‘We Are Fun!’: Why Employer Branding Needs to Move on from Culture Clichés

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I’ll never forget bringing Herman Atkins in to speak at an all-employee meeting.

I was working for Life Technologies at the time, and our CEO always opened all-hands meetings with a joke. As employees filled the room, I remember there was a casual ease in the air as everyone knew a laugh was forthcoming.

What no one knew walking in was that this time, this meeting was going to be different. Our CEO didn’t start the meeting with a joke. Rather, he went on to say that there was nothing funny about the situation we found ourselves in that day. We were experiencing an economic winter, and if we didn’t turn things around, the company wasn’t going to survive.

Silence filled the room.

During this unexpected opening, I was sitting backstage with Herman, a man who was wrongfully convicted of a crime in Los Angeles in 1988 and exonerated by DNA evidence 12 years later. He was eventually released thanks to the DNA testing made possible by the team at Life Technologies.

Having just heard the CEO’s remarks, Herman took the stage and started out by saying that he didn’t know much about our business and the numbers we needed to hit, but he did know that the people in this room gave him his life back.

He described the look on his mother’s face when he told her about the charges. He described the heartbreak he felt when she looked at him as if she didn’t believe him. He described life behind bars and how helpless he felt until DNA testing became available. Little did anyone know, I found the data scientist who created the product used to analyze the DNA in Herman’s case and flew him into Carlsbad to be at the meeting in person. After Herman told his story, we asked the scientist to join us on stage, and we watched them exchange a warm embrace.

It was a moment that will stick with me forever. It was the moment that started a fascination with authentic, purpose-led stories that have defined much of my career ever since I felt what sharing Herman’s story did to an organization.

Finding a better way to articulate culture

In most employer brands, culture is presented as a benefit and celebrated as something people are lucky to be part of. The truth however, is that every company has a culture, and it’s more a question of whether a potential employee is a good match for it.

The truth however, is that every company has a culture, and it’s more a question of whether a potential employee is a good match for it.

It’s not good enough to simply claim ‘we have a great culture!’ Quite frankly, your own opinion of good or bad is irrelevant; it’s for the employees and candidates to decide for themselves. Our job is to equip them with all the necessary information to make an informed decision.

A typical means of articulating culture is talking about the values of an organization. Obviously, the shared values of an organization drive the behaviors you find within it, so it’s a logical place to start. However, values alone are not enough to accurately set expectations of how it might feel to work in your company, because values are open to interpretation, often intangible, and always positive.

Have you ever seen a company that publishes values such as lazy, arrogant, or combative? If you do please email me, because I would love to see it. We forever find ourselves in the land of integrity, honesty and fun. But what does ‘fun’ really mean? If you think about it, it’s as good as useless when trying to articulate an employee experience because your idea of fun might be completely different to mine. We should instead seek to better describe the experience of working within your four walls, for the good of both our candidates and ourselves.

We should talk about challenging and supporting behaviors.

In what ways might a new employee struggle to fit in? Examples of challenging behaviors include:

● “If you ask a colleague for help before getting to know them first, there’s a good chance you could be flat-out ignored here.”

● “If you take too long to get to the point when communicating here, you’ll find people will quickly lose patience with you because the environment is extremely fast-paced and to the point.”

● “There’s a consistent expectation of doing work to an incredibly high standard, which means there’s always an above-average level of work-related pressure and even stress you just have to deal with on any given day.”

On the flipside, in what ways might a candidate gain a sense of support and belonging in your workplace? Examples of supporting behaviors include:

● “Everyone has a little bit of geek in them here. Doesn’t matter what it is, but you’ll find that most people obsess over things they’re passionate about, and if you’re willing to share your passion, people will love listening and learning about who you are and what makes you tick.”

● “If you have a personal issue, challenge, or problem, you’ll get instant support from everyone around you. We’re a family here, and we put family first.”

Combining challenging and supporting behaviors into an illuminating story

Examples of challenging and supporting behaviors can be difficult to form. The process requires raw introspection, while also benefiting from a fresh set of eyes. But once formed, combining these examples can paint an incredibly accurate picture of life within your organization.

The process requires raw introspection, while also benefiting from a fresh set of eyes.

“At our company if you’re seen to be working hard on a project, but are still falling behind because of the sheer volume of work, there’s a good chance your teammates will rally round you and put in extra hours to help. However, if you’re the type of person to clock watch and do the bare minimum, when you’re under pressure and need help you’ll most likely have to deal with it yourself. Showing a willingness to hustle and support your teammates is one of the best ways to earn respect at this company, and is incredibly important to the vast majority of us here.”

The example above paints a clear picture of both supporting and challenging behaviors, while also telling a relatable story that allows the audience to make an informed decision as to whether they feel like they would belong.

Am I the clock watcher or the team player? Would feeling the support of a team around me when it really counts matter to me?

If we combine any of the supporting and challenging behaviors from the lists above, watch how the balanced view starts to become more authentic, believable, and valuable to your audience.

Typically the challenging behaviors come from the pressure of the business strategy and leadership, while the supporting behaviors come from the human response to these pressures. When combined, the net result is clear insight into what it takes to not just survive, but thrive.

Tips for further fueling your employer brand with stories

Why is it important to clearly articulate your culture? It enhances your employer brand and gives you the power to recruit willing advocates, ambassadors, and brand activists who knowingly protect, nurture, and proliferate your employee experience and the culture that fuels it.

Your employer brand must resonate with your internal audience in such a way that they proudly agree with what it’s like to belong and contribute to your organization’s purpose.

The written architecture of your employer brand must give enough information for applicants to discern if your business is right for them, while also accurately reflecting what it feels like to be part of your organization. Your employer brand must resonate with your internal audience in such a way that they proudly agree with what it’s like to belong and contribute to your organization’s purpose.

When they do, they start doing your job for you.

When getting started on your employee advocacy program, here are the things to keep in mind:

● Give your blessing and encourage employee participation.

● Find your stars and recognize employee advocates.

● Help employees build their personal brand.

● Create a branded hashtag.

● Create a social playbook.

● Invest in an advocacy tool.

● Draft a Glassdoor review strategy.

I owe Herman Atkins a huge thanks for showing me the value of humanizing a brand. Brands and organizations are new and decidedly abstract concepts. As social creatures, we find far more meaning in the human than we do in the abstract. Describing your brand as one of integrity, honesty and fun might be concise, but it lacks the depth and relatability that allows a potential employee to gain an understanding of exactly what your organization is about.

But by telling real stories, and using real examples, you can expect to enjoy a more invested, contented and talented team, and a company culture that is both appealing and self-fulfilling.

Stories you might like:

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