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We always hear about the importance of building a brand to attract customers. But what we don't hear a lot about is the value of brand-building when it comes to recruiting. At a time when competition for top talent is fierce even in a sputtering economy, employers need to do a lot more than just dangle higher salaries, more flexible hours and referral bonuses to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Kim Cassady, director of global talent at Cornerstone OnDemand, says companies should put as much emphasis on their "employer brand" as they do on the public face they present to customers and the world. But building that brand means more than just throwing money and perks at potential recruits, she says. Cassady suggests four core strategies for developing a reputation as a great company to work for.

Create a Culture by Design

Recruiting today needs to be proactive, and that includes creating a mission statement and culture that's vibrant and attractive to job seekers. After all, in today's uber-connected society, corporate cultures get defined by default unless companies take an active role upfront, says Cornerstone OnDemand CEO Adam Miller. Key to this take-charge process is employee input: put workers -- not managers -- at the center and allow them to identify and describe a company's personality, purpose and rewards.

Tap the Company's Best Asset

A company's most effective brand advocates are its current employees. Just as they help define a company's culture, they should be intricately involved in the recruiting process, says Cassady. Employees can blog on the company's site or for other industry sites. They can talk up the company at networking events. They can even apply on the company's behalf for recognition as a "great place to work." And when there are openings to fill, remember that current staff members are the best resource: companies are 10 times more likely to hire a referred candidate than other applicants.

Keep up Appearances

A company's "employer brand" matters a lot, but not to the exclusion of its overall brand, Cassady notes. To that end, leadership throughout the company is critical. From marketing to human resources to finance to sales, department heads throughout a company should live up to the company's culture and values -- and communicate them effectively to key stakeholders, prospective recruits, customers, and current employees. A good way, explains Cassady, to maintain a strong brand is to set up a LinkedIn company profile, keep the company website up-to-date and make the most of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as a way to engage and inform the outside world. Statistics show that 98 percent of recruiters and hiring managers use social media so when it comes to building a public-facing brand, social media is a big avenue for success.

Differentiate Yourself, and Keep Doing It

Companies that look too much like their competitors have a harder time recruiting top talent based on factors other than compensation, says Cassady. It's critical, she says, that companies strive to set themselves apart from their rivals -- and to think constantly about new ways to do that. Zappos -- which has nap rooms for employees -- Google -- which offers employees free rental cars to run errands, free gyms and, in some cases, free on-site daycare -- and Airbnb -- where workers get $2,000 a year to spend as they wish on travel -- are all good examples of companies who have set themselves apart from the competition.

The perks don't have to be as costly as Google's or as wacky as Zappos', but companies would do well to remember that even small gestures can add up in the eyes of current -- and future -- employees.