“There’s too much emphasis on communication within employer branding. What really counts is how you treat your people. That’s why the 80:20 rule is start with culture and behavior, before working on your communications,” says Jan Denys, Director Corporate Communications & Public Affairs, Randstad Belgium. Beginning his career in academia, before moving on to work for Randstad for the past 20 years, Jan has advised a host of major corporations on how to develop a compelling employer brand. He also helped to launch the original Randstad Employer Brand Research, which has since been rolled out worldwide. what then has all this wealth of employer branding experience taught him about what works, what doesn’t, and why? 


why is employer branding so important?

Jan Denys: Investing in your employer brand enables your business to recruit better people, retain them, and see engagement levels rise. The recruitment and retention benefits are fairly obvious. But engagement is an equally crucial, though often overlooked, factor in making the most of talent potential, and boosting company returns.

All these three elements of a winning employer brand have been decisive in competing for talent in the tight labor market we’ve seen in recent years. The economic impact of COVID-19 may change the labor market dynamics in the short-term, but probably not all that much in the long run.

can money alone secure the talent companies need?

Jan Denys: When I began researching into what makes companies attractive to work for, I wanted to find out whether there was more to this than money. It’s clear that people want good pay, but this is only part of the story. Indeed, there are plenty of examples of companies that offer top rate financial rewards, but still have lousy employer brands.

People want to feel valued and have a chance to fulfil their potential. They want to work within a culture and environment that is friendly, supportive, and enables them to balance their professional and personal lives. In difficult times like these, job security becomes more important. Many people also want to make a difference to the world around them. All these multiple factors are wrapped up in the employer brand.


what are the key foundations for developing and projecting a winning employer brand. What are the pitfalls to avoid?

Jan Denys: First and foremost is patience. Unless you’re in this for the long haul, you shouldn’t start. The problem is that a lot of companies want immediate results, and if they don’t get them, they give up.

Successful companies have been investing in their employer branding for 10, 15 years, and seeing the benefits gradually build up over time. In Belgium, the Colruyt Group is a great example. Its main business is retail, which has always been low down the list of sectors people want to work in according to Randstad’s Employer Branding Research. But Colruyt has bucked that trend by being one the most sought out companies in Belgium. Colruyt has achieved this by going out of its way to treat its people well. Sure, pay rates for its retail staff are constrained by the fine margins in its market. But engagement is still very strong.

Crucially, Colruyt recognized that having started with a low attraction rating, it couldn’t change this overnight. When we first surveyed the company around 20 years ago, only some 20% of the people in our survey said they would want to work there. Rather, Colruyt has sought to gradually and sustainably improve its appeal, conscious that each year brings fresh challenges and opportunities. This commitment to the long game means that Colruyt’s talent attraction score has more than doubled to around 45%.

The other main pitfall is too much focus on telling a good story, without thinking about what lies behind that. The first priority should be making this a great place to work, and living up to your promises. If your staff feel like they’re treated well, they’ll tell their friends, and customers will see them smiling. That is the most authentic and convincing way to project your employer brand. Yes, good marketing and communications can support this, but only when the foundations of culture and behavior are in place. And you have to keep working on this. It takes a long time to achieve the credibility and authenticity that come from matching the message communicated externally with the reality employers live with every day. However, this credibility is very easy to lose.


As contract work, freelance work and portfolio careers become more commonplace, should organizations start updating their employer branding strategy and employee value proposition?

Jan Denys: It’s clear that permanent and contingent workers have different expectations in some areas – the value they attach to job security is a likely example. In the main, however, I would question whether permanent and contingent workers want fundamentally different things. Your business would therefore need to look closely at whether there is a sufficient cost-benefit in overhauling your employer branding strategies and employee value proposition, or creating separate approaches for permanent and contingent workers.

how important are generational differences in talent attraction and employer branding?

Jan Denys: Over the years, the Randstad Employer Brand Research has shown that there are some generational differences in what people want from an employer. However, these differences are not as significant as is often assumed. And when they do exist, they tend to reflect life stages rather than any major change in attitudes. For example, training and opportunities are critical for young people. However, as they get older, and financial and family demands increase, pay, security and work-life balance rise in importance.

However, we are now seeing a noticeable shift as Gen Z comes into the workforce. They are a well-educated generation – more than 50% with degrees in many countries. Many are in a hurry to progress their careers, even if the scope to meet these expectations hasn’t necessarily increased. This can be a challenge for employers as Gen Z employees could easily become frustrated if they can’t advance their careers as quickly as they would like. Will they leave? Well, so far our research suggests that most don’t. But they do become increasingly disengaged, which is in many ways worse than losing them. From an employer branding perspective, one of the big challenges ahead will be how to meet these expectations and sustain engagement.

how do you see employer branding developing in the future?

Jan Denys: Globalization has reshaped economies worldwide, and it won’t go away. But some aspects of it are coming under attack. From an employer branding perspective, one of the clearest trends that stems from this is the growing preference for local companies – ‘national champions’ – as many countries’ preferred employers of choice. Even where companies have extensive international operations, they tend to be most popular in their home market. As multinational corporations look at how to compete for talent, it’s therefore important for them to think about how to strengthen engagement and trust in the non-home countries in which they operate. As a major global corporation, we at Randstad recognize this.

The ways companies engage with talent are increasingly shaped by technology. But the need to match the promises you make to candidates and employees with the reality within your business is just as important as ever. You can think about this like dating. Just as people now increasingly meet their partners online, this is also how companies and candidates connect. Digital technology certainly makes it easier to match people up. The interview is in turn the equivalent of the first date. Everyone will try to put themselves in the best light in both the online profile and the interview. That’s only natural. But if you stray too far from the truth, you’ll inevitably end up with frustration and separation.

Flexibility and work-life balance continue to rise up the lists of talent attractions worldwide. This used to be seen as simply a matter of creating family-friendly ways of working. But, flexibility is now becoming increasingly important across the workforce as work becomes more mobile, and employees seek out greater autonomy over how they get things done.

some take aways: 

  • Alongside recruitment and retention, make sure your employer branding strategy prioritizes employee engagement.
  • Plan for the long haul. Employer branding takes time to deliver.
  • Before you start devising your communications plans, make sure the culture and behavior in your organization are right first. 
  • Live up to your promises. Credibility and authenticity are difficult to achieve and easy to lose.
  • Generational differences are less significant than is often assumed. And when they do exist, they tend to reflect life stages rather than differences in attitudes.