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15 April 2009 8:40am

Employer branding as a business tool is even more useful in a downturn than it is in a candidate-short market, according to TMP Worldwide’s James Wiggins.

He told last week’s Employer Branding Summit in Sydney that until about a year ago, employer branding was all about “predisposing candidates to work for us”.

But, he says, the same principles apply to employee engagement. “If you think that candidate beliefs were costly when you were trying to recruit them a year or more ago (in terms of advertising costs, recruitment costs, and offering inflated salaries to get them), I’d say that you’re probably wasting at least 10 times that amount through disengagement – by not actually understanding what the beliefs of your people are.”

Understanding employees’ beliefs is the key to reducing costs and increasing productivity, he says.

“For employees – it’s about encouraging them to apply discretionary effort. So if you understand the sorts of beliefs that people have, and the behaviours and decision making that those beliefs are causing – whether they’re positive or negative – you can start to do something about it.”

The actions Wiggins recommends employers take to raise productivity include:

Provide clarity – study after study shows that most employees want to contribute but they feel they can’t, Wiggins says.

What employees want most in order to be more productive is greater clarity about what they need to do, and regular, specific feedback on how well they’re doing it, he says.

“Most organisations don’t give that to their people.”

Conduct a productivity risk analysis – identify which workforce groups are most responsible for output. “Not everybody in the organisation, just by virtue of their role or profession is equally responsible for output. It’s likely that you won’t be able to tackle everything at one time, so it makes sense to focus on the workforce groups that you identify are most connected to output.”

Look at beliefs – listen to employees talk about their day-to-day experiences and what gives them a buzz. “What are their beliefs about leadership, managers and their actual job? What sort of mental and emotional stimulation do they get from it? What pride do they show in the organisation?”

One belief that costs employers money, Wiggins says, is that “if people don’t hear their leaders talking to them in language they understand, about how the organisation is going, and how the individual actions of a person can influence that, they tend to believe that the leaders don’t know what they’re doing”.

He says research shows that some three-quarters of employees haven’t received any communication from their managers and leaders and what they should do to help the company out.

Another problem in many organisations is that leaders are quicker to punish people for wrong things than to reward them for the right things, he says.

“If I believe there’s that risk out there I’ll probably be more careful about taking discretionary action, and making discretionary effort. [That’s one of the] biggest problems in terms of engagement.”

Look at managers – “Most mangers don’t listen to their people; they don’t empathise, they don’t look at what people are doing and how well they’re doing it and provide support and development,” Wiggins says.

It’s vital that employers look at what their managers are doing to influence employees’ behaviour, he says.

Communicate – Most organisations are missing out on the opportunity to use their internal communications as a system to guide behaviours and influence beliefs about why people should “apply discretionary effort and go the extra mile”.

“If leaders all the way down the chain don’t participate, chances are people won’t understand why they should contribute. [Employees think] ‘if I don’t understand where the organisation is going, why would I take the risk of actually exhibiting discretionary effort and taking the effort of sticking my neck out?'”

Focus on the recovery – “the recovery will happen sometime – 12, 15, 24 months from now. The reality is that the productivity growth that will come to our markets eventually will put us back in the same situation that we were a year ago.

“Just because it’s a recession doesn’t mean the candidates out there stop developing beliefs – they still take on things based on what you do and what you say.”

It will take most HR managers about a year to do their research and make a business case to their CEO, CFO or MD for funding for a plan to influence beliefs, Wiggins says, “so it’s important to start now so you’re ready when the recovery takes hold”.


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