How to sell HR

by 04 Sep 2007

The benefits of having a strong employer brand are compelling. But if HR were an organisation, what would its employer brand be, and how would it attract fresh talent? Human Resources speaks with four recruitment advertising agencies about how HR should best promote itself

People who mean business

Kevin Lodge, group general manager, employment marketing communications for Adcorp says:With the talent shortage at an all time high, companies have realised that developing their employer brand is critical to the bottom line – so too have industries like mining, engineering and defence seen benefit in identifying and promoting a career or ‘employment’ brand.

The HR industry employment brand could best be defined as the ability to work in a dynamic and changing profession with future career opportunities in senior management, as well as specialist career paths within HR itself: HR technology/systems, employer brand management, talent management, training and development, change management, workforce planning, recruiting and more.

HR is still about people but it is more than just ‘dealing’ with people – it is ‘people asset development’, whether it is recruiting, coaching, creating a workforce plan or analysing metrics to improve the company’s performance.

An informal survey of senior college students (my kids and their friends) suggests that at their level there is a very low understanding of HR as a career choice. This is where we believe the profession has to make an impact. These kids are, in many cases, making career decisions now and so HR needs to create a profile that is attractive to generation Y while also appealing to their influencers such as parents and school career counsellors.

HR should also align itself with universities that offer HR qualifications and develop relationships with faculties to help promote careers with in the industry. A strong graduate recruitment program will also help bring in fresh talent with new ideas to a profession that must be head of the curve to secure the best employees for their organisation.

HR provides a human perspective within the business and so one approach to brand the profession could be to focus on this, emphasising the ability to bring a people-angle to business. For example you could position HR using a brand theme such as ‘People who mean business’ or ‘The business of people’to appeal to those already in the workforce.

To appeal to generation Y it might require a more altruistic slant and slightly less business focus – for example ‘People people’ could be a theme that would lead to a discussion on the role of HR people in nurturing people within an organisation.

Clearly these are ideas only and a true brand exercise requires a much greater understanding of market perceptions of the industry, knowledge of the talent segments the profession should be targeting and consultation with the professions’ stakeholders.

The perception of HR within organisations has made great strides over recent times – but the profession needs to create a brand that will attract other professionals as well as school and university students to the people profession the means business.

HRs employment value proposition

Adam Shay, managing director, The Face Euro RSCG, says: Without appreciating the position that HR finds itself in (and why) you can’t begin to market it effectively. It is worth noting that much of the bad press around the value of HR emanates from the people who view people management as a ‘fluffy support function’. It’s rare these days that genuine business leaders don’t see the true value in an effective people management strategy.

The most time consuming and important part in determining an employee value proposition (EVP) and the resulting brand is in understanding the internal perception and managing it effectively. It’s fair at this point to note that it’s hard to view HR as a stand-alone organisation. It’s a support function and always will be. The challenge is to determine and communicate its value. The steps:

1. Understand where HR sits in the minds of employees and the external market (an interesting exercise in itself given that most people’s experience of HR will be different and usually formed in a one-on-one environment). I’ve heard HR in the past described as “the corridor of death” with HR people “the angels of doom”.

2. Distil what is the true value of an effective HR function (the tactical part of which will be different in all organisations).

3. Enlist support from the top. Set people management goals that are directly aligned with the business goals, then filter the responsibility for meeting these goals through the HR team (everyone in HR needs to know that their day-to-day work helps the business meet its goals).

4. Outline the achievements and align them to what matters to staff (if the organisation celebrates sales results, determine the dollar value of recent staff retention wins and celebrate them alongside).

5. In larger organisations (and especially government bodies) there is an argument to brand HR.

If the challenge is to attract the best people managers to your business the proposition has to be aimed high and focused on the high-value nature of the role. In a buoyant, talent-short market, decisions around people are crucial to the success of organisations and the continued strong performance of our economy.

Think of the best HR people in the business. They’re organisational leaders – visionary, intelligent, confident, forthright and least of all ‘fluffy’. If you’re going to sell a career in any organisational function you sell it on the shining lights, the ones that talent (especially young talent) will aspire to.

True leaders manage people, not organisations. There are a numerous ways to present this proposition: ‘HR – at the heart of leadership’ to the external market, the most obvious being a recruitment ad. Any proposition needs to be attractive yet also realistic. It’s fair to say that HR in many organisations is not at the heart of leadership, for numerous reasons. Employment propositions though, need to be aspirational. Truly good talent of all ages and levels admire good leadership. Promoting their part to play in good leadership is both aspirational and realistic.

Branding HR

James Wiggins, head of employer branding for TMP Worldwide Advertising & Communications, says: An employment brand does its job by influencing the right people to want to work with you, by influencing their beliefs about you. Beliefs lead to actions. Branding HR then, should begin with identifying what those right people currently believe, and then what they should believe. The second important part of branding HR is then how to get people to swap their existing beliefs for those ideal ones. Let’s start with identifying just a few of those ideal beliefs.

1. The ability of an organisation to develop and deliver a positive employment experience has been unequivocally linked to organisational productivity and profitability. HR is arguably best placed to guide this “employment experience engineering” to impact the bottom line. While this particular role is new territory for many HR professionals and organisations, CEOs are now highly aware of this link and are increasingly turning to HR to take up this strategic business objective. HR is a career choice with a long, bright and relevant future. It is also one with plenty of opportunity for individuals to play a real role in reshaping the profession into that future.

2. When you consider developing and applying a mastery of human nature is a key part of this evolving HR role, this has to be one of the most challenging, interesting, and varied career choices there is.

3. Achieving this new strategic business role also fundamentally involves improving the working lives of people. This would have to be one of the most meaningful commercial careers there is – particularly in the eyes of generation Y.

These are pretty compelling points. But how do you get the school leaver and candidate market to believe in them? It’s probably fair to begin with the assumption that most people see HR as ‘personnel management’: rules and regulations, processes and administration. It’s unlikely that an ad by itself – however creative and engaging – is going to change this lifelong belief.

It’s more likely that a wider campaign involving blogs, webcasts and podcasts, experiential websites, events (real and virtual) as well as traditional message-based communications will be required. These more interactive-based media and activities enable candidates to better experience a possible career choice as real people tell real, individual stories. It’s easier for them to feel what it’s like to be in these roles day by day, month by month. These are richer and more compelling ways to make career ideas real and personally relevant to the right people – ways that will give HR a better chance of shifting those all important career beliefs.

Traditional print ads then really just play a supporting role by driving the right candidates to the richer, more believable experiences.

Finally, when people begin acting on these new beliefs, every subsequent experience they have with the profession must consistently deliver on these new HR career ideas. From the first conversation they have with you, through to the on-boarding, induction and ongoing reality of the job itself. These new candidate beliefs must be maintained well after the hire. Establishing those ongoing employee experiences will require some planning.

HR is a profession in transition, so a careful balance will need to be struck in identifying what new beliefs we want candidates to believe in and act upon. But the key to developing and maintaining an effective HR employment brand will be to effectively shift the prevailing candidate beliefs to these more compelling – and deliverable ones.

The EVP of HR

Melanie Hirst, national creative director, ReAgent Employer Marketing, says: For years HR has been built on the mantra ‘it’s all about people’. And yes, it’s true: workforces do still tend to contain a large number of humans. But does that really paint a true picture of what HR is about?

Payroll, procedure, industrial relations, training, attraction, engagement, retention. In reality HR acts as procurement, legal advisors, psychologists, marketers, general managers, and more often than not, administrators.

Much of what HR achieves can be intangible. Then again HR is sometimes still treated as purely a process function. Then you have the ‘carers’. Thanks to the whole ‘people person’ positioning of the last few decades, the industry has also consistently attracted those more interested in ‘touchy feely’ and not so much ‘bottom line delivery’.

What’s more, I bet you $50 you could still find a few of the truly old school ‘hire ’em, pay ’em, fire ’em’ types, and you wouldn’t have to look too hard. Given such a diverse range of responsibilities, the incredibly varied skills sets within HR itself, and inconsistency in HR empowerment within organisations, is it any wonder the perception of the industry is fragmented inside and out?

So, if any kind of employer brand exists for HR at the moment, chances are you could sum it up in one word: confused.

That begs the question, ‘what should it be?’ The fact is that you can’t develop an employer brand based on assumption – it must be based on fact, and needs to allow for barriers to entry and retention, not just attraction. We could just make some random proposition up, but it’ll be a complete fluke if it stands up to scrutiny. So we must start with research. And there are many stakeholders to consider.

We must uncover the perceptions of potential, existing and former talent pools. We’d need sound qualitative data from HR professionals themselves. In fact, we’d need to sit HR down in a room and interrogate them about what they want to be. Because if we’re not clear about what we do or the role we want to play in business, how can we expect others to be convinced?

That leads to some tough calls. If inconsistency is a problem, we’ve must be prepared to skill up and understand how our role impacts on business. To be ruthless in ensuring our own community can work a business value and engagement chain (that still has people at the centre) not just in isolation, if we want to be seen as business leaders.

We also need to uncover the objections of those who can create the barriers for HR – the other members of the executive and key business managers. This is no small task.

To get viable results we’d have to group organisations by type and choose a significant representative sample. For instance, the way HR operates in a devolved global resources organisation could be very different to a localised financial corporate. Whether that should be the case is a different discussion altogether.

This would allow us to identify common traits by sector and throughout HR and business as a whole. We then create a gap analysis to allow us to articulate a clear EVP in context of HR goals.

Then comes strategy. Here we could dive straight into a schedule covering everything from branding ads to promoting HR at school age, to encouraging internships, building PR and even promoting careers on TV. But in all likelihood, research would show the need to focus more on promoting skills consistency; engaging the CEOs and business leaders with a far-reaching internal communications strategy before going into attraction mode.

So unfortunately we can’t show you what an employer brand for HR would look like, but we believe in practicing what we preach. We can tell you though, it wouldn’t just focus on being a ‘people person’. That doesn’t seem to be getting us where we need to go.

Written in consultation with Craig Robinson, agency head of ReAgent Brisbane