Sometimes the distinctions between terms are irrelevant; they don’t make much of a difference. Not so with the distinction between employEE branding and EmployER branding. Just the switch of one letter, and the switch of the organization’s focus, makes all the difference.
EmployER branding is all about creating a sense of place. It is the practice of establishing the character or reputation of an organization as a place to work, primarily by aligning recruiting and external HR practices with the ‘brand’, reputation of identity that the organization wants to have. The idea is that you create a sense of ‘what it’s like to work here’ as a way to attract not only potential employees, but more specifically the kind of employees who will fit well within the organization.
EmployER branding is a sensible practice, probably even an indispensable practice, if you consider how hard it’s said to be to find the right people to get “on your bus.” When an organization attracts the right kind of potential employees, the cost of onboarding, socializing and training these new employees is reduced.
It is simply a good Authenticity Practice to work to create an accurate view of your organization as a place to work. Ideally this representation or employER brand would be reasonably close to what it is actually like to work at the organization. If not, you could end up like Google, an organization with a great general reputation, a great technical reputation and an increasingly less positive reputation as a place to work. And, you’d end up with employees who thought they were joining one organization only to discover they had signed on to work at a significantly different place. EmployER branding is about crafting a sense of the organization as an employer, that will attract the right kind of new hires.
EmployEE branding is a different practice altogether. It is all about influencing the behavior of organization members. Employee branding is the practice of ‘aligning’ an employee’s behavior and often the employee’s point of view with the image that the organization wants to project to its customers and eternal stakeholders. Employee branding takes the organizational brand – the characteristics and attributes that the organization wants to project about itself—and impresses it upon the employees.
Employee branding is a tactic for generating ‘on brand’ behavior, behavior that expresses, presents and performs the attributes that the organization wants as part of its reputation or brand. It attempt to influence the interactions between employees within the organization as well as between employees and external stakeholders. The idea is that an organization can strengthen its claim to the attributes it desires when employees demonstrate these attributes.
Employee branding programs include regular job training, training in customer service or customer interaction, corporate orientation, and education in the corporate brand. Well-developed employee branding programs also include ongoing training, performance evaluation and rewards systems that support the employees’ display of on brand behaviors
Compliance to Internalization
The intent of employee branding programs is always the same: to get employees facing inwards and facing outward to display, perform, and enact ‘on brand’ behaviors. But there are different ways to achieve this goal. Organizations can ask employees to comply with certain expextations about their behavior, and they can train or teach employees to internalize the desired attributes so that these attributes are expressed in the employees’ behaviors as though the attributes belong to the employees’ themselves.
The further that ‘work’ moves from physical labor into intellectual and emotional labor, the more that organizational systems move from a compliance orientation to an internalization orientation. Compliance is generally thought to be more desirable (from the organization’s point of view) because the organization can worry less about supervision. And, when attributes are internalized, they are expressed through employee behavior with less conscious effort and less ‘work’ on both the employee’s and the organization’s part.
Sometimes, influencing behavior is not enough and organizations want employees to think from the organization’s point of view. They want not only ‘on brand’ behavior, but also ‘on brand’ thinking. Organizations get ‘on brand’ thinking by teaching employees to internalize the organization’s priorities and values as their own. Some organizations ask employees to develop a sense of themselves as being like the organization (having similar attributes). This identification with the organization dissolves the boundary between ‘who the organization is’ and ‘who I am’. Instead of asking “What’s good for Initech?” employees learn to ask “What’s good for us?”
Thus, it becomes automatic for the branded employee to put the organization’s interests first.
This identification of the self with the organization, or the imprinting of the organization’s values on top of the individual, can be fine when the interests of the organization and the employee are aligned and complementary. But there is usually less alignment in individual and organizational interests than you’d think.
Why distrust employee branding?
I’m a firm believer that organizations can (and should) brand their systems and brand the behaviors that they want their employees to perform. Organizations should examine their customer service routines, their hiring practices, their purchasing and procurement systems, their scripts and scripted prompts in customer interaction and so on. But, I draw the line at branding employees themselves.
There are a lot of moral and ethical reasons for keeping an organization from having significant influence on an employee’s self-definition. Employees need some kind of psychological distance from the organization so that they can have personal autonomy, authority, and authenticity. Psychological distance makes it possible for employees to evaluate what the organization is doing and what they themselves are doing from a critical perspective. This ability is critical not only for ethical practices within the organization, but also for really good customer service (i.e., putting self in customer’s shoes) and even for challenges like seeing new business opportunities or being innovative.
In addition to these concerns, another reason that I question the practice of employee branding is because I question the values behind the desire to submerge the individual under or into the organization’s brand. The drive for a full merger of the organization and the individual demonstrates selfishness on the part of the organization. The willingness to merge ones sense of self with the organization demonstrates a psychological immaturity on the part of the individual. Neither organizational selfishness nor psychological immaturity are good on their own, and together, in an organization, it can get ugly.
Certainly, a little bit of employee branding is a great idea. On brand behavior is important, and employee branding can help to achieve it. Employee branding, in moderation, is simply a part of effective socialization and training. But too much employee branding sets the stage for exploitation.
It’s important to maintain a conceptual distinction between employEE branding (be careful) and employER branding (be authentic).