The employer brand in Asia
At a recent breakfast in Hong Kong, organised by theblueballroom and moderated by Transform magazine, employer brand practitioners gathered to discuss how much employer brand management has changed in recent years.
Employer brand management is becoming more important to businesses in Hong Kong across the spectrum, from start-ups to venerable institutions, from vast pan-industry conglomerates to highly specialised firms, and from leisure brands to professional services. At the risk of taking liberties with Leo Tolstoy, the opening line of Anna Karenina could serve as a mantra for internal communications teams across the region. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Many businesses have already embraced employer brand management as an opportunity for promotion, greater profitability and increased productivity. All seek to create a virtuous circle of workplace communications. Each has its own set of challenges, issues and outright obstacles to achieving that happy state of being.
Several of the region’s leading lights in employee engagement attended a summit in Hong Kong earlier this year, including delegates from Renault, Cathay Pacific, UBS Premier Health Services, the Dairy Farm Group, Lewis Silkin LLP and Dream Cruises. The commonalities that united them were striking, despite their vastly different back stories. For instance, everyone agreed that employer brand management must be driven from the top down, as one attendee observes, “It’s all about the leadership. If you don’t have the endorsement from the leadership and endorsement from the senior communications person to roll out anything, it is so difficult to achieve anything.”
theblueballroom managing director Kate Shanks agrees. “The leaders have to walk the walk and talk the talk or no one is going to buy into it,” Shanks says. “So you can do all you want as an HR or internal comms advisor, but if the leaders aren’t displaying and living the brand, you’ve got no chance. It has to be authentic.”
However, leaders don’t just need to say the right thing and do the right thing. They must also be seen to be doing both, by the right people in the right way at the right time, as one attendee from a customer-facing business observes. “In large companies, management can say a lot of things and behave in particular ways, but still the perception is that’s them, that’s management saying we should all work together as one. I have meetings with people every day to make sure we are all aligned, but I wonder if it makes your people understand anything else happening in the company any better. There still has to be a big push from HR, communications, events, engagement and other means to make sure that people across the business really understand the value of how they each contribute.” Employer brand, then, must be the thread that runs through the organisation and connects employees of every department – not just the management.
Coalescing around a coherent set of employer brand values is, then, not such an impossible task. There are many means through which the workforce can be engaged and, naturally, these depend on the nature of the business and the nature of the employees. But – and it is a really big but – middle management can be a stumbling block for one and all. “It’s often the weakest point in the organisation,” asserts one delegate. “They are supposed to link management and the workforce and they can be blockers, they can be enablers, but most are just somewhere in the middle.” For one attendee, people being promoted out of their skill set into management disrupted the extension of the employer brand process. It was also cited as a global problem, not something contained in certain regions. “I think it’s true globally that people are often promoted because they are good at their jobs, not because they are good leaders, and a completely different set of skills are needed to become a good people manager.”
For another attendee, having a workforce disparate around the globe also leads to a fractured employer brand due to disconnect at mid-management level. “You can try as hard as you like to get employees aligned around customer-centricity and serving customers from the heart, but the touch point for your frontline staff – their direct boss – is not cascading it down.” That, they continue, is why employee engagement is extremely important. Employer branding is about connecting with the wider workforce, not just those easiest to reach.
With this in mind, the delegates suggested that managers should be set personal objectives and measured on how well they are engaging their employees. The results of an employee survey showed one company that low levels of employee engagement were directly related to a perceived lack of empowerment. “People felt that there were too many barriers,” its delegate recalls. “So senior management set up a global programme to improve the business by getting employees to submit ideas to increase efficiency or to remove a blockage, and rewarding them for it. It is literally those in charge saying, ‘you are at the sharp end, tell us what we can do better.’”
In theory, this approach is effective. However, managing the flow of ideas needs careful consideration or it could backfire, leading to a total rejection of any set of coherent ideals which would help strengthen the employer brand. Another delegate continues, “If we were to run something like that, we would be inundated with staff telling us how we can do things better, but they wouldn’t necessarily be thinking from a business perspective. So how do you make sure people feel valued, listened to and recognised without making all the changes they are suggesting?”
For the previous company, developing an app to garner suggestions was the first solution. This was then reviewed by local business managers and sent up the management chain. After the more outlandish are filtered out, employees are given written acknowledgment of their ideas and let down gently. Showing engagement by submitting an idea counts towards employee collaboration scores as part of their annual review and ideas that are approved are taken into account for their annual bonuses. Building engagement into the bonus system is something several major banks have already adopted, providing a tangible incentive and recognition for employees going above and beyond to highlight their contribution to the employer brand process.
Another company in attendance told of its collaboration awards, which are given out every quarter. This, says its representative, is part of noting that sometimes people just want recognition and to feel part of the ongoing agenda development. “You can encourage natural groupings of employees to come together to discuss their issues and to agree say the top two priorities to push forward. They will naturally filter out those ‘everyone gets a 25% pay rise’ ideas because they know it won’t go anywhere. They will self-select, and you are empowering people to have conversations, which helps them to feel listened to – rather than filling in a form that goes into the ether. Sometimes people just need to talk.”
It might be good to talk, but not everyone in the region necessarily wants to. As one delegate recounts, business culture can often differ by region, which means different approaches taken by various employers. “One factor that needs to be considered in Asia is cultural. Sometimes it’s top down and hierarchical, so if you’re working for a big local company, chances are it may be dependent on the wishes of one individual at its head.” With company structure a key obstacle facing future-focused companies in the region, implementing employer brand ideals to strive towards a collaborative approach takes time. It is a slow process, says Shanks. But all business used to be hierarchical once. “Some locals come in to do their jobs and don’t necessarily want to be engaged. They just want to get their jobs done and if they’re paid $500 more somewhere else, they’ll go there – there’s no brand loyalty as such. But once again it is about managers taking and making opportunities to engage and there is some evidence of change.”
“Employer brand must be the thread that runs through the organisation and connects employees of every department – not just the management” Kate Shanks, theblueballroom
And change is inevitable as the millennial generation grow up and enter the workforce. “That group is so used to conversing and sharing through social media, and having the opportunity therefore to have a voice, and it is so demanding of companies,” says one delegate. “They are discerning and they want to know who they are working for, they want to scratch beneath the surface. It will be very interesting as that generation grows up and starts the shift.” In terms of employer brand, millennials are an integral for change in businesses across the globe. Expectations have somewhat shifted from previous generations; how the employer-employee relationship works to benefit both parties is of much concern to the generation now rising up from junior to senior positions. Arguably, this is what the employer brand is all about. “Employees are the source that’s trusted; we increasingly see and hear that it’s not the leadership or the management that are trusted. Employees have a very powerful voice and when you combine that with the growth of digital and their ability to amplify that voice, companies have no choice but to engage with employees to channel that in a positive and effective way whilst listening to where it is not positive,” finishes the attendee.
Positive or not, employer brand management must be based on authenticity, importance and engagement. Several participants in the debate referenced what happens when the employee experience doesn’t live up expectation – they leave. Worse is the select few who stay long enough to criticise the company and nurture dissent and then leave. The disconnect between an external brand proposition and employees who know or understand little of it or who don’t buy into it, can do great damage. By the same token, an engaged, motivated and empowered workforce can be a company’s greatest asset.
Some companies, particularly those based around the Asia region, have only recently begun the process of creating an employer brand that is greater than the sum of its many parts. Now, however, the movement is building up a head of steam. Businesses indigenous and international are investing in dedicated internal communications teams, employee experience teams and employer brand managers. This area will grow in scale and importance. Don’t be disheartened by the pace of change, Shanks counsels. It is early days, she says, but there is already evidence of success in the region.
Yes, there are cultural differences. Yes, there are issues of language. Yes, millennials are having businesses rewrite the rule book. But the scale of the opportunity for businesses that can connect what people believe internally with what is being delivered externally, and can harness the dynamism of their employees is colossal.