It's never too early in the life of your small business to start thinking about your brand. Not your product branding or your personal brand, but the brand of your business as a place to work – also known as your employer brand.
As you scale, your employer brand will play an increasingly larger role in attracting talent and improving retention. Your brand is your company culture, reputation, and values, and it has an impact on both your internal team and your external standing among potential candidates (and even customers).
You don't get to choose whether you have a brand. Either you take the helm of deciding what it will be, or the people you employ and interact with will do it for you. Better to get out ahead of the process of building a brand by taking a few proactive steps – and defining it for yourself.
Here's how to start building your employer brand and using it to become a better small business.
Recognize the value of an employer brand.
The first step in building your brand is to fully grasp just how important it is to your business’s future growth and success.
As of late 2018, the unemployment rate is about as low as it has been in 50 years. That means talent is scarce, and there's a bonafide war going on to hire the best people for your critical roles.
Creating a strong and positive employer brand will be a major asset when convincing candidates to come work for you. A few years ago, 69 percent of people said they wouldn’t take a job with a company that had a bad reputation, even if they were unemployed. Expect that number to be even higher now that competition for talent is so fierce.
If you're able to quickly hire people to fill job openings, you will cut the cost of recruiting. And if you are able to successfully assimilate those hires into your culture and keep them happy, your turnover rate will slow, further cutting costs. Simply put, an investment in your brand is an investment in your bottom line.
Craft your internal messaging.
Though most people think of their brand as outward-facing, it all starts with internal messaging. You can't push your brand out until you know who you are, what you stand for, and how you go about doing it.
The first part of your brand is defining your company's values and mission. These should be codified, easily accessible, and a major part of what drives your daily, monthly, and long-term actions. What is the endgame for your company, and how do you want to get there?
Once you've decided on your values, set up business operations and processes that help you live those values. Things like transparency, openness, and flexibility are good buzzwords, but they'll be little more than that if you don’t provide the means and environment for people to be transparent, open, and flexible in the workplace.
Gather input from and about your team.
If you've got a sizeable team, they are already playing a major role in your company's brand. You can use both internal and external resources to gather input about the current culture of your business.
Internally, use tools like employee opinion surveys, new hire surveys, and exit interviews to review all operations, from hiring to onboarding to day-to-day workflow. How are your business's working conditions? Do employees feel the company is invested in them through learning and development opportunities or benefits? Is pay equitable?
Externally, businesses have more resources than ever for collecting data on company culture. Use sites like Glassdoor and The Muse to gather unbiased feedback on what it's like to work for your company. You can also look on social media networks like Twitter and Facebook for opinions that may be less visible, but stronger and more forceful in tone.
These responses will all contribute to how you ultimately shape your messaging. See what your company does well and what it can improve on, and how that fits into your vision for the brand. Keep in mind that a good company culture will be fluid, not rigid – everyone that you hire will bring something new to the culture that alters it in some way.
Treat candidates like customers.
The vast majority of candidates agree: Their overall candidate experience with a company indicates to them how that company values its employees.
In order to create the best possible candidate experience, start by creating a seamless job application process, complete with a powerful description of the role. When interviewing candidates, be transparent, respectful, and communicative. And whether you choose to hire someone or move on from them, they should feel as though you were considerate of their time and effort from start to finish.
More companies are starting to invest in applicant tracking software (ATS) to help streamline the hiring experience. ATS automates administrative tasks, filters resumes, sends reminders, and keeps you up-to-date with the latest details of an opening. This kind of software speeds up the hiring process, allowing your HR team to quickly identify the best candidates for a given role.
Keep in mind that every interaction with a candidate can be taken out of context and shared via Glassdoor or social media. Make a concerted effort in your interactions to treat each candidate like you would a customer and give them little reason to put you on blast.
Seek third-party recognition and validation.
Many people seek well-reviewed companies and restaurants the same way: If you receive a lot of positive feedback from everyday people, that’s great. But validation and recognition from more established parties – the media, industry associations, or end-of-year awards – carry more weight.
Make sure you're in the running for awards from all the major review sites, like Glassdoor. To be considered as a Best Place to Work by Glassdoor, as a small business, you need at least 30 ratings across the eight workplace attributes from U.S.-based employees. Apply for opportunities to speak or present at community events, or for awards presented by niche groups. Engage in public relations by making yourself available for comment to reporters or writers seeking input for their stories.
The more accolades, positive press and overall goodwill you can rack up, the better.
Address negative feedback and incorporate suggestions.
No company is perfect. The question is, how do you address the occasional ding to your Glassdoor score or bad interview feedback?
First, if the criticism is public, address it. Ignoring a critique allows other people to shape your narrative. By responding to and acknowledging an issue with empathy and understanding, you maintain your cultural capital. And second, regardless of where the criticism comes from — an anonymous employee survey or a rant on Twitter — consider it honestly. Does this person have a point? Can you incorporate this feedback into how your business operates?
It's up to you whether you want to take action on what you hear, but just being open to the feedback and letting people know their voice will be heard is a powerful tool for building a strong brand.
Walk the walk.
Finally, all of these steps should culminate in your business actually living the values you espouse. If branding is what people say about you when you leave the room, then you need to make sure that all of your actions give people the right impression so that when you do turn your back, they are delivering honest praise rather than exasperated relief.
Train your employees to live your employer brand, and encourage them to be ambassadors by delivering referrals or sharing news of the company on social media. Discuss how your interactions with candidates can remain on-brand, from how you greet them in the office to the way you sign off your emails. And never stop improving your operations to meet the expectations of the people you’ve brought on, and the people you hope to hire in the future.
Employer brand develops regardless of the role you choose to play in it – and often, if you choose to play no role, it takes a turn for the worse. It's much more difficult to transplant a brand on to an existing company that it is to cultivate one as a small business and watch it grow along with you – so start building it today.