India Inc. too had to face the ripple effect of a tumbling global economy and pulled back from hiring and followed a cautious approach
What India saw in the last 18 months was just a financial downturn
When MS Banga moved from being Chairman, Hindustan Unilever in 2004 to his global assignment in London, he was struck by the difference in perception of Unilever as an employer in India and elsewhere. HUL in India stands for a dynamic, iconic place to work where leadership spends time and effort into grooming the next generation, as opposed to Unilever’s brand as an employer on its home turf in the UK, which was one of an old-world, stodgy, slow workplace. And as Banga puts it, “that feeling of belonging (to an iconic workplace) mattered to me.”1
While Vindi Banga is close to exiting his successful and much documented 33-year career at Unilever, his thoughts reflect the aspirations of an entire generation of professionals for whom the feeling of belonging to an organization that ‘stands apart’ matters... a lot. A powerful and attractive ‘employer brand’ today has the capacity to attract and retain talent and represent quality to customers, with the goal of gaining global recognition in a sustainable manner. A simple count of the number of wall-street bankers waiting for that call from Goldman Sachs or the number of graduates from MIT/Stanford/IITs aspiring to work at the innovation labs of Apple and Google would reveal the power of this ‘attraction’.
At the cornerstone of such branding is the success of the organization itself. Being part of some of the most profitable, successful and powerful corporations is an attraction on its own. Other contributors to the employer brand include opportunities for empowerment (responsibility and power), a culture of grooming and development, a feeling of community and achievement, iconic leadership and obviously, a history of large compensation packages. Over the past 2 decades, many companies in India especially in the IT services segment, have managed to build an employer brand based on their productive workplaces and global footprint.
Under normal circumstances, there is a clear distinction between companies that need to invest heavily in an employer brand and companies that do not. Factors like the levels of innovation needed, and the kind of sector the company operates in (manufacturing vs services), and the level of ‘employee expense’ that keeps the company’s stock attractive as an investment – pretty much decide whether a company needs to spend on building an employer brand for attracting the brightest and the best.
But these are no ordinary times – the Indian economy is going through a period of unprecedented growth, while the supply of skills and talent is just not able to keep pace with this growth. Companies are competing intensely with each other for talent and there have been multiple instances in the recent past when an entire industry has lost key professionals as a result of the emergence of other sectors – like the FMCG sector losing people to telecom and healthcare in the last 5 years or the hospitality industry losing younger professionals to BPO companies.
In such a backdrop, employee branding becomes a forced norm for most companies and the ability to recruit and retain employees is heavily influenced by an attractive employer proposition.
El Dorado to Downturn to...
The financial tsunami that hit the world economy two years back not only crashed huge business houses, but also ruptured the global talent industry by its unmatched velocity of lay-offs. India Inc. too had to face the ripple effect of a tumbling global economy and pulled back from hiring and followed a cautious approach in attracting and recruiting talent. If 2008 was the year of unprecedented crisis in talent management; most of 2009 was spent in managing that crisis and focusing on employee engagement and employee motivation. And anyone who has been flipping the pages of national dailies lately would agree that the recruitment scenario in India is picking up with companies like TCS and Infosys announcing plans to add over 30,000 people each this year, with a healthy mix of experienced professionals & trainees. According to a survey by staffing firm TeamLease, covering 513 companies across sectors, on employment growth potential, business outlook and hiring forecast, Indian businesses will witness aggressive hiring during April-June 2010 with the Employment Outlook Index touching 58 index points – an increase of 11% over the same period last year. Also, as per the Manpower Employment Outlook survey, India has a net employment of 39% for the first quarter of 2010, the highest amongst 35 countries surveyed. Says Sanjay R Shastry, Principal Consultant, Stanton Chase. “There is clearly an upswing in the marketplace and in sentiments of people in various industries across levels. When we look at the India scenario, capital was never an issue with most of the companies. What India saw in the last 18 months was just a financial downturn. There was a hold on new projects, new acquisitions and entrance in new markets. But what is seen now is that India has no reason to not invest on cost arbitrage.”
While it is undisputed that India Inc. is back on a hiring spree, HR managers and recruiters should not dismiss the fact that the scenario has dramatically changed post-downturn as organizations and candidates have become more mature and realistic in their expectations. During the high-growth period of 2003-2008, organizations went overboard with not only their expectations from the economy but also with their ambitious expansion plans and growth strategies. Companies posted 30-40% and at times even 100% growth in every industry, resulting in the creation of a lot of excess in terms of headcount, compensation costs and outrageous terms and conditions. However, the economic slowdown has put the economy and the job market into a self correction mode. What the downturn has taught most businesses is the regularization of excess, with employees being more realistic in their expectations after having understood the importance of employers’ overall ‘value proposition’, which includes factors like job stability, culture and other factors affecting people-orientation. Says Amit Garg, Business Head, HT – Internet, “Companies have also become more cautious with regard to their hiring plans and rather than bringing in people in anticipation of growth, it is now a more planned and gradual process. The euphoria of the pre-downturn period has been replaced by a more cautious optimism in the economy.”
Talking about the importance of the value proposition of the employer, tables have now turned in the favour of employees who are now hand-picking companies rather than the other way round. An HR Manager, three years back, could very confidently proclaim, ‘My company brand is enough to attract talent’, but not anymore as new recruits begin to consider three primary aspects before taking up a job – “How is it going to impact me professionally?”, “How will the new company impact my self-esteem?” and “What will others think of my joining this company?” Says SK Swamy, Chairman at RK Swamy Hansa, “Today, if an employee will switch jobs, he will ponder over various aspects like his professional needs, emotional needs and need for self-expression. Companies must have the power to fulfill these needs of new recruits to motivate them.” Therefore, it becomes vital for companies to have a strong power of attraction to not only appeal to new job prospects but also to retain them.
...On attraction & retention
There are many ways in which the company’s abliity to retain top performers affects and supplements its attractiveness for prospective employees. Says Uday Chawla, Managing Partner, Transearch, “It is an entire process wherein attracting happens first, which should ideally be followed by retention. If we are able to attract talent but fail to retain them, then the entire process of attracting goes to a waste. Attracting and retaining are inter-dependant. Failure in one area affects the other. One cannot exist without the other.”
A strong value proposition based on excellence – like the perception of marketing mecca at Hindustan Unilever, P&G, PepsiCo and Coca Cola or of engineering excellence at infrastructure giant L&T – has a strong pull among job seekers. But the ability to retain great talent goes way beyond perception alone. Explains Jon Younger, Principal, The RBL Group, “There is certainly a strong relationship between the quality of a company’s talent and its performance. But raw capability per se isn’t enough. We know from both surveys and other avenues that top organizations aren’t always the ones who spend the most on talent. What distinguishes great companies around the world is a clear vision and strategy that is meaningful to prospective and current employers, strong leaders and leadership, commitment to a well defined employee value proposition, the chance to work with excellent colleagues on important and challenging assignments, rewards consistence with contribution and a willingness on the part of the organization to give excellent people real responsibility early on.”
Strong emphasis on skills development, role enhancement, higher employee connect and an overall attempt to provide employees with a career-enriching experience through employee engagement programs, are the basis for building an organization that can retain its best talent. While working with great ‘brands’ is an important part of employer attraction, the lure of a broader career development experience where opportunity matches career aspirations, is crucial for employee retention and for maintaining the employee brand attractiveness.
The Rules of Attraction
The first step towards harnessing the power of an employer brand is to understand that it’s not just about glossy advertisements and ‘employee-branding billboards’. While these do add to the cause, it is the complete employee experience with the an employer – its talent and experience management framework - that builds the case for an employer’s appeal.
At the most basic level of employee attraction lie the factors that influence outsiders – employer reputation, leadership reputation and compensation. While these are the factors that get a prospective employee interested, they are not necessarily the same things that keep an employee there. Those retention factors include employee empowerment for decision-making, a feeling of community and achievement, grooming and training. Explains Saagarika Rai, Chief People Officer, Reliance Big Entertaiment, “Research demonstrates that money is no longer the sole motivator for choosing and staying with an employer. Today’s talent needs a stimulating and rewarding work environment with flexible scheduling, opportunity for continuous learning and recognition, which keeps the motivation going.” The factors that make an employer attractive to outsiders need to be reinforced by the advocacy of insiders who vouch for the promises being followed through.
The concept of attracting talent has changed significantly over the past few years. A few years back, companies looked at having standard policies, procedures and systems that attracted talent and as long as these were maintained at a reasonably high standard, it was enough to be considered a good employer. Today, however, this has become a hygiene factor. Despite companies having policies and practices in place, employees are demanding a personalized treatment and application of these practices. “There is a need for companies to adopt a ‘one-to-one’ management approach when attracting and retaining talent today, as different employees have different motivations and goals for themselves. You could say it’s akin to the mass customization approach wherein a set of robust, good practices are in place, but are flexible enough to be personalized to tap into an employee’s specific motivations and drivers, for best results,” says HT’s Garg.
In one sense, the drivers of employer attractiveness have evolved with the economy over the last 2 decades. While the company’s brand, job content and job security were the driving factors in the 90s, compensation and titles began to matter soon enough. These drivers for employer attractiveness have now evolved into a more complex and demanding set – financial capability of the company, growth in terms of the industry it belongs to and level of empowerment given to employees. Avers Nalina Suresh, Partner, EMA Partners, “A few years ago, when a senior level guy came to the campus to recruit from, say GE, whatever he said was gospel, because he was from GE. So the brand over-rode the credentials of the leaders. But today, candidates and employees of a company are actually asking ‘What have you done to be my CEO?’ Today they ask the CEO questions like what is your thought process, how professional are you in terms of your qualification, what is your success story. So it is clearly seen that there has been a remarkable change from what it was back then in the 1990s to now.” This only demonstrates that the ways and strategies of attracting talent have to be dynamic and must change with the needs of the business and the environment in which it operates.
Today’s professionals need a career and experience, and not just a job. In line with this changing mindset, companies need to provide exciting growth opportunities and customized fast track growth programs so that employees can hone their existing skill-sets and add new facets to their skills at the same time. Rajesh Padmanabhan, Executive Vice President and Global Head - HR, Patni explains how his company has adopted to these fast-changing expectations. “We at Patni try and offer our employees these opportunities to grow and learn in the company. For instance, with our ‘Leadership Excellence At Patni’ (LEAP) framework, we try to propagate systematic development of our employees. The framework creates a symbiotic connect between the organization’s objectives and its people, covering areas from recruitment to identifying those suited to take on leadership positions. In addition, our Fast Track Program is unique in the way that it develops and retains the top performers of the organization. These top performers are enrolled in a special program which focuses on a series of developmental initiatives to groom them on competencies required for the specific leadership roles.”
However, to think that there is a sure-shot formula to attract talent will be a fallacy on the part of companies. Each company is unique in terms of the value proposition it offers just as each employee is different in their expectations vis-a-vis career development, compensation and empowerment. Communicating the company’s value proposition along with maintaining transparency is just the first step in attracting talent. At the end of the day, execution of the promises made is what will retain the employee.
HR & Marketing
Marketing guru SK Swamy, Chairman, RK Swamy Hansa believes that the general principles of branding are applicable in the realm of employees as well. “When it comes to branding, at a conceptual level, there is very little difference between branding for products and services to clients, and branding a company’s value proposition to employees. At a very basic level, all communication is targeted towards an individual’s ambitions, desires, and insecurities. In marketing as well as employee communication, we try to motivate a person to take a certain course of action by convincing him about how his needs are going to be fulfilled by the brand – be it owning/ driving a particular make of car or working in a particular company,” he says.
In an age of converging consumer, corporate and employer branding, it is crucial for CXOs and HR to work alongside the marketing team to ensure a consistent communication across the company’s services, its corporate brand and its brand as an employer. The practical challenge of employer branding is to get the right internal communication between HR and marketing.
It is important for the positioning of the employer brand to be realistic and reflect what the company really has to offer – not what an industry leader or another attractive employer has to offer. This honesty in positioning combined with a solid culture of empowerment and achievement is what creates a sustainable loop of an attractive brand, ability to recruit better candidates, higher productivity and the most important element - better retention of top-performers.
At the end of the day, it is the existing employees who are the best advocates and sellers of a brand – hence getting a workforce to sell the company’s attractiveness is the best employer branding campaign one could hope for.
1 The Economic Times, 7th April, 2010