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Ep 521: Rebuilding Employer Brands


There is a strong argument that Employer Branding has never been more relevant or important. The last few months have seen many employers making layoffs as they respond to market conditions and some sense of normalization after the pandemic. It’s fair to say that some employers and potentially whole industries have suffered severe reputational damage because of this.

So how can companies rebuild their reputations as employers? This is not only important from a talent acquisition perspective; it is a vital part of retaining the talent they already have.

My guest this week is Emily Firth, Founder and Partner at The Truth Works. Emily is an Employer Brand and Employee Engagement expert, and it was great to get her view on how employers can rebuild and manage their reputations in the current market landscape.

In the interview, we discuss:

• The post-pandemic state of Employer Branding

• Lack of delineation between internal and external communications

• Transparency and control

• Moving away from a hyper-curated narrative

• Foundations and frameworks

• Rebuilding reputations

• Influencing and education leadership

• Generative AI and the future of employer branding

Listen to this podcast in Apple Podcasts.


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Recruitng Future (1m 7s):
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Matt Alder (Intro) (1m 22s):
Hi there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 521 of the Recruiting Future podcast. There is a strong argument that Employer Branding has never been more relevant or more essential. The last few months have seen many employers making layoffs as they respond to market conditions and some sense of normalization after the pandemic. It’s fair to say that some employers and potentially whole industries have suffered severe reputational damage because of this. So how can companies rebuild their reputations as employers? This is not only important from a talent acquisition perspective;

Matt Alder (Intro) (2m 2s):
it is a vital part of retaining the talent they already have. My guest this week is Emily Firth, Founder and Partner at The Truth Works. Emily is an Employer Brand and Employee Engagement expert, and it was great to get her view on how employers can rebuild and manage their reputations in the current market landscape.

Matt Alder (2m 25s):
Hi Emily and welcome to the podcast.

Emily Firth (2m 27s):
Thanks for having me, Matt. I appreciate it.

Matt Alder (2m 30s):
An absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Please, could you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

Emily Firth (2m 35s):
Yeah, no problem at all. So my name’s Emily Firth. I am a consultant and a co-founder in Employer Branding and Employee Experience. I co-lead an agency called The Truth Works, which is based in Amsterdam and also the UK. And our focus is really around shaping company cultures. We’d actually want to be a part of ourselves.

Matt Alder (2m 59s):
Tell us a little bit about your background. What were you doing before you started the agency?

Emily Firth (3m 3s):
I used to head up Employer Branding, which was a sort of baptism of fire, let’s say. I’d been in the marketing and advertising world previously, and had got a little bit tired of marketing products and really wanted a new challenge. And sort of fell into Employer Branding thought, I can’t believe there’s a role that does exactly what I love talking about, which is people and culture. And actually gets to position and market and build that. So ended up sort of via sideways route as I think most people in Employer Branding do. And was looking after, I guess the Employer Brand positioning for 17,000 colleagues they had at the time across 200 offices worldwide.

Emily Firth (3m 49s):
So it was not only sort of a leap into the Employer Brand world, but a leap into it at scale through lots of different cultural lenses.

Matt Alder (3m 59s):
So the last three and a half years has just been obviously incredibly disrupt, incredibly disruptive everywhere, but incredibly disruptive talent acquisition, but also perhaps particularly disruptive for Employer Branding. Where are we now? What’s your kind of view on the state of the market and the current state of Employer Branding?

Emily Firth (4m 23s):
So actually when I started The Truth Works, it was just pre-pandemic. So it was interesting time to start in this space. And I actually think a fascinating and amazing time to start in this space because as you say, we’ve been on a bit of a rollercoaster, to say the least. But I think what’s really happened is both Employer Branding and the employee experience that actually engaging your people has become really front of mind for even senior leadership, CEOs. And the conversations we’re seeing have really moved beyond being conversations we have with HR leaders to conversations we’re having with founders and full exec teams.

Emily Firth (5m 6s):
So I think the visibility and the awareness of how important an Employer Brand is has radically shifted over the course of that time.

Matt Alder (5m 15s):
And do you see different levels of maturity in the approach to Employer Branding across different markets, I suppose across different countries?

Emily Firth (5m 25s):
Yes, definitely. I think in Amsterdam it’s still a little bit emergent, but certainly, I’ve seen a shift in the last sort of two or three years in the amount of roles being looked for and hired for in that space, but also in the amount of agencies and consultants offering their services in that space. And I’m seeing a demand more and more from businesses for what we do. And I think markets like the US have been talking about EB for a long time. But I think it’s also about the depth of those conversations. And I think also the penetration and relevance of EB throughout the organization. So whereas it was seen as a recruitment function or an HR function before and something very heavily focused on external marketing, I think the lens has turned inwards.

Emily Firth (6m 12s):
We talked about it a little bit before when we spoke Matt. But I think one of the things that’s been so interesting in the last couple of years is the sort of the lack of delineation now between internal and external when it comes to communications, when it comes to talking about your Employer Brand. I think talent are increasingly willing and open to sharing, you know, company private conversations or things that have happened on internal Slido or things that have happened at internal town halls. So I think those lines are now very blurred and I think increasingly talent who are external are able to see much more of what’s going on internally, whether that’s sort of in the front page of the newspaper, or on tech blogs, or through leaks that employees are fostering themselves.

Emily Firth (7m 9s):
I think that has broken a bit of trust as well between employees and employers, but it’s also changed the game in terms of how much you can manage your Employer Brand and how much you can really control the narrative.

Matt Alder (7m 22s):
And there’s been some spectacular examples of that recently, hasn’t there?

Emily Firth (7m 25s):
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think a lot of people have seen the sort of Pity City CEO video. And I think just where, oh, and for those of you who haven’t, essentially that was a leak of a Zoom call in the US where a CEO was communicating with talent in a town hall about expectations of them and sort of asked them to refocus their attention on the business and sort of stop feeling sorry for themselves and asking about bonuses and promotions and leave Pity City and get on with the job effectively. And that spread very quickly around the world. And everyone was talking about it as an example.

Emily Firth (8m 6s):
Another one recently was the CEO who was applauding an employee for giving up their dog to come back to the office and commit. Employers are having very difficult conversations with their employees. And I think previously, whereas they could have delivered an internal comms memo without much preparation, not really thought about the potential impact of how that would land beyond something they’d have to clean up internally. I think now they’re seeing that can have huge implications on the reputation of a company and their Employer Brand. So if you’re an Employer Brand manager trying to manage that and a PR manager who increasingly have to work much more closely together, you are now having to backpedal and try to convince new hires as well as internal talent that the Employer Brand that you’ve been putting out there is still the truth.

Emily Firth (8m 58s):
And I think that becomes very difficult. You know, leadership do set a lot of the tone for your Employer Brand. You have a set of values, you have a set of Employer Brand principles that you speak to and that you promote. So if you’re not actually living by those, you will very quickly become found out.

Matt Alder (9m 18s):
And it’s interesting because over the last few years, there’s been such a focus on employers telling employee stories about what it’s like to work in the organization and all this kind of stuff. And this just kind of illustrates that actually transparency. And transparency is something that everyone needs to take into account and they, you know, there’s no control over narrative anymore. What your advice to employers in terms of how they might turn this to their advantage?

Emily Firth (9m 45s):
I think it’s really interesting moving away from this space of a hyper-curated narrative and starting to think about how you allow talent to tell their own stories in their own way. So we talk a lot about flexibility and freedom within a framework. I think what employees have previously been afraid of is giving employees that platform and that voice to talk about their employee experience. But the reality is they will do that whether you give them permission to or not. So creating those foundations, creating those frameworks from which to have the conversation actually elevating the voices that are already out there can be really powerful.

Emily Firth (10m 29s):
And actually identifying the people that are really understanding your culture, really getting the most out of it, and giving them that platform and that opportunity to speak up is really worthwhile doing. But I think it’s important now to make sure that you’re also doing that in a truthful and honest way. And actually, if you look at influencer culture, if you look at who your talent are reacting to in terms of the sort of Steven Bartlett’s of the world, the Elizabeth Day, talking about failure in business, the people, the micro-influencers who are on platforms like TikTok talking about how to get ahead in corporate business, people who’ve sort of quit corporate culture, the people who are actually Influencing your talent, the talent that you want to hire are really authentic people who talk about the bad and the good.

Emily Firth (11m 23s):
And so any framework in which you can give talent the ability to talk about a balanced view of their experience with your company will always be much more authentic and genuine than a perfectly curated, polished on message version.

Matt Alder (11m 37s):
And I suppose sort of developing that theme a bit. Over the last six months, lots of employers around the world, particularly in tech but in other sectors as well, have had to make significant layoffs. There’s been some, a huge amount of publicity around companies not necessarily doing that in the best possible way. All of those companies are still hiring people to replace kind of people who might have moved on, or they may be looking to begin our growth hiring programs again soon. How can an organization that’s gone through that process rebuild their Employer Brand?

Emily Firth (12m 22s):
That’s a really interesting question and one that I’m working on with a few of my clients at the moment. I do think that talent understand that there is market uncertainty. Talent have seen this across LinkedIn, across their communities with their friends, with their networks. They do understand there are commercial realities. It’s not the layoffs themselves that are problematic, as you say; it’s how they were handled and how they speak to what you value as an organization and how you treat people. So I think there have been examples of good handlings and there have been examples of bad handlings. And I think that the sort of consistent themes have been around the ownership of the mistakes made by leadership, you know, a care and a connectivity and an empathy without centering yourself like the crying CEO that talent really respect, also leadership, being front and center in those conversations rather than delegating them to HR has been really, really powerful.

Emily Firth (13m 22s):
And then what you do to support that talent that you have let go in terms of access to network and resources and all those things really speak to how you treat people on the way out as well as how you try and convince them to join you on the way in. That’s super important. But in terms of rebuilding, I think it’s a different landscape and talent are going to be looking for different things and looking to understand why they should join a company that has made those mistakes and had to make those layoffs. So there’s a lot of transparency needed in explaining to talent why that happened and helping to show them why you are safeguarding as best as you can in a volatile market against that having to be the case again.

Emily Firth (14m 7s):
So talent I would say are increasingly interested in understanding company strategy, understanding what happened with those layoffs, and understanding how the business is doing. I would say talent are much more looking at things like the commercials of a company, especially for senior hires. And whilst people are still moving from role to roll they’re doing so in a much more considered way. So yes, it’s absolutely about the culture and the messages you are sending off about how you care for people. It’s also the confidence and the transparency that you’re projecting in terms of how open you are about your strategy, the mistakes made, and how you’re going to move past them.

Matt Alder (14m 56s):
You mentioned earlier in the conversation just how many parts of the organization and Employer Brand strategy needs to touch. And maybe a few years ago, ago it was seen as just a kind of a subset of recruitment marketing, but so much more than that. Many kinds of heads of TA listening may be having kind of issues within their organization in terms of getting the buy-in to talk about Employer Brands strategically. What can they influence and how can they educate their leadership?

Emily Firth (15m 31s):
Well, one tactic that I’ve used, which doesn’t always work for everyone but which I think can be quite powerful, is not talking about Employer Brand at all. There is no need actually to talk about EVPs or talk about Employer Brand. Specifically, what you can talk to your leadership about is do you think that our reputation as an employer matters in terms of our ability to attract talent? Can you see how the sort of attributes of the talent we are trying to attract will make a difference in helping us achieve this business strategy? So if we say we need more doers than sort of talkers, do we think that our current culture and the way that we talk about our current culture is attracting the right people?

Emily Firth (16m 17s):
So these are the sort of conversations that TA leaders are actually having with CEOs and with their hiring managers every day. It’s just when you start to put it in a little box called Employer Brand that it suddenly becomes problematic. So if you start to talk about things like shifting our reputation as an employer or being clear on what we promise and what we offer as an employer, that is Employer Branding. It just takes it out of that tiny little box that makes it feel like a project or a one-off. So whenever we start a conversation with clients at the Truth Works, we’re always talking to the exec team of a company first. So if we’re developing an EVP, we say, “We need to understand where the business is going.

Emily Firth (17m 2s):
We need to understand what the barriers are from a talent perspective that are stopping you get there, or from a culture perspective that are stopping you from growing, or changing, or achieving your goals as a business. And then let’s look at where those pain points are. And let’s look at the way your employer reputation and your current culture are preventing you from achieving those goals.” And that gives you a problem for the Employer Brand to solve. Because what happens when you just say we need an Employer Brand cause everyone else has got one, is you are already not setting it up for success because you’re not giving it a reason to exist. And whenever we’re looking at measuring an Employer Brand, we’re always looking at, you know, “Why do you need one, what are the problems that you are trying to solve in your business with this Employer Brand?”

Emily Firth (17m 48s):
In the same way that any marketing exercise aims to solve a problem, is it retention of customers? Is it that, you know, we’re not standing out in the marketplace for the right reasons? There’s always a problem that marketing’s trying to solve and that branding are trying to solve. And these are the same kinds of problems and conversations we should be having about Employer Branding. Start much further upstream with the business problem, relate it back to culture and talent, and then start talking about Employer Branding as a potential solution to that.

Matt Alder (18m 21s):
So anyone who’s listening to this on a time-shifted basis. We are recording in the first week of May 2023. And we’re going through a period of time where you can’t have a conversation with anyone without talking about generative AI. So, I’m gonna have to ask you an AI question because that’s just expected in May 2023.

Emily Firth (18m 41s):
[inaudible] we clearly don’t know what we’re doing if we’re not talking about AI.

Matt Alder (18m 46s):
Exactly. So how do you think that innovations in AI and technology are going to sort of impact how we do Employer Branding?

Emily Firth (18m 56s):
So I think with AI there are a couple of different ways that we can use it to help the work that we do, but I always hesitate to believe that it will help us in the short term, at least in the way that it’s working currently to really differentiate our Employer Brand unless we know what to do with the data it provides us with. So I would either be thinking about using it in the insight stage, so using it to gather and generate insight at pace and at scale in a way that, you know, it’s very difficult for internal talent branders to do at the moment because they don’t have access to huge amount of resources.

Emily Firth (19m 37s):
But you still need to be able to interpret and use that to develop a strategy and a point of view because you still know your business and your brand best. Of course it’s great at generating content and helping you with copy and things like that. At the other end, again the challenge is it is learning from other Employer Brands as well. So my fear is always a race to the bottom where we are looking at quantity and not quality and differentiation. But again that comes down to human inputs. If you know your brand, if you know what helps you stand out and you can help shape and input that output, then I think it can be an incredibly useful tool.

Emily Firth (20m 20s):
I think in terms of the wider use of it in HR, there are so many things that we do in the people and culture space which could be more efficient to allow us to do the strategic work that really helps to build culture. I think a lot of work could be automated. A lot of work is busy work, which doesn’t allow us to look up and say what is the culture we’re looking to build and how could we build it better? So anything that helps us do more of the thinking and less of the doing is always gonna be a good thing. Like I don’t want us to get to a space where we are constantly using the same influences. I think you also need to look up from whatever you receive and still have a point of view.

Matt Alder (21m 7s):
Yeah, absolutely. And the hype versus reality is interesting as well because I don’t think anyone really knows what’s real and what’s not in terms of what this can do at the moment. So I tried to get it to translate something — I can’t remember what I was doing. I got it to write something for me and then I tried to get it to translate it into Cornish.

Emily Firth (21m 25s):
Oh really?

Matt Alder (21m 25s):
Yeah, I was like, I just thought, because I’m from Coron, originally I was thinking the most obscure thing I could think of. And it just did it straight away. And I was like, this is absolutely incredible and phenomenal and it’s gold world-changing. But then I was like, hang on a minute. And I took – because I don’t speak Cornish. No one does. So I took the Cornish text, translated it back and it was literally the home; it was the text from the homepage of the Cornish Language Society and nothing to do with wide types. So it was like, ok, yes, it can.

Emily Firth (21m 55s):
Yeah, you know what it is. You know what my shorter answer would be to this, now I’m thinking about our conversation. I think it’s like with anything strategic, it’s about knowing the right questions to ask. So whatever tool you are using, whether it’s AI or not, if you don’t know the right questions to ask, you’re not gonna get to the most exciting inspiring answers.

Matt Alder (22m 24s):
Absolutely. So final question and thinking about everything more broadly, what does the future look like? What do you think Employer Branding will be like in three years’ time? What do you hope it will be like in three years’ time?

Emily Firth (22m 37s):
I hope we’ll stop having, we’ll stop having conversations about the value of it and having to justify the value of it. I feel like the world has broadly accepted that you do need to market your way out of a recession. That you do need to have a brand for people to take your business seriously and understand what you do. So for me, it’s a no-brainer that you would understand that there is value in people understanding what your culture is in order to basically sign four to five days of their life up for it. And you know, obviously, your Employer impacts so many things from your health and well-being to your financial security to your family to where you live.

Emily Firth (23m 23s):
So to think that that’s not valuable when we invest so much time and resources into customers buying a product which potentially they don’t have as deep a relationship with as they do a workplace sort of boggles my mind that still trying to sell in the value of it. So I would like to see Employer Branding further upstream within organizations less having to justify its own existence and just part of the conversation we have about being a successful business and being a business that can attract the talent it needs to achieve its business objectives.

Matt Alder (23m 58s):
Emily, thank you very much for talking to me.

Emily Firth (24m 3s):
You’re very welcome, Matt.

Matt Alder (24m 4s):
My thanks to Emily. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple Podcasts on Spotify or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past episodes at On that site, you can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter, Recruiting Future Feast, and get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

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