Employer brand: 7 secrets to fill your skills gap

Skilled workers are becoming pawns in a battle between powerful employer brands in the tight jobs market. AMITA TANDUKAR uncovers seven secrets to help you outgun big employers in snaring talent.

Choosing the best staff

By Amita Tandukar

Skilled workers are becoming pawns in a battle between powerful employer brands in the tight jobs market. SmartCompany uncovers seven secrets to outgun big employers in snaring talent.

Employers are increasingly being forced to fight for the attention of employees as the skills shortage tightens. Last week the Federal Treasury declared the Australian economy is practically at full employment.

To compete, companies have to study and improve their employer brand, and ask why – or why not – are employees joining them.

Katherine Sampson, the founder of franchised sandwich chain Healthy Habits, used to attract 20 job applicants from every newspaper ad. These days she will only get between five and10 applications.

“Then there are always staff being poached when a competitor next door offers them more money,” she says.

How is she winning good staff? “It’s our brand – uniforms, training and career opportunities – that make us win out over smaller businesses,” she says.

Good employer branding does not have to be expensive. It requires:

  1. Finding your point of difference from competitors; in marketing language, your employee value proposition.
  2. Communicating the difference.
  3. Evaluating the results.

1. Identify your strengths

Original employer branding is important, says Ashley Felderhof, who is recruitment firm Hudson’s employment branding national practice leader.

Although employer of choice awards rely on a company fulfilling a wide range of criteria including salary and benefits, employees (particularly younger employees) are increasingly choosing employers based on other factors such as work-life balance, interesting work and career development.

“The danger for entrepreneurs is that they assume they know what their employees want,” Felderhof says. “They need to change their mindset to; ‘what if I were a 25-year-old looking for a job?’.”

The best way to find out the company’s strengths to help you differentiate from competitors is to survey staff and other potential employees in the same industry.

“If there are any weaknesses then work out if any are critical [to the value proposition]. As long as they are not critical, don’t worry, it might be impossible for small businesses to compete on all fronts,” he says.

Tip: Create a forum where staff are comfortable talking about the company’s strengths and weaknesses – an external mediator may be required.


2. Be socially responsible

A company that can demonstrate good corporate and social responsibility is attractive to younger employees.

Furniture retailer Villa and Hut found that potential staff are attracted by its ethical sourcing of its products.

Candidates read the company’s website, which explains the company’s philosophy on furniture manufacturing from reclaimed and plantation timber, as well as the welfare of overseas workers who are predominantly located in Asia.

Organic food retailer Macro Wholefoods is also targeted by socially conscious employees who work in the supermarket, café and naturopath areas. Word-of-mouth spreads quickly among the customer base and training institutes such as Nature Care College.

Pierce Cody, the founder of Macro, says it is not simply a case of buying in organic produce; the company also instills a culture based on respect for the environment and people among the 500 staff. “You have to create a culture from the beginning and then stick with it,” he says.

Tip: Advertise steps the company has taken to become more environmentally sustainable or how the company is involved in the community.


3. Offering career progression through growth

Fast growth is a pull factor for many recruits who want international travel and accelerated promotion through an evolving company structure.

Howards Storage World (HSW) has a strong employer brand built around its customer service ethic, but exporting to New Zealand, Singapore, the Middle East and Spain is generating a new focus for staff.

“It’s not just the head office staff who travel overseas; next month the head of the warehouse will be going to Ireland to help our new operations”, says Dirk Spence, co-founder and joint chief executive of the chain. The first Irish store is opening in Dublin in May, and stores will follow in the Philippines later in the year.

Another benefit to HSW staff from the overseas expansion is a share option scheme for board-approved employees that started last year.

Leigh Jasper, founder of Aconex, uses the fast growth of the online document management company as a drawcard through newspaper ads that list several vacancies alongside details of its overseas operations, which employ 330 people in 35 cities.

At the same time, during the recruitment process, he is honest about the work environment. “I try to give a warts-and-all view of fast growth,” he says. “It can be exciting and there will be career opportunities. But there can be downsides – systems fail, things may not move so fast when clients come on board, or there may not be a budget to do everything we want straightaway.”

Tip: Give examples of how the fast growth of the company benefits individuals, for example, travel, share options, opportunities for fast promotion.


4. Using the web wisely

Company websites are widely acknowledged as the first port of call for any potential employee, so your website should be the first channel of communication tackled by an employer branding strategy.

A basic website should contain a short description about what the company offers employees, current job vacancies and instructions on how to apply – preferably online. More recently, companies list the areas where there are ongoing skills shortages and ask people with those skills to lodge expressions of interest.

It is no longer the preserve of large corporations to go a step further and invest in sophisticated careers sites separate to the main website. New Zealand’s The Warehouse Group is a good example of a comprehensive site with staff profiles, animation and videos.

Video is the latest online tool to attract potential employees with a more personal approach. US employers are uploading ads on video job boards such as CareerTV and VideoJobShop. Candidates upload video resumes to HireMeNow or HireVue.

Australian websites are catching up, with online jobs board Seek allowing employers to add YouTube videos to job ads from late January this year.

The Real Estate Australia (REA) Group, the owner of realestate.com.au and 15 other websites in nine countries, launched its YouTube videos on a REA Group Facebook page in November.

Simon Baker, the chief executive of REA, is declaring the low-cost option of Facebook a success after hiring three employees in the first three months. “In the past, slick advertisements have been antiseptic, but we created the videos with a simple webcam so it portrays the human face and gives you a feel for what the company is really like.”

Tip: Create a YouTube video featuring a day in the life of an advertised role, a personal chat from the hiring manager or chief executive or a depiction of the company’s culture.


5. Market yourself to the young

Gen-Y employees may be hard to reach in a fragmented media market but one place you are sure to find them is in schools, vocational training and universities.

John Brennan, the founder of 40-store franchise John Brennan Hair, is struggling to find apprentices in the current skills shortage.

His solution was to set up in-house fast-track apprenticeships accredited by TAFE and take advantage of the Federal Government’s generous top-up of apprentice pay. “They know they are not going to be sweeping floors for six months before they start learning anything,” he says.

The problem is the continuing perception that only school dropouts train as hairdressers, says Brennan, so he is working with school careers advisers to promote the career and indirectly promoting his employer brand, which includes a national chain, promotion opportunities and hair competitions.

Tip: Contact Career Advice Australia regional industry career advisers to get involved with careers days and school-based training.


6. Use employees to spread the word

The most powerful tool is word-of-mouth by using employees as ambassadors of the company.

The catch is employees must be truly passionate about the work environment to recommend it to others. Entrepreneurs should start thinking about creating an enduring culture early in the company’s life, according to Felderhof. “These changes are organic and take time, so you can’t wait until you have that contract that needs you to double your staff to start work on it.”

Word-of-mouth works both ways – bad news travels fast. If employees’ expectations are not met by an employer then they are going to complain to their friends.

Tip: Do not oversell. Be honest because employees will find out the reality of an employer’s claims very quickly.


7. What gets measured gets managed

Employer brand is about targeting recruits, but the most helpful feedback tends to come from people walking out the door.

Regular staff and industry surveys help track changes in the way the company is perceived over time, according to Hudson’s Felderhof, but exit interviews conducted with departing employees and recruits who decline job offers (a common occurrence in the current market) are a faster way to keep tabs on the brand.

Aconex’s Jasper says his company’s employer brand aims to emphasise a learning culture that rewards initiative, so brand evaluation starts during the recruitment process and continues during induction. He also looks at turnover figures and reads every single exit interview. He says: “I can be sure that no one is moving on because of our culture.”

Tip: Declined job offers are a great source of the reasons why a potential employee chooses a competitor.


Related articles:

>> Recruiting checklists

>> Nine questions you can NEVER ask in a job interview

>> Recruiting the best staff


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