Cut & Polish

Why employer brand is more important than ever

This year, Gem brought on a Director of Employer Brand as its first employer brand hire. We  brought this role on earlier than most companies tend to, but when I joined Gem it was with the intention that Gem’s recruiting team would become a reference model for other talent organizations. So I knew we needed to exemplify what it looks like to prioritize employer brand, since the virtuous cycle of engagement and narrative storytelling is a critical component of good recruiting. At the time—6 months ago—bringing on a director was perhaps a confident step; but in today’s down economy and ultra-competitive talent market I’d make an even bolder argument: now is precisely the time to bring on an employer brand role.

It sounds counterintuitive, I know. As businesses—especially smaller organizations—reduce budgets, it’ll be tempting to cut the employer brand initiatives your team has in place; it’ll be tempting to pass on a tech talk, or an open house, or an industry event to save money. But employer brand is exactly what you need to protect right now, because if you don’t articulate what it’s like to work at your company—as often and as broadly as possible—it’s going to be orders of magnitude more difficult to attract and close talent. 

This has always been the case, but today’s market conditions give it greater weight because companies have fewer openings than they used to. Where there once were three openings (meaning teams could hire a junior person, a mid-career person, and a senior person), maybe there’s only one. And so they need to fill that open role with a senior person who has the willingness to roll up their sleeves the way junior and mid-career talent would, plus the knowledge and critical skills of many years of experience. 

In other words, as the number of open roles in a company decreases, the need for the highest-quality talent to fill those roles increases. Factor in competition from your well-established competitors. And if you want to attract that talent—the talent that’s highly sought-after—you need to have an impeccable brand story. 

This means more than a job posting, a careers page, a few social posts, and an occasional event. It means a dedicated role that’s thinking critically and holistically about the story of your company, and how that story will get told. The reality is, from a candidate perspective, this is a very attractive time to go looking for a company that’s doing really well. But no one’s going to know you’re doing well if you’re not thoughtfully and intentionally telling them so. 

In a down economy, recruiting gets exponentially harder than it already is for companies that don’t have a recognizable brand or logo. A poor employer brand strategy—or none—means the only way to compete is to increase your compensation, and that’s never a formula for long-term employee engagement. But a great employer brand? Means first-rate, best-fit hires who stay with your company over the long term because they resonated with your story, mission, and values to begin with.

Upending the perception that elite logos = employer stability

There’s a phenomenon that occurs quite often during market downturns: larger, more established companies get an outsized percentage of candidates because of a perceived notion of stability. This perception is perhaps especially strong for talent who’ve experienced layoffs: there’s bound to be more hesitation about taking a chance—and risking it twice—at a smaller company. I’d even go so far as to say that if you’re not the industry leader within a particular vertical, there’s some perceived risk there. There “might” be instability. There “could” be consolidation through an M&A. No organization wants their most qualified candidates experiencing objections of this kind right now—especially when that perception fails to take into account all that a smaller, more agile company can offer.

When I think of the importance of employer brand—downturn or no—I think of three broad personas. The first is new grads and interns. This talent has a lot of flexibility and choice, but they’re getting advice from parents and career counselors who may not be fully informed, despite their best intentions. This is one reason employer brand is critical: to educate the people who hold sway in early-in-career talent’s lives, and to create a counter-argument to their well-meaning. 

If parents see their kids have a choice between a Fortune 100 and a lesser-known startup—even a unicorn like Gem—they’ll often opt for what they know, since that seems to have a higher probability of long-term stability. This is even more the case in today’s market: until recently, new grads often flocked to pre-IPO, hypergrowth startups knowing their skills would be broadened and fine-tuned thanks to the larger set of responsibilities those companies could offer. Before 2020, the economy was validating that startups were a good bet. In the pandemic and the downturn, that notion was shaken. But a strong employer brand revives that argument. 

Dropbox figured out how to work with the new grad persona early on: they recognized it was often a matter of convincing their parents. During Hack Week, we’d reserve a set of days for parents to join the hack and hear about the company, the product, and the culture straight from the mouths of the founders and CEO. All of this happened as we were coming out of the last long recession, and it was a terrific way to drive home why a company like Dropbox should be considered over a larger organization. Involving parents in Hack Week was one element of a much broader employer brand strategy. And it was an element that demanded an employer brand professional who understood the persona and how they made decisions, who had events experience, whose job description included the bandwidth for these kinds of important events, and who could tie those events back to a meaningful company narrative. 

The second persona is a category of talent that’s still gainfully employed: these folks have survived layoffs at their respective organizations. Maybe they’re a little concerned about the company they’re still at—waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. Maybe they think staying at a Fortune 100 or an otherwise-established company is a better bet than elevating their skills at a smaller one. The point is: if you don’t know, it’s difficult to imagine seeing yourself at another organization. That’s another reason employer brand is crucial: talent is much more likely to move into a role they can already envision, at a company they feel they already know. Good employer brand tells the authentic (and vibrant) story of what it’s like to work at your organization, so talent can intellectually conceive of what it would be like to work for you.

The third persona is likely the most sensitive to company stability because they’ve been impacted by layoffs or rescinded offers. They may be anxious in the aftermath of that event, and the anxiety is accompanied by the clarity that they’ll only enter a hiring process with companies they perceive as stable from now on. This persona is a third reason why employer brand is so important: fear of being the newest employee—and therefore the most expendable if the market goes a certain way. 

That “last in, first out” anxiety is real. Which is why employer brand can’t just be about the feel-good things. It's also about the strength of your business and why you’re continuing to grow. There are companies out there—many of them—that aren’t household names or industry leaders, and they’re doing really well. Organizations shouldn't be afraid to say (assuming it’s true): “Our ruthless prioritization in this economy is continuing to grow revenue. We’re still gaining market share. This is what customer retention looks like; here’s our growth strategy.” If you’re not saying it, talent won’t know it except through word-of-mouth, or—more likely—not at all. 

I think it’s a great mistake for talent to fear moving to lesser-known companies in this market. And if you, like me, work at a small but very strong organization, you know this. Maybe you’ve had the experience of your own career accelerating because you took a chance at expanding your skills at a small-but-mighty company during a downturn. 

When I started at Facebook in 2008, “Director” was the most senior title at the company outside of a few C-level and VP-level roles. Nearly everyone was some level of IC who had taken a chance at a high-risk startup during a downturn. It’s now 14 years later, and there are so many C-level folks from that early cohort: a Director of Engineering who became CTO, a Director of Product who became CPO, a designer who became the CEO of Instagram. The investment in growth also prepared many to go outside of Facebook to become CEOs at companies like Ancestry and Instacart. 

The point is that the downturn experience was invaluable for so many of us because we learned to do more things than we’d ever have learned at larger, “stable” companies. We were better prepared to take on VP+ roles in less time, rather than working up the ladder at established companies. This is one of the value propositions smaller companies should be highlighting. What tremendous, role-specific learning curves will talent get to have with you?  

The cautionary tale of not investing in employer brand

It used to be that the onus was on candidates to do their research. But we’re in a world of passive candidacy, and the onus is now back on companies to market their culture, their mission, their values, and what a day-in-the-life looks like for an engineer, a marketer, a salesperson, an accountant, or a legal associate in your organization. The story has to be authentic. And it has to be persistent. Talent organizations can’t just throw together one-off campaigns and cross their fingers that they’ll work anymore. Employer branding is a perpetual project; it’s iterative, and it’s an active conversation you’ll continue to evolve with your talent market. 

The moral of the story is: it should be table stakes in today’s market to have an employer brand function. A lot of maturing teams split up the work; but in order to do it meaningfully, it needs to be a full-time job. Because it’s about communities. It’s about ERGs. It’s about core values and business metrics and the vision of the role your company plays in the industry and in customers’ lives. It’s about diversity and representation as an organizational imperative, the psychological safety of candidates and employees, and the sense of belonging that all talent who touches your organization feels. It’s about career tracks and progression. It’s about detailing individuals’ stories of thriving. It’s a complex narrative that demands complex messaging and a complex strategy. But if you do it well, you’ll have a real opportunity to attract some of the best talent out there—regardless of what the market is doing.

I can’t tell you how often Facebook lost to Google, and even to Microsoft, while I was there during the last recession. It sounds ludicrous today given what we know of Meta’s growth story; but it took the hard and relentless work of a handful of recruiters who were persistent in telling—and retelling—the company story, in engaging everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to Sheryl Sandberg to close candidates, in order for us to get anywhere. And this isn’t a phenomenon that’s specific to tech, though that’s where much of my personal experience lies. Think about the healthcare industry, for example: the largest healthcare organizations get the bulk of candidates because of their perceived stability, while smaller regional healthcare providers and hospitals struggle to attract talent. 

None of this, by the way, is to let larger organizations off the hook. Well-established international companies will struggle too in this market if they’re not considered the premier logo in the industry. If you’ve been around long enough, you’ll remember how AMD struggled against Intel, who was easily bringing in top engineers from the material sciences. Same story between Dell and HP: Dell was the hottest startup anyone could’ve been a part of; they made a fundamental shift in servers back in the day. But HP outdid them again and again in recruiting and hiring because they were the number one server provider. Same thing with Java—a hot, hot startup that ultimately got absorbed by their competitor Oracle, because Oracle was the premier logo. 

So this is a cautionary tale. I hear recruiters and business leaders saying: “I don’t know what to expect.” But look at history and it will tell you what to expect. When you’re not the industry leader and you don’t have a strong employer brand in place, you’ll stop hiring the best people and therefore you’ll stop innovating. That’s when consolidation happens or companies die out. Candidates are now more thoughtful and cautious than ever about where they’ll go next. Not investing in employer brand—to whatever degree you can—will be the first way to lose market share. 

It’s a story I’ve seen play out over and over again. So talent leaders, business leaders, take this advice, however counterintuitive it initially sounds: invest in brand with what budget you have. Bring on a dedicated role; carve out the resources to make it happen. At Gem, we’re thrilled to have Des Caballero with us, and we look forward to sharing our employer brand story with you. 

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Chief Recruiting Officer
September 15, 2022
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