As we enter the new year, the risks of COVID-19 may recede, but the trauma, pain, and disruptions of these past two years will still be with us, affecting our lives and our work. We’ve all struggled, sometimes in ways we can’t pinpoint.
In her book Bearing the Unbearable, Joanne Cacciatore describes grief as “a process of expansion and contraction.” Cacciatore explains that in a moment of contraction, we may feel unsteady and unsafe, and we “feel the call to self-protect.” In a moment of expansion, we “become more willing to venture out and explore” and “take risks.” This process isn’t exclusive to grief, of course. Whatever the cause, many of us right now are experiencing one or the other, or both.
A recent guest on the HR Social Hour Half Hour Podcast, Julie Turney, founder and CEO of HR@Heart Consulting, observed that people today recognize that they deserve better, and they are demanding better. They are less willing to settle, less comfortable with the way things are. People are fleeing jobs that are physically or psychologically unsafe. Others are chasing their dreams with a newfound passion.
For the foreseeable future, people will seek environments that are both flexible and strong enough to support a process of contraction and expansion. They will desire work that gives them a safe place to be and a fulfilling place to go. They will crave a future they can own and a course they can chart, and their jobs will either help or hinder them. Jobs that help them will be in high demand.
Fortunately, such sought-after work environments can be achieved with some basic practices. Let’s look at some.
Talk About the Future
Ask your managers to talk regularly with their direct reports about how they’re feeling today and what they’d like to be doing in the future. Due to the circumstances, you can expect the answers they hear to vary and to change. On a given day, an employee may feel optimistic and ambitious, eager to take on a new project or a new role. But a week later, that same employee may feel hesitant or anxious about taking on any new responsibilities.
Don’t assume an employee expressing conflicting feelings isn’t up for the task at hand. In normal times, it’s natural to second guess big decisions, and these are not normal times. Some employees may need a little extra encouragement. Others may truly be happier continuing to do what they’ve been doing.
Through these conversations, managers can help their people make informed decisions about their future that make sense for them and for the company.
Don’t Be Afraid to Set Deadlines
Giving employees time to decide what future makes the most sense for them can go a long way to building trust and gratitude. There will come a time, however, when a decision needs to be made. A manager who has been talking with a member of their team about a new career opportunity in another part of the company, for example, will need a definitive answer eventually, probably sooner rather than later.
When a manager has a conversation with a team member about opportunities for growth that require significant change, they should, as soon as possible, make it clear to the employee when a final decision needs to be made. That way the employee has a set timeframe to work through their feelings, and a deadline isn’t unexpectedly thrust upon them.
Provide Grief Support
A lot of people are grieving, and grief takes work. People grieving need the time, space, and freedom to do that work. The option to take bereavement leave after a loss can be invaluable to them, but so too is the liberty to take days off down the road when they’re needed. The grieving process isn’t linear, and the unbearable pain of grief can resurface unexpectedly, months and years later. The life of grief is long. Whatever you can do to enable employees to safely take the time they need to process a loss and heal, do it.
Take Care of Yourself and Your HR Leaders
Lars Schmidt, founder of Amplify, points out that, while the “market for HR roles has never been hotter,” the work of HR has taken a “sustained toll” on those doing that work. They’re “carrying the emotional burdens of their employees (and their own).” Burnout is common.
Be sure to give yourself and anyone else caring for your people time to rest, recharge, grieve, or whatever else each of you needs to do to stay healthy. “Resilience is not an infinite resource,” executive coach Sarah Noll Wilson reminds us. Take time off. You need it, too.
Don’t Take Departures Personally or Draw the Wrong Conclusions
When an employee leaves an organization, it’s always a good idea to understand why and consider what changes you could have made to keep them. What you learn may not persuade that employee to reconsider their departure, but it may assist you in keeping others. That said, sometimes employees quit and there’s nothing you could have done to convince them to stay. The best possible workplace in the world will still see people go elsewhere simply because those people want a change or because of circumstances beyond their control.
When your employees tell you they’re leaving, do your due diligence to find out why, but don’t overthink their departures or take them personally. If everything was good and they still left, that just means everything was good and they still left. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t do enough or should have done something differently. Believe in the work you’re doing. Be kind to yourself. As Lars Schmidt says in his book Redefining HR, “we’re on the front lines of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows of all our employees.”
Whether we feel the strong urge to self-protect or we’re jumping out of our seat to pursue a risky venture, we could all use a little hope. The philosopher David Utsler writes, “Hope offers no guarantees. Hope does not promise that life or the world will get better. Hope only insists on the possibility.”
You can inspire hope by expanding the scope of what is possible for your employees. Talk with them about their dreams and ambitions so they can imagine what possibilities lie before them. Talk about where your company is going and what you’ll need from your employees. Help them envision a place where they can explore, take risks, and be supported.
Then work together to get there.
Why You Should Care About Your Employer Brand
Lots of HR leaders today are talking about the importance of using marketing techniques to build an effective employer brand. What is an employer brand? To answer that question, it may be helpful to go over what a brand is in general. A brand is a name, image, or some other feature that distinguishes your products and services from those offered by others.
Branding may sound simple, but as any marketing team can tell you, a lot of thought and work goes into it, and the difference between success and failure couldn’t be starker. If you call to mind successful companies, some names will pop in your head—not simply because they’re profitable, but because you know their brand. If they didn’t have an effective brand, you wouldn’t have even thought of them.
A company’s employer brand is its public image or reputation as an employer. It’s the feel of the company that comes through in job postings, social media, reviews, news stories, awards, and word of mouth. It’s the value (or lack thereof) that prospective employees expect to find in the employment relationship.
Every employer has a brand, whether they’ve deliberately worked to define one or not. Your company does, too. And that brand is either helping or hurting your recruitment and retention efforts. That’s the biggest reason HR leaders are talking about it. You have no say in whether you have an employer brand, but you do have a say in what that brand is. Here’s how you can take charge of it.
Identify Your Current Brand
When building your employer brand, you won’t be working from scratch, but rather altering what already exists. Your first step, then, will be to get an accurate picture of your existing brand. Examine all the ways your organization appears to the public. Look at your job ads, your corporate social media accounts, and your website. Search your organization’s name online to find news stories and reviews by customers and employees, past and present.
What impression is your workplace giving? How would an outsider view it based on what they can find online? What’s distinctive about working for your organization? What images do you see? What words and phrases appear most often? These are the first questions you should ask.
Next, ask yourself what sort of employees appear to work at your organization. If, for example, your social media accounts feature photo after photo of employees playing games and partying on the job, but show little or nothing of their actual work, you might be giving the impression that working for you is mostly fun, relaxing, and carefree—and that your current employees are the sort that value playing hard over working hard. If online employee reviews mention a former manager who was terminated for harassment, but the reviews make no mention of any other leader in the company, you may still have a reputation for tolerating harassment even though the offending manager is long gone.
Identifying your existing brand may be more challenging than you expect. Not only do you have a lot to consider, you also have your own working impression of your company that may color what you see. It may be prudent, therefore, to enlist the aid of a third party, someone who can describe your existing brand as it is and not as you wish it to be.
Once you’ve got a complete picture of your existing employer brand, it’s time to move on to the next step.
Evaluate Your Current Brand
There are two questions you should ask in this step. First, is the brand you’ve identified an accurate representation of reality? And second, is it the type of brand that you want?
A brand may be inaccurate for a number of reasons. A former employee in a vindictive mood might have taken to a review site to tell the world how much they hated their boss, when their boss was in reality patient, caring, and supportive. Or your social media might describe your culture as no-holds-barred competitive when the truth is your culture is distinctively collaborative and uplifting.
Accuracy is crucial. You don’t want a flood of applicants who don’t have the traits and behaviors necessary for success in your company. If your brand doesn’t match reality, you’ll need to correct that in the next step.
Before we move on, though, there’s another question you should ask. Is your current brand headed in the direction you want? Does it align with your specific employee-related needs? These answers will determine whether the next step involves minor tweaks or a major overhaul.
Develop the Brand You Want
Since it’s vital to success that your employer brand accurately mirror the reality of the workplace, changing your brand may require changing your culture. Creating a really attractive employer brand that hides hard truths about your workplace will only hurt you in the long run. Employees will join your organization only to realize that they’ve been sold a false reality. Frustrated and resentful, they’ll soon leave physically or mentally, neither of which is good for your bottom line.
Just because an applicant has the skills you need doesn’t mean they’d be happy working for you. If you’re a small business with a simple hierarchy and don’t expect to grow, you don’t want to spend your time vetting candidates who are hoping to get promoted in the near future. If you will be able to offer promotion opportunities and will need creative people to lead teams, you probably don’t want to hire lots of individuals who are simply content to do what they’re told.
In short, an effective employer brand can’t be developed in isolation. Whoever is working on the brand should collaborate with the company leadership team and, if possible, the marketing department so that the developed employer brand aligns with both the overall culture and the corporate brand vision. Ultimately, these should all be one and the same.
Tell a Story
If you’re at all familiar with the marketing world, you’re probably aware that a lot of marketing professionals see themselves as storytellers. Stories can be a powerful and effective way to change behavior, which is what marketing is all about. In your case, you want prospective employees to stop what they’re doing and come work for you. You have to convince them to make this change, and a well-told story can be very persuasive.
Think of your employer brand as your workplace culture as seen from the outside. The images and messaging you use should show prospective employees the real you. That way, you’ll attract the kinds of employees you want and deter the kinds you don’t.
But here’s the thing: prospective job candidates don’t care about your story. Even if they’re aware that you exist, they’re not emotionally invested in your success or failure. So, the story you should tell is not about you. It’s about them. They’re the leading character, not you. Your workplace is the setting of their story. At best, you’re in a supporting role.
An effective employer story is a story about employees—what they’ve experienced. Achievements they’ve unlocked. Skills they’ve learned. Friendships they’ve formed. Obstacles they’ve overcome.
You’ll be able to tell some of these stories, but the most heartfelt and effective tales will be told directly by your employees. Don’t tell them what to say. Avoid talking points and scripts. Prospective candidates will know if your employees are just repeating the company line. Instead, create a remarkable work experience that employees are happy to share with the world.
If you’re doing this right, you won’t need to ask employees to share job ads with their networks or be “brand ambassadors.” They’ll promote their work experiences without any prompting from you simply because those experiences have been a good thing for them, and people enjoy sharing the good things in their lives.
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