The association game

Being a desirable brand name attracts talent but it can also do a lot more...

Words by Kieran Howells| Design by Matt Bonnar

Why big brands have a keen eye on talent

Working for an iconic company, or a brand that a professional personally identifies with, is a career goal for many. The likes of Apple, Twitter and Nike have vast teams across the world, yet positions are notoriously hard to get. In fact, the Apple’s top Glassdoor review has a headline that reads: ‘Hard to get into, worth it to stay’, highlighting such tough competition.

But it’s not just individuals that have to work hard to win coveted roles. Companies have to retain these skills, lest a better offer sways their top talent. Ask any HR leader worth their salt what the central purpose of HR is, and they’ll likely tell you that retaining the key skills and experience of their employees is what underpins nearly everything that they do.

In this sense, attrition levels can give outsiders a view of how HR is doing: whether it be how they’ve curated company culture, look after worker wellbeing and what pay levels are like. Everything that contemporary practitioners will recognise as part of the EVP, all underpinning the employer brand. In fact, businesses that don’t operate with seasonal need and do have high levels of staff turnover are likely to be those whose brand is weaker and doesn’t have the best reputation. So, what does HR need to do to ensure the brand stays strong and employees don’t jump ship?

Shareholders are no longer the central purpose of today's companies. Employees are now the focus, which means corporate culture is too

Culture, brand and retention

Working practises, what some might pinpoint as culture and employee brand, are intrinsically linked. Companies such as Amazon have found that their overall brand image has suffered as a result of poor work practises. In 2018, reports of poor employee treatment at Amazon warehouses made headlines. Whilst Amazon claimed at the time that its employer treatment wasn’t poor, such reports have since become synonymous with the company name – even being lampooned in an episode of animated comedy series South Park in 2018.

The question is: would such poor employer branding have an impact on ability to hire – and on the ability to motivate and retain staff? According to Georgina Cameron, HR Director at Lily’s Kitchen, the two are intrinsically linked – something her company believes penetrates all areas of the business. “[Brand] has the power to motivate the company’s people and how they work – rather than the latest top-down idea from the marketing department or just a re-wording of CSR initiatives. This purpose is felt deeply by everyone in our organisation, and that shines through in the way we do business on every level, which is why it has been of such benefit to us. If you want to gauge the authenticity of a brand’s purpose, ask its people.”

Cameron’s view is supported by data from a 2018 Hays report, which states that employees who rate their culture poorly are 24% more likely to leave their organisation within a year’s time; the same piece of research asked 3,000 professionals if they planned on searching for a new position in the near future, with 44% stating that this was the case, all of whom cited poor culture as the main driver behind the decision. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Gallup research found that employees who are ‘engaged and thriving’ are 59% less likely to look for a job with a different organisation in the next 12 months.


[Our staff] live and breathe what we do and feel a strong connection to the brand

Does brand have an impact on retention?

In 2019 claims of a negative interview experience, that of prospective WeWork candidate Katherine Dumanoir, went viral on Twitter after the resourcing manager supposedly used the time to openly trash talk competitors whilst paying little attention to the candidate.

Speaking on her experiences, Dumanoir took to LinkedIn to share: “Not only did they trash talk other companies during the interview that I respect, but they left me alone in the interviewer room for a while and couldn’t get their technology to work. It was a mess.”

Apparently, this was just one example of what was an endemically poor culture. In fact, WeWork’s brand became so toxic that the firm experienced extremely high staff turnover – including a spate of senior leaders who stayed for just months at a time. A Business Insider report from September of last year stated that within a three-month period, no less than 12 ‘top officials’ including the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Investment Officer, the Global Head of Business and Financial Operations and the Chief Brand Officer, left the business.


Prioritising purpose and wellbeing

Whilst WeWork’s story evidences how cultures and brands which aren’t cared for can work to damage talent retention, the opposite is also true for those with positive reputations. In fact, the Business Roundtable – a group of over 200 CEOs from brands such as Walmart, Apple and PepsiCo – announced in 2019 that “shareholders are no longer the central purpose of today's companies. Employees are now the focus, which means corporate culture is too.”

Apple’s Tim Cook, being a notable member of the roundtable, is a prime example of a leader with a strong advocacy of the HR agenda. The company has a history of continuously investing in its award-winning people management strategy, with ‘diversity’, ‘integrity’, ‘collaboration’, ‘performance’ and ‘respect’ leading in its ‘Big Nine’ corporate values. As a result, Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s Senior Vice-President, last year revealed to Forbes that retention within the company was at an all-time high. “We just ended the year with the highest retention rates we’ve ever had – 81%. And the feedback from Apple employees is that it’s because they feel connected. They feel like one Apple,” she stated.

People seek us out, but that doesn’t mean that we can take advantage

The changing values of top talent

And for those looking to ensure that their talent pipeline continues to grow, it seems that the relationship between brand and retaining a skilled workforce is only getting stronger; a recent Harvard Business Review study of over 3,000 young professionals found that nine in 10 are willing to earn less money to work for a company that they believe aligns with their own values. “Working for an organisation with heritage like ours does attract people who want to have a positive impact. People seek us out,” says Michelle Carney, CEO of the Special Olympics. “But that doesn’t mean that we can take advantage. We have to ensure that we’re a fun, positive and attentive place to work if we want to find the right people. Yes, work hard, but we also preach being conscious of your own mental health. As a company, we really believe in that.”

The Harvard data also found that respondents would be willing to trade 23% of their lifetime earnings to ensure that they always felt a ‘connection’ with their employer. Even more damning for those who don’t see a connection between brand values and employee lifecyle is a Forbes report from 2019, which states that a shocking 96% of employees believe that working for a company that is synonymous with ‘empathy’ improves retention and wellbeing.

For HR it leaves one important question: are your brand values aiding or sabotaging the health of your employee lifecycle, are they allowing you to get the best talent, and allowing it to help your company thrive?

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