tell other people outside the company about it (if not when they’re employed, then certainly when they inevitably leave).

I find one initial question – important for everyone from new recruits to directors – tells me the most about the psychological contract:

"Is working for the company what you expected?"

If people agree that it’s what they expected, then the recruitment process and your employer brand is laying the right foundations for people who join the organisation.

If the answer is no, then the contract is possibly broken. More questions will help find out if this is the case, questions like: What was different to what you expected? Did you ask or raise concerns when you saw it was different? If you did ask, what was the reply? And, the question that gets to the heart of the matter, how did that make you feel about the organisation?  So what are the right foundations?


People need to know "what to expect" before they start

One organisation that has done exactly this is Circle Recruitment, an Investors in People accredited IT recruitment agency based in Manchester. “When we set up the business we started by deciding what we wanted it to be, as a place to work,” explains managing director, Steve Ricketts.

“We wanted to make sure that when people joined they would know exactly what to expect, on everything from how managers are managed, to how we review performance – to make sure it was a way of working that people joining the company would be comfortable with. Recruitment is one of a number of sectors where a fairly high turnover of staff is the norm. The pay and benefits, or ‘advertised role’, may attract people to recruitment – but once they’re working within it, they find it’s not what they were expecting and leave. I was determined to create a company that was different to the norm.”


People need to know what they need to do

People want to know how to do a good job. They want to know the decisions they can make and have the space to get on with it.

This is exactly the approach Circle has adopted, as company director Matt Leach explains. “We wanted an environment where staff could be themselves, and be self-motivated to deliver, rather than micro-managed with irrelevent Key Peformance Indicators and the constant ‘pressure’ to deliver to the ‘quick win’ monthly targets. We knew that, done right, this would make Circle an attractive place to work, where people could enjoy their work and achieve results.”

Making sure people know what they need to do brings additional benefits to every organisation, but for Circle it means that “when people have the freedom to approach the work in their way, they bring their own style and build strong working relationships with each other, and clients”.

This means there are no standard call scripts for people to follow, and their time is their own to manage: with flexible working times people can work in a way that suits them and their clients. Managers are there when needed, but see their role as supporting not monitoring performance.

“This makes the difference for us,” says a Circle employee. “It’s why we chose to work here and defines how we feel about working for the company, as we can focus on what needs to be done without worrying about the ‘what if’s’.”


People need a manager who can help and support them

“It’s important people know that they can get help and support when they need it,” says Matt Leach. “They might need support at any point and it’s about feeling they’ll be treated equally and fairly when they do ask for it.”

This is less about policies and procedures, but the approach is to find ways to support people who meet their needs. It’s all about having an individual approach to each situation. The most common thing people want from a manager is someone who listens to them. Managers often think they need all the answers, but the best question in this situation is to ask people what they need that will help them – especially relevant when people need support for things outside of work. They may be little things, but they make a big difference to people and how they feel about their employer.

At Circle, they think carefully about the role of the managers, and how they – and the directors – help and support the team. Company director Jon Brass adds: “It’s important that we know how to treat people when they need help or support… we’ve been trained to make sure we’re able to respond to their needs, and we spend a lot of time with our teams sharing our experience to help them in their roles.”

For work related problems, it’s worth considering a ‘situational leadership’ approach, where the support is based on the individual’s needs and experience. A new person is likely to need more direction, whereas someone who is more experienced may benefit from a coaching approach.

One size certainly doesn’t fit all!


People need to feel involved, recognised and valued

Generally, people like to feel part of a team. This often means they want to feel included in things, that their contribution is recognised and that they’re valued for the contribution they make.

“We worked hard to make sure that we had all the right things in place,” says Steve. “This included thinking about the way people receive ongoing learning and development, how we involve them in the organisation, and find ways to celebrate their achievements and show them that we do appreciate the effort they make.”

While every organisation will have a different approach – and some people prefer not to be the ‘centre of attention’ – there are some basic ways people like to feel seen, heard and recognised. This can be as simple as taking the time to say ‘thank you’, but it’s even more effective if you add how that person made a difference to you or the team…


People need consistency

If you have all of the above in place then this is the final foundation. People want to know where they stand and that they’ll be treated in the right way at any time.

If they feel that their experience is dependent on the circumstances or ‘mood’ of the manager, then this creates a discomfort or tension in the relationship that will impact on the ‘deal’.

All things considered, I’d recommend you check out what your real-life employer brand really is and if it’s what you want it to be. Start by asking, “Is the job what you expected?” It may be that you need someone outside the organisation to do this for you, to make sure you get unbaised feedback. But once you have this feedback you can compare it to what you want people to be saying – then start working out a plan for how to make it happen.