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Identity Crisis: Defining Your Employer Brand to Regain Success

Posted by Elaine Varelas  April 1, 2010 07:00 AM

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by Elaine Varelas,

Employer brands are powerful tools for organizations looking to set themselves apart from the competition. Many companies have based their recruitment, retention, and marketing initiatives on their brand.  A clear employer brand helps to give a company it's personality, and gives employees and company leaders the vocabulary to describe who they are and what they do.

Yet the economic woes of the past few years have caused many organizations to experience full-fledged identity crises. Just like a traumatic personal experience, such as a divorce, job loss, or illness can make people lose sight of or question who they are in this world, the economy has led many companies to a similar fate.

Cutbacks, lay-offs, and mergers made it virtually impossible for many companies to do business as they once did. Organizations built themselves (and their reputations) on a certain set of tenets and qualitiestheir employer brand. Their brand was how employers defined who they werefor themselves, clients, employees, customers, and recruits. Many organizations have found themselves no longer able to hold onto their brand under the added stress of the global financial meltdown. Not only did their businesses suffer as the economy took a nosedive, but their identities did as well.

The economic downturn affected companies—aand their employer brandsacross every region and industry. The financial services company with the most aggressive recruitment effort had a hiring freeze. The local hospital that offered the most comprehensive benefits package dropped some well-loved perks and asked employees to kick in for health insurance. The global organization that touted itself as the fasted growing tech company started hemorrhaging money.

As the very foundation of how companies operated began to slip away, many organizations kicked into survival mode. Company leadership was less concerned with employer brand than making sure their employees (and they) kept their jobs.

Now that we are starting to see an end to the economic fallout, how can HR managers recapture a brand that was lost? If the employer brand is how organizations define themselves and show their face to the world, what happens when that face now has running mascara, smeared lipstick, or a 5 o'clock shadow?

Having a well-defined employer brand can help a company keep a clear focus when developing recruitment and retention strategies, tweaking a mission statement, starting new culture initiatives, and creating overall business goals. Of course, once an identity crisis hits, it isn't just a matter of HR managers picking up where they left off. The employer brand may be vastly different from what it once was. Will your organization be reinforcing an obsolete brand, maintaining a current brand, or creating a new one?

HR managers should consult with company leaders to find the answers to these vital questions:
-How do we want to be known?

-How are we known currently (and how were we known pre-downturn)?

To find out how you are known now, do some research. Start with an employee survey, as current employees are a wealth of information. Also talk to recruiters, look at employee exit interviews, research the webcheck out blogs and the competition's sites, and speak with prospective employees (especially those who went elsewhere).

If the employer brand is the same as it was before, how will you maintain it? It is important to realize that the strategies and tactics that got you there in the past might not keep you there. You must also understand that your brand may evolveby choice or by circumstance. Your organization may not be able to be where it once was. It is acceptable to change your brand, but you need to be who you say you are. There must be consistency and authenticity between how the brand is defined and how it is played out within the organization.

For example, a law firm that touts a family-friendly culture, must live up to its promise. The organization should provide good benefits and flex-time, and host family-friendly events such as picnics and community service days. Conversely, attorneys shouldn't have to work around the clock (even if they are on the partner track) and the firm can't only offer unpaid maternity leave. Of course, if the brand is different because of the economy or if the firm just can't compete, it is okay to change as long as those changes are communicated. It is more important to be the organization you claim to be; you can't afford to be disingenuous in how you present your organization to the world.

If your organization's brand is changing, the new brand should support the goals of the company. It should also give the organization an edge to set it apart from the competition and move the business forward. It is counterproductive to reinforce an employer brand that is holding the company back from future growth.

An employer brand is a helpful tool in developing hiring, recruitment, retention, and growth initiatives. This is a great time to examine your organization's brand. After a tumultuous few years, there are bound to be changes to your brand definition or strategies. By focusing and redefining the organization's identity, HR managers can help reinvigorate the organization after a stagnant time and prepare it for focused growth.

Elaine Varelas is a Managing Partner for Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career management company.

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