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Your Employer Brand is a Superhero-Killing, Zombie-Making Machine

Date: 22 April 2015

There is a lot of focus lately on employer branding. Marketing companies and consultants provide soundbites on the importance of a clear and strong employer brand that attracts talent. This often includes an employer brand strategy and budget for YouTube videos, social outreach and branding / advertising. All of this misses the point. An Employer Brand isn’t a brand. An Employer Brand without a company process is like a Superhero eating Zombie.

Superheroes vs Zombies

"Let's start by defining our ideal customer. As if this was a product rollout.” That’s how my first week at Super Corp ended. It was a week that started as expected; normal briefing, on-boarding and a few indirect warnings. I’m part of the recruitment and retention team and one of my first projects is to handle the employer brand initiative. I’ve heard employer branding is the “next big thing” and is important to attracting and retaining the best talent. I've even been given a budget to do some social media marketing and YouTube videos. This seems like the best way to get the word out.

“We can do outreach, seminars, branding… what about billboards? We can tell the world what an amazing company we are! Get the best looking people in the company to do a swimsuit issue! Ora benefit concert…” So many ideas are going through my head. I walk to the pantry for a coffee and chance to reset.

A lady is looking off into the distance as she stirs her coffee. She looks over and nods. “You’re new here?” she says, with a lifted eyebrow and the even tone of someone who has been in the company long. “Yes. Working on the new employer brand,” putting words to the thoughts swirling around inside my head. She snorts and starts laughing in a light and relaxed manner. She catches the confused look on my face and slowly stops. “Make sure to include the retention rates,” she says with a smile and walks out of the pantry. “I’m Joan,” she says, and shakes my hand as she walks by. “Hope you stay.”

"What was that?" I mention under my breath. Back at my desk, I try to refocus on my branding proposal. The thought keeps nagging me. I pick up the phone and dial the head of human resources. After the normal niceties, I ask for a retention report for the last year. When it comes, I’m shocked. Eight out of every ten people hired during the last twelve months left. Exit interview feedback is summarized as “not the right fit”, “not comfortable with the working culture”, “got a better offer”, “didn’t feel my work had meaning”.

I look up Joan in the employee directory and ask her for a drink after work. That conversation changed my view on the company and the world in general. Turns out the company has a pretty low retention rate and exit interview feedback provides insight into a company that has a good history, technology and position in the market yet a culture and environment that excites a small number of people and burns out or scares the majority. Joan mentions in passing that superheroes stay until they die and zombies wander the halls eating the brains of anyone on the brink of dying.

Joan has been in the company for five years, loves the technology, and enjoys the top-performers company, but the drag of the increasing zombie population makes her frustrated. Zombies come to work, show up and do the minimum. Superheroes go above and beyond, to make their work better. The superheroes stay. The Zombies leave or get fired. The Zombies seem to be winning, and this exchange has made it clear. Through the employer branding exercise, I’m trying to sell something that isn’t true. Until the company can hire the right people and retain them, the Zombies will keep winning.

I bring this up during the next meeting. Instead of the support and appreciation I was expecting, I get worried looks and comments like: "If we explain the reality in the company, no one will want to work here."

"Some people seem to really enjoy working here, and they contribute” - pausing -  "Shouldn't we be finding more of those people and working harder to retain them?" There are many people in the room nodding and a few who just look confused. Zombies are everywhere.

Everyone seems to be waiting. And I have nothing more to add. I don’t have a solution. What now?

"Alright, I agree you have a good point," one of the team leads says once the silence has gone on a while. "But, how do we find these people? Shouldn't we just get more people interested in our company and then choose the ones that fit?"

That does sound easier and I’m about to agree when I remember something Joan said about the HR retention rates. Managers have no idea how to hire people that "fit".

"Let's start by defining our ideal customer, as if this was a product roll-out.” We then spent the next month mapping out the ideal customer as an employee, setting up a process to attract them and rolling it out.

Process Matters More than Brand

The screening, interview and feedback process matters more than any employer brand that promotes the organization. This is best summarized by the below example from earlier in my career:

I was contacted by a professional in the supply chain space. She had a good profile, stable and communicated well. She was contacting me for an introduction to a large preferred brand in the market. I was honest with her that I knew people in the recruitment team but I didn’t work with them and wouldn’t be much help. I offered to connect her with the recruitment manager. She kept me in CC when she contacted the manager with her CV/ Resume, a quick explanation on her interest in the company and a request to know her chances of a role.

“Please submit your CV on our website portal and we will get back to you if you are shortlisted for any role” was the single line response that she got.


How did that make her feel? “Terrible” she told me later. She had spent a few hours crafting that email and networking around to find the right person to speak with. She was sincere with her message and approach, yet the response from the employer was “I can’t help you”.

I encouraged her to network with the head of supply chain for that organization and try to “hack” or “bypass” the recruitment portal and structure. This is often recommended as the best way to meet a top-brand in the market. Isn’t that horrible? The processes are not effective to the point that the only way good people can get a chance is to bypass the process entirely. “Good people don’t need to apply for jobs”.

“Noise” or “Structure” Problem

The pushback from most recruitment teams and employers is that there is too much noise (irrelevant, SPAM and unqualified) applications and the only choice is to push everything into a central pool or database. Once there is a central database, there is more focus on promotion, advertising and branding to push even more applications into this central system. And the cycle of justification kicks in - “we have so much noise, we cannot interact with each applicant.”

What if it is a problem with structure rather than noise? There are many successful approaches that companies have implemented to completely change the structure of their recruitment process:

  • No Advertisement: Job are not promoted / advertised and potential applicants are not given a “careers@company” email address or job portal. If the person is keen on a role with the company, they have to be referred, approached by a recruiter or cold-call into the company.
  • Call Only: Jobs are advertised and potential applicants are given a phone number to call rather than an email address. Calls are handled by an outsourcing centre, the hiring manager, recruitment team or an automated system. Callers are immediately pre-screened and told over the phone if they can move forward or not.
  • Walk-In Only: Jobs are advertised and potential applicants are given an address, dates and times to attend with a required list of documents. This is an excellent way to screen candidates down to only locals and highly motivated.
  • 100% Feedback: Jobs are advertised and potential applicants are directed to an email, and / online system that tracks all applicants and automates the screening and responses to applicants. Every applicant is screened by a human and a suitable custom feedback is given like “suitable for future roles but doesn’t fit the skills required for this role”, etc.
  • Recruiters Only/ Full Recruitment Process Outsourcing: All candidates are automatically routed to a recruiter who is required to handle the screening and shortlisting of profiles. The contract with that recruiter stipulates how candidates are off-boarded from the recruitment process.

…And many more...

The trend with all of these alternatives is that they are often free or very low-cost to implement. While typical “employer brand” strategies require extensive investment of time and money in programs, follow-up and additional noise.

Look Within for Solutions

Often companies with retention problems, recruitment needs, etc., look for quick solutions through employer brand strategies. The logic is summed up as: “If only we could find better people, we wouldn’t lose so many.”

Companies need to look within to find the employee strategy that attracts and retains the people who buy into their vision. Part of that requires that the company actually have a vision created from within rather than via a marketing consultant.

As this progresses, there is a clear line up with actual branding focus of the company. What is the company doing? What do they do uniquely in the market? What makes it special? What kind of employee-employer relationship does the company value?

All of these questions are not answered by a corporate strategy head, these are questions answered by the performers in the company, the leaders and the people who stay and contribute every single day. These are the people who make up the core of the company and are rarely used to create corporate strategy or branding. Yet, these are the people who create the brand every single day.

Superhero Solutions

There is a simple process to save cost, refocus on the core brand and attract and retain the right people to the business.

  1. Talk to Superheroes: The superheroes contribute and stay. These are the people who leave the company after becoming disillusioned and frustrated. They never leave for more money. Talk with them.
  2. Ask Superheroes who leave: Talk with the superheroes who have left. Why did they leave, what changed, what could have been done differently? Exit interviews are only helpful for people who contributed.
  3. Where do Superheroes Live? Find them and attract them using the right structure that fits them. Do they respond to walk-ins? Do they take initiative to call and follow-up? Structure the recruitment process to approach those people who love what the company can offer. Be ruthless - if a Superhero in your company will always follow-up, disqualify anyone who doesn't.
  4. Everyone could be a Superhero, someday: Everyone gets a response, everyone gets feedback. Potential superheroes can recommend other superheroes. Normal people can scare away good superheroes. And a Zombie in one environment might be a Superhero somewhere else.

The simplest approach is also the easiest. Treat the future employee like a future customer. What kind of customer should and will want to buy our product? How do we make them loyal for life? How do we build a company that retains and develops Superheroes and kills Zombies?

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