Once, at a family dinner, I expressed skepticism about an idea one of my older relatives was trying to convince me to accept. He gave me a Look—the kind of look that takes a few decades of life experience to perfect—and said: “I can’t sell it if I haven’t bought it, you know.”
It was an unforgettable lesson in the power of authentic communication. He meant that he wasn’t wasting my time or trying to manipulate me—he genuinely believed what he was telling me, and that it would be good for me to know it. Even if I didn’t agree with his conclusions, I couldn’t doubt his wholehearted sincerity.
Ever since then, I’ve been alert to the subtle clues that someone is trying to sell me something they wouldn’t buy for themselves. There’s always a little bit of soul missing, something a little mechanical or forced—the communication is too polished, too positive, maybe too perky. It all screams “fake”!
At some level all of us have this instinct for sniffing out fakery. We roll our eyes at advertisements, political speeches and corporate platitudes about how “our people are our biggest asset” because we know that breakfast cereal isn’t really good for us, politicians lie and that most companies, when the hard times hit, will happily let hundreds of people go but never consider cutting executive pay.
When employees talk about their workplaces, they are believed
This instinct for authenticity is honed by the informal communication networks we all rely on – a company may look shiny, but if a friend or relative warns us it has a toxic working environment or crazy bosses, we’ll believe our friends before we believe the advertising. In fact, around the world people trust technical experts, academics and employees more than CEOs or board members to give them trustworthy information about a company.
The end result is that no matter how much money a company throws at its “employee brand” in an attempt to attract the best talent, the investment is wasted if the reality doesn’t match the promise. In fact, companies with a bad reputation end up spending at least 10% more per hire than their competitors to bring in new talent—and most people won’t consider it no matter how big the pay premium is.
To attract the best talent, companies need not only to have a clear and authentic employee brand, but also to understand and communicate a winning employee value proposition. Just as your customer value proposition answers the question “why should I buy from you?”, the employee value proposition answers the question “why should I work for you?”.
The answer should, ideally, go far beyond on-site gyms and free lunches. Perks are nice, but what people really want is purpose: the knowledge that they are working for an organisation that has a worthwhile mission, and sets about achieving it with integrity.
How to build an authentic employee brand and value proposition
To attract, and then more importantly to keep, the best talent requires consistency: your employee brand, your employee value proposition and the actual experiences of employees all need to tell the same story. The brand and value proposition are, in effect, making a promise about what employees can expect from working at your company. If the promise is broken, so is the trust that’s essential to a good working relationship; low engagement, mediocre productivity and high staff turnover are sure to follow.
So how does one get it right? The first step is executive-level commitment and leadership. If you’re a member of the executive team at your company—well, you know what to do. If you’re at lower levels, prepare the most convincing case you can and try to get leadership buy-in. If you don’t get it—or if you already know you won’t get it—that tells you a lot about the company you are working for, and your own chances of future success.
Having committed to developing an authentic employee brand and value proposition, the next step is to establish a baseline: find out what your employee brand and value proposition are (not what you think they should be) by asking your employees. If you suspect your employees might not tell you the truth, hire an independent consultant—and be prepared to listen to their findings.
Next, change what needs to be changed—and communicate clearly about what changes you’re making and why. You don’t need to succeed immediately, but with a clear plan in place you’ll be able to recruit and mobilise employees to participate in spreading the word about what you have to offer. And as we’ve seen, it’s the word of employees that is most likely to be believed.
Author: Pam Sykes