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The past year has pushed many to their limits, testing their resolve, resiliency and, in some cases, values in the face of uncertainty. Feeling this pressure, businesses of all sizes have been under the spotlight ever since COVID-19 hit hard last spring, their employees waiting to how they’ll respond to the crisis. 

Some firms managed to switch operations online without skipping a beat, largely because their pre-COVID days were already spent speaking and collaborating with clients on virtual platforms. In fact, the largest disruption sometimes had more to do with work and private lives colliding, resulting in turf battles with kids and spouses, the need for better noise management for productive meetings and workdays that slowly crept into time normally spent with loved ones or unwinding. Remaining sane amid the massive shifts in everyone’s lives has not been easy.

A healthy, strong workplace culture is key. This type of culture often starts from the leadership level and cascades throughout. Hinge Research Institute’s 2020 Employer Brand Study, the largest of its kind, bears out the importance of culture. The responses from 1,034 talent recruiters and job seekers across 10 industries around the world have produced some startling results. Fifty-seven percent of job seekers across all career levels consider culture as important as compensation when evaluating new opportunities, while 75% of recruiters said cultural fit outweighed work history and experience in evaluating new talent. Conducted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, economic slowdown and social unrest, the study’s results reflect the public’s growing wariness of employer brands—particularly whether companies’ public affirmations reflect their inner workings.

What is an employer brand?

Simply put, a company’s employer brand is its reputation as a place to work and a window into its culture. The brand can leave a general impression or point to specific attributes but, just like a firm’s brand strength, a firm’s employer brand is a product of their reputation as an employer and its visibility to employees and potential employees. The quality of one’s reputation can be hard to control. On the flip side, an unknown firm with an excellent reputation can struggle to attract the right candidates.

Firms that take the steps to strengthen their employer brand—enhancing their reputation and visibility as an employer of choice—are able to position themselves to appeal to the candidates they want: top quality professionals and the right cultural fit.

What drives job seekers’ and recruiters’ decision-making process?

A positive, clearly articulated employee culture is the most widely recognized pillar of a strong employer brand and, as the study shows, is a critical component of that brand because it plays a key role in recruiting and keeping talent.

However, what drives the decision-making process varies according to career stage. AEC industry recruiters looking for a project manager with 10 years of experience will want to learn that mid-career job seekers value company culture and salary equally. Most mid-career job seekers want more responsibility but also look for cultural values such as respect and honesty more than any of the other career levels. Entry-level seekers look for growth opportunities and senior-level candidates take a hard look at the team they would be joining.

What does it all mean? Clearly firms should tailor their employer brand messaging to a candidate’s career stage, industry and talent profile.

When is retention at risk?

The study also looked at when retention is most at risk because we all know retaining top talent can be the most difficult of challenges. Results show that the likelihood of losing talent increases substantially after the first year, but starts to shrink after the fifth. Active job seekers across all career stages look for better culture, communication and stability. Passive job seekers will make a move for higher compensation and opportunities down the line.

Participants in the study were also asked to specify the role their company played during a merger or acquisition. Those who worked for a company that acquired another were much less likely to be seeking employment at another organization. In fact, disruptions like being acquired and the pandemic drive up attrition and heighten concern about company culture. Although many respondents felt their employers responded well to the crisis, 56% of active job seekers expressed frustration with their firm’s delayed reactions or lack of a plan.

Succeeding in the New and Next Normal

Culture matters and will likely become even more important in the next normal. As AEC firms and their people get through this year’s various crises, they should take a hard look at whether their organizational culture will enable them to deliver on their brand promise regardless of marketplace shifts. After all, professional services firms are only as good as the talent they nurture. 

Employer brands must reflect how the firm operates—even in times of disruption. If it doesn’t, the firm will draw the wrong candidates and lose the talent they need. Last but not least, hiring the best talent requires speaking to what’s important to them, which varies by their career stage, industry and job search status. Are they looking for flexibility in their schedules and empathy as they struggle to balance work and home while keeping both in their proper spheres? Then that’s what should be on the table.


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