Employer Branding doesn’t work

It’s all about culture hacking.

Everyone’s working on and creating an employer brand nowadays — it’s one of those things people do without really knowing why they are doing it — like taking gym selfies. It’s more than okay to do it, but you should ask yourself if what you’re doing is yielding the result you’re after. If not, could it be you’re just not solving the right problems? Or tossing the task to HR because is “kinda-sorta” a people thing?

In this article, I want to explore all the reasons I think employer branding as we generally know it, is dead. Not because it has no purpose, quite the opposite — but because we’re either doing it wrong, calling it wrong or simply misunderstanding its connection to business, culture, human resources, leadership and organizational development.

According to a study done few years, ago only 36% of respondents said that in their companies, creating an employer brand is left up to HR. In a majority of organizations, employer branding is done not only by HR but also by CEOs, mid-level managers, marketing teams, designated professionals or specialist teams. Anyone can do it, and if it’s done well in an organization, everyone is indeed doing it in their own way. It’s difficult position within a company, but above all, it’s almost impossible to ignore. The ubiquity of the term itself, however, opens up territories a lot of companies have yet to explore. First of them being that employer branding is a drop in the vast ocean of shaping and hacking organizational culture. I think making a clear difference between employer branding and culture hacking will help a lot of companies realize the purpose, necessity and how to do it.

It’s a business thing after all

I started working at LHV as an employer branding manager about 9 months ago with zero experience in HR. As a startup marketer I was hugely reliant on my growth hacking skills and silently hoping my non-existent knowledge in human resources would simply become unnoticed. It didn’t take long to realize employer branding had nothing to do with everyday operational HR, and everything to do with the health, people and processes of an organization.

Most people think employer branding is a fancy way of branding a company to potential candidates. But the moment I realized the problem spanned beyond that, a whole new world opened up. After a while I figured that employer branding is to culture hacking what traditional sales focused, old-fashioned campaign-driven marketing is to modern content-driven conversion marketing. The latter looking at marketing from a storytelling and customer satisfaction point of view and telling a story, rather than bluntly focusing on achieving sales. Branding as a word implies too much to artificially affecting the perception of oneself and that was the last thing I wanted to. As a growth hacker, I didn’t want to go backwards to using traditional marketing techniques, even if I was doing “employer branding” and not marketing per se.

Culture hacking is therefore about using the same techniques as growth hacking, but in regards to creating possibilities for change where change needs to happen and affecting and transforming mindsets — both internally and externally. It’s about affecting the culture of work, the culture of building and maintaining a good work environment, the culture of leadership, culture of retention and employee experience, the culture of creating a feedback loop and positive emotions, the culture of how the organization is perceived and talked about both internally and externally.

Enough about the what, because the how is what really matters….

Be your own guinea big

Hacking organizational culture means you have to put your own experience at the company at the very heart of everything you do. Your ability to look at your own experience as an employee incredibly critically will become the foundation of most of the plans you set and the decisions you make. Are you happy with the way you can work, with your goals and tasks, with your team dynamic, with your level of autonomy and flexibility, your work environment, with the leadership style, reputation of the company, the level of communication and feedback you’re getting? If not, and if you see people around you unhappy with certain things, it’s your responsibility to first and foremost notice, and then set wheels in motion for tackling these issues.

If you’re working either directly or indirectly with change management, innovation, and hacking organizational culture, and you’ve done it in one company for a while without seeing an increase in your own levels of happiness, productivity and engagement, I’m afraid you have miserably failed. If you’re not first and foremost feeling the impact of your own work, why would others? If you see you have a strong opinion about where change needs to happen, as well as a platform and enough autonomy and freedom to make your voice heard, you’re halfway there. If voicing your opinion leads to actions and results that create visible change which you personally can feel and see, you are winning.

A healthy dose of rebel never hurt anyone

There’s a common misconception about any position related to human resources, employee satisfaction, and culture as well as change management, that the people doing it are always full of rainbows and butterflies and almost self-destructively positive about everything going on in the workplace. Even if you love your job, to a certain point, creating change requires a level of rebellion against the current “system”. But that’s what makes it that more interesting to anyone engaged in it.

You can’t do culture hacking if you’re not willing call out weaknesses in the system. Hacking as a term itself already implies to exploiting faults in an existing system. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that many people in a professional setting probably won’t ask or are reluctant to answer.

Ask people around you…What do you most dislike about this place? How long do you think you’re gonna stick around? Why have you stuck around for such a long time anyway? Do you get enough feedback from your boss? Are you providing enough feedback to your boss? How do you like working with that particular team? Do you get to do the things you like? Are you getting enough flexibility, are you insisting enough of it to be happy? If money weren’t an option, what would you be doing instead? What would make you quit?

Out of the more unpleasant questions, you can often get the most useful feedback to craft the best solutions possible.

There’s a stigma attached to asking questions that are uncomfortable both to whoever is asking and to whoever is quite possibly borderline suspicious if they should answer as the one who threw the questions in the air works for HR. No progress ever happened by saying in your comfort zone or living up to every corporate expectation. The eternal skeptic in you will be your best friend and confidant. Almost to the point where you can’t fall too much in love with the company you’re working for, as you’ll lose your competitive edge. Emotions can cloud your judgment, but on the other hand — if they are, you’re doing a mighty good job.

Don’t celebrate mediocrity

The war for talent is real and it’s here. Whatever you think you’re doing right in workplace development, culture, environment, leadership, recruitment, mindset, transformation, aligning your company to what the future of work is, chances are someone somewhere is a million miles ahead of you. What others are doing is setting the bar for you and your response is not to settle with less and celebrate mediocrity of any kind. Mediocrity means investing a minimal level of effort, money, time and emotion in shaping company culture and the employee experience. It happens when you aim for short-term boosts in people’s engagement or rushes of happiness and adrenaline that will sooner or later fade into the oblivion.

Company culture should be taken as seriously as launching a new product, entering a new market, restructuring etc — and it’s a long-term process which needs dedicated resources and a lot of inspiration and research about what’s going on in your field of work as well as knowing who you’re competing with.

At LHV, we’re not competing with other banks, or other corporations — we’re competing with people’s urge to go freelance or start their own business, go travel and do odd jobs and live as digital nomads, people wanting to go and work for a small startup team, work for anyone who offers more of a purpose, freedom, autonomy, or better culture. We are competing with the fact that no Millennial really cares about status, salary, or stability anymore. Netflix’s CEO has said that their platform’s biggest competitor is nothing other than sleep — not other streaming platforms, or television. It’s a little like that with shaping culture and retaining talent — your competition lies where you’re least expecting to find it.

Hacking culture means you’re the catalyst for change and solving problems you’re yet to face. Starting off with labeling the issues you’re dealing with correctly and making sure you’re not the only one doing the hacking, should be your first problem to solve — doesn’t matter which position you hold in an organization. If enough people have put enough effort into shaping culture, the team effort itself will, more often than not, naturally lead to a good employer brand. Doing it in isolation of the bigger picture and business objectives is merely a means to an end without any real value.