circumvent a hr crisis with employee brand engagement

Sometime in the next year or two, I predict U.S. companies will undergo a human resources crisis. As businesses stabilize and people become accustomed to a certain degree of economic uncertainty, a high level of turnover is likely to threaten companies’ recoveries.

Employees who survived multiple rounds of layoffs over the last couple of years have become burnt out from taking on more work for lower pay and reduced benefits. They’ve likely developed some battle wounds as they’ve conflicted with managers over scarce resources and under-funded projects and fielded complaints from customers who’ve been dissatisfied by the less-than-stellar service that’s resulted from staffing shortages. Many of the folks who were laid off have taken on jobs they don’t really want at companies they don’t really want to work for, just to secure a steady paycheck. As soon as people suspect there are other options, they’ll start looking for the first opportunity to leave.

I am not alone in my prediction. In a recent New York Times Preoccupations column Jon Picoult, founder and principal of Watermark Consulting, wrote, “Layoffs, cutbacks and stress inflicted on employees in the economic downtown have left many of them discontented and disengaged…A turnover storm is looming.” And I’ve heard similar remarks from recruiters and human resources consultants. People are itching to jump ship. It’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s only a matter of ‘when.’

Companies need to prepare for this crisis by shoring up their human resources capabilities — ensuring their recruiting efforts are primed to attract new talent and their on-boarding and training is ready to smoothly integrate a wave new people into the organization. But they also should try to offset the crisis, turning their attention from workforce reduction to workforce retention.

Companies should invest in employee engagement now before it’s too late. Back in 2009, the Gallup organization determined that less than 30% of the corporate workforce is truly engaged in its work.  That figure has probably only gotten worse as pent-up frustration has kept pace with pressures to post signs of recovery.

Employees’ intellectual and emotional fulfillment from and commitment to their employers needs to be strengthened. Not only is an engaged employee less likely to leave their company, they’re also more likely to support the company’s interests and contribute to its success.

According to another report by Gallup, firms with high employee engagement levels enjoy 12% higher customer advocacy, 18% higher productivity, and 12% higher profitability. Best Buy provides a great case study: for every one-tenth-of-a-point increase in employee engagement, each store increased profits by $100,000 a year.

So there’s a strong case for making employee engagement a priority now more than ever – and I would go one step further to advocate for employee brand engagement.

By employee brand engagement, I mean the positive, multi-dimensional connection between employees and the company’s brand. This is more than what typically results when companies do internal marketing or “invertising” and employees are considered an audience which must “buy” what the marketing team is selling. Feeling good about the organization and having a positive outlook on its future are important, but they’re not likely to address employees’ more deeply rooted needs for personal significance and reward.

When employees are truly engaged with the brand, they are involved in the development and delivery of brand value to customers. They are informed, inspired, and well-instructed on how to support the brand in their daily decision-making. Employees who are engaged with the brand play a critical role in the way the brand is experienced by all stakeholders. They see themselves as “brand operators” who develop, maintain, and activate the brand across all of their activities — and this serves as a point of pride and reason for increased commitment to the organization.

Instead of generic or disparate initiatives to increase employees’ engagement, companies should use their brands. A brand is the strongest engagement tool a business has because of its power to connect. Employee brand engagement connects:

  1. employees to customers – A brand helps people understand how the company serves customers. It defines the unique value the company delivers to customers and why that value is so important. When employees understand how what they do ultimately impacts the customer, they have a clearer understanding of what is expected of them and how they can be most effective. And satisfied customers are an immediate, obvious, and tangible reward.
  2. employees to each other – A brand also defines the unique way a company interacts with all of its stakeholders – from front-line employees to the executive team, from vendors to buyers, and between business partners. It unites people with a common objective, drives the values and culture which determine how people treat each other, and sets a high standard of work for everyone.
  3. employees to a higher purpose – A brand gives more meaning and importance to a person’s work by speaking to the broader mission of the organization. Just as consumers’ expectations of companies are rising, so are employees’ – most want to know the company is about more than making money.

Employee brand engagement isn’t a cure-all – some well-engaged people will still choose to leave. More money, for one, can be a strong draw to leave. But for many, experiencing the connections the brand provides is a more powerful motivator to stay.

Of course, none of this is true if the organization views the brand merely as an expression of what it does. Employee brand engagement requires that the company uses the brand as a tool for driving the business.

Here are some of my writings on that topic:

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