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Mavens & Misfits: Fixing a Broken Employer Brand

In this video podcast, Heather Polivka and Chris Gustanski of Due North Search discuss what companies can do to repair their employer brand, which may have taken a hit during the pandemic, in preparation for economic growth in 2021 and to retain their best talent.

Listen to the podcast here:

Read the transcript here:


Welcome to the mavens and misfits podcast series. This is the second in our series and today's episode is about Fixing a Broken Employer Brand. I'm Heather P and I'm here with my partner in this series, Chris Gustanski. Chris is a marketer with over a decade of executive search experience. He is the founder and CEO of Due North executive search and has provided talent for many of the marquee brands based in Minnesota and really nationally. But more importantly, Chris is also a good friend. Hi Chris.


Hello. Well, glad to be here. And I'm here with you, Heather. You're the founder and CEO of Heather P solutions where you help businesses succeed by ensuring their employees are set up to succeed. You help them close the gap between who they say they are and how they are experienced by their employees. Thus, ensuring that their employees can deliver what their brand promises to their customers.


Thanks, Chris! So before we dive into Fixing a Broken Employer Brand, I feel like we need to make sure that you & I..and our listeners… are on the same page as to what we mean by an Employer Brand.

So Wikipedia, that bastion of knowledge, says “Employer brand describes an employer's reputation as a place to work, and their employee value proposition, as opposed to the more general corporate brand reputation and value proposition to customers.”

Brett Minchington (hey Brett, I know you are listening!) from the Employer Brand Institute defined it in his book as the offerings of an organization…the WIIFM…that an organization offers in exchange for the skills, capabilities, and experiences an employee brings to the table.

Any thoughts on either of those definitions, Chris? Do you agree?


I agree with both of those statements Heather. However, I would also take it a bit further. As a marketing recruiter, one of the first things I get asked by top candidates is “What’s it like to work there?”. This employee brand promise is so important. Nothing gets top talent heading for the exits quite like breaking this promise.


Yes, agree! So if we all agree on the definition of an Employer brand as their reputation as a place to work, what do we mean by a BROKEN employer brand?

What I mean is that there is a gap, perceived or real, between who an organization says they are and how they are experienced by their employees.

Now let’s quickly discuss accuracy: I worked briefly someplace that was a toxic place to work and its reputation was that it was toxic (I was younger… I had not done my research, what can I say?). So we have to put a sort of litmus test to it to see if it was broken.

It had a reputation as a bad place to work and it was. So the perception of the company as a place to work was accurate. People got what they should expect.

However, it positioned itself as this warm-fuzzy place to work, valuing collaboration, teamwork and respect. It was none of those things. And therefore…it IS a broken employer brand. Because the perception, which was accurate, did not align with how the company positioned itself as a place to work and the story it told.


A mentor of mine once told me a story that illustrates this really well. A man dies only to find himself met by St. Peter and Satan. They tell him that they have had some complaints, so they are now letting everyone spend one day in heaven and one day in hell. After the 2 days, the person gets to decide where to spend eternity.

First the man goes to heaven. It’s nice, there’s harp music and floating on clouds. Next, he goes to hell. It’s a beach party with all of his friends. There’s an open bar, great music and tons of fun.

After those 2 days, he meets back up with St. Peter and Satan. They ask where he wishes to spend eternity. He says he can’t believe it but he wants to go to hell. Instantly, he’s in hell but now it’s fire and brimstone, yelling and screaming, and all of the horrors one can imagine. He turns to Satan and asks what happened.

Satan turns to him and says “Yesterday you were a recruit. Today, you’re staff!”


Ok…I know I shouldn’t laugh…but that is funny. And sad, because it can be true.

One last scenario, just so we are all clear, is when a company is being transparent about who they are… even the tough stuff. Unilever did a great video series back in 2017 where they had real employees reading online Glassdoor and Indeed reviews, providing their personal experience as it related to the online review. I thought it was brilliant because it took the tough feedback head on. Is being authentic about the tough stuff an broken employer brand? Well, no. Because the experience employees have matches how the employer positions themselves. So there is alignment between who the company says they are as a place to work and the experience that employees have.

Anything to add Chris?


Yes, I do prefer when clients are upfront about the good and the bad. It isn’t just that they’re in alignment between the stated employment brand and the experienced employment brand. It shows that they have self-awareness and usually it means that they are working to improve some of the negative elements of their employee experience.

One of my clients had referred to himself as a real bear of a boss. He said he was super demanding and “Didn’t suffer fools kindly.” Believe it or not, the woman that he hired through me told me later “He’s a teddy bear. The best, most supportive manager she had ever had.”

From my perspective as a recruiter, I often must fill in the gaps for candidates or correct misperceptions of employer brands. So, I am not sure that a bad properly aligned employer brand is better than a broken one. Just imagine all of the Dwight Schrute’s of the world wanting to work in the same place!


Ok…so we are clear on what we mean to have a broken employer brand. Now let’s talk about some of the ways you & I have seen a broken employer brand play out…especially in 2020.

It would be easy to point to the many challenges of 2020 as a reason …maybe even a justification…for breaks on how companies positioned themselves as a place to work. I disagree.

I saw companies like Air B & B who financially had to cut 25% of their workforce, but HOW they did it….the year of healthcare coverage, generous packages, helping people impacted to find other jobs, the transparency…HOW they did it actually reinforced who they said they were. Tough decision, but HOW they handled it was a demonstration of their employer brand. Perhaps even helped it! So tough business decisions do not automatically mean you have a broken employer brand.

On the other hand, I saw a financial firm in the UK cut 25% of their workforce and how they did it was cold and literally the opposite of the values they espoused on their website. They have a broken employer brand because that talent has a choice of where to work and, particularly coming out of the pandemic, they will be hard-pressed to get the best talent going forward.


Absolutely right Heather. And there are many employers that may not have gone through layoffs but did little to assist their employees through crazy 2020. For example, many just leveraged their employee’s internet access without compensation or even a thank you. Others lined up back-to-back Zoom calls as parents with school age children were thrown into home schooling.

Believe or not, some companies that were involved with items crucial to the pandemic response actually didn’t fill critical roles. So here they have more business than they ever dreamed of and instead of hiring they used the pandemic as an excuse. Trust me, there are many people out there that are just biding their time right now.


Two other things I saw in 2020 that perhaps didn’t break their employer brand…but put some dings in it: Early on with COVID, I would see a company say they would support employees in a certain manner, a rather stingy manner. Then their competitor would come out and provide more generous support. Only then would the first company get less stingy. I think people will remember and I think that dinged some employer brands.


I did see several companies that said that they were going to support their employees in a certain way but later had to pull back. I think that in part it was due to contradictory messages about the duration of the pandemic. I mean seriously, who thought we’d be in this for a full year!?

I do have sympathy for the companies that really did have to back off initial promises as their business suffered. That said, employees know how they were treated and like the horror film “I know what you did last summer!” will mete out their justice as the economy recovers. Nobody will die but it might be gory for some companies.


Yes, gory in a mass exodus of great talent! The second example is that companies that were really strongly supportive and protective of their employees initially and then, as fatigue set in, sort of went back to business as usual. This showed in a Gallup poll where employee engagement actually increased across the US in the second and third quarter, only to return to pre-COVID levels at the end of Q3. The biggest gaps that employees pointed to was communication, how leaders were showing up, and how supportive their workplaces were with the many variations, and changing nature, of schooling happened in the fall.


There absolutely were some “heroes”. Those companies that went above and beyond to support their employees will undoubtedly be better positioned to retain their talent. All companies were challenged in figuring out how to communicate and engage with everything going on.

Many companies are facing a brand-new issue right now. Annual sales meetings are by and large not happening. Field sales teams are a fickle bunch and missing these annual bonding sessions may make top salespeople more interested in new opportunities.

Leaders across the board need to find creative ways to engage with their teams particularly those that are geographically distributed.


Okay….so we are clear what a broken employer brand is and some of the ways it gets broken…and particularly how 2020 with COVID and the economic crisis provided circumstances that tested companies to walk their talk.

So what to do now? Particularly as we eye a post-pandemic era when we expect that voluntary turnover could dramatically increase as it did after the 2008 economic crisis.

Chris, you & I created a list. I say we share the list overall and then dig into each a little further. Do you want to share the list?


  1. Acknowledge reality internally

  2. Acknowledge reality externally

  3. Adjust messaging

  4. Provide context or an alternative narrative, where appropriate

  5. Personnel Alignment

  6. Do Better

#1 Acknowledge Reality Internally. No problem can ever be fixed if you don’t admit there is a problem. Many companies are blind to the challenges of their employment brand. No one wants to be the bearer of bad tidings particularly unsolicited bad tidings. So leaders really need to dig into how the rank and file is feeling. Services like those that Heather provides can help to give an honest assessment of the current state and uncover gaps to where the company wishes to be.

I also propose that companies use the annual review process very differently this year. Now of course if there are performance issues those need to be addressed. However, leaders would be well-served to use this time to acknowledge difficulties of 2020 and share one on one what the company and they are doing to correct problems.

What I don’t think will work is the “Town Hall” that so many companies like to use. It is fine for leaders to say honestly and openly where they screwed up and what they are doing to make things better. What’s not so great is the public solicitation of feedback. Given the career risk of telling truth to power, there’s virtually no chance that any hard truths will come out.


Totally agree, Chris!

#2: Acknowledge reality externally. In some of the samples we shared earlier, the perception was a match to the reality…so those companies weren’t fooling anyone in who they said they were, they were just demonstrating they lacked integrity and authenticity. So acknowledge reality externally. Respond to posts in online review forums like Unilever did with authenticity and humility. Share content that acknowledges the reality of where your company showed up and where they could have done better. This will go a LONG way with both your employees and potential talent.


#3 Once leaders have performed their gap analysis between what they want their employment brand to be and where it is, they need to adjust their messaging. This is not to say that if they thought they were fast, fun and friendly but find they are working people really hard they should change to say “we work really hard”. It means that they should adjust to say something like “We value people who have fun while working hard to please our customers”. It also means that they need leaders to buy into the message and to live those values. So really the adjustment is as much with the environment that the leaders foster.


#4: Provide context or an alternative narrative where appropriate. I dealt with this one myself. We had a reputation as a hard-charging, challenging place to work. And it was. And, we weren’t going to have it any other way. So we starting talking about that externally. Here we are, dealing with two of the most stressful and impactful areas of people’s lives…so do you really want people who work 9-5, eat bon-bons and put their feet up on the desk? No! We wanted people who got the impact of the work we were doing and were driven by making that positive impact. And the problems were complex, so the solutions and implementing the solutions was going to be challenging. We incorporated all of this into our content and messaging. So where it is appropriate, provide context or an alternative narrative which has you own those aspects of your work experience that some will value and some will hate.


#5: You touched personnel alignment peripherally in your last part as it relates to attracting the right applicants. Here is where things get even trickier. Do you have the right people in place currently that will support your desired employment brand? I have seen firsthand where a company wants to be seen as a happy place to work but in reality, is some bad cross-section of high school and Survivor. Leaders need to exhibit and reward those traits that support the desired employment brand.


And #6, last but not least, do better! By that we mean, get aligned between who you say you are and how you are experienced. Be authentic and transparent where your place to work is a work-in-process. Focus on what is accurate versus what makes you look good, because the cracks will show through where you or your company are putting on a façade. As leaders, be employee-centric! Yes, even more importantly than customer-centric, be employee-centric. It is the employees who take care of your customers, so take care of them. As managers, stop micro-managing people and instead support people and manage output…particularly in a remote work environment. Just…do better by your employees, be real about who you/your company say you are. It is good business. Study after study demonstrates this.

Chris: That last part is so important. Do better! Employees are your company. There’s no amount of automation that can change that at the moment. I wrote in a recent article on the future of product management I argued this very same point. And clearly, there are many business cases that show in order to sustain long-term profitability and success, companies need to live their employment brand.


Ok…so we defined what an Employer Brand is…the reputation as a place to work. We talked about what it means to have a broken employer brand. And we provided 6 tips on how to address it.

So, Chris, for those listening….how could a company know if they have a broken employer brand?


- Indeed / Glassdoor - Although I tend to find that these are skewed sources populated by those that have an axe to grind with the company. Even the best companies have their detractors.

- Talk to your employees. I know a simple answer, but it isn’t so simple to do right. As someone I once worked with would say “Do you want the truth? Or do you want me to say something that won’t get me in trouble?” Leaders need to leverage those same market research skills they use to get voice of the customer to get Voice of the Employee.

- Talk to me….I could share the word on the street – One of the most common questions I get from new clients is what do I hear about them. Usually, it is that the street doesn’t know much about them for smaller companies. For larger companies, there tends to be misperceptions about them as well.

And Heather, if they do have a broken employer brand, is that something you can help with?


Most certainly. From the inside out, from the top-down and bottom up. I can help them create a strong alignment between who they say they are, the experience they deliver, and how that is communicated to their people.


Join us next time when we cover how the haystack just got bigger…... There's no more needles in it. It just got bigger with applicants laid off from industries such as Travel and Entertainment burying hiring managers in industries like MedTech and High Tech.


This is Heather P


And Chris Gustanski signing off.


Thanks for listening.

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