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