Behavioural Science x Employer Brand


Do you want to improve your employer brand? These four behavioural insights could help you stand out from the crowd.  

1. What people say isn't a reliable indicator of what they will do. 

What people say isn't a reliable predictor of what they will do. Yet, most employer brand research is still reliant on surveys or focus groups. It asks people, ‘why do you work here and what do you look for in an employer?’ and it uses their answers as the sole source of insight. 

The problem is that people aren't that accurate when reporting their motives for a decision. No one says they bought Chanel No. 5 because it would make them feel like Kiera Knightley, do they? No one says they blew fifty thousand pounds on a Land Rover to recapture their long-lost adventurous youth. And no one says they sent their CV to McKinsey so people would think they were smart and interesting at dinner parties…

People create coherent, rational reasons for career decisions they've made based on instinct, emotion and intuition. When we ask them why we'll often hear the edited version and that can lead your brand planning astray. The trick is to distinguish between attitudes ('what I think') and behaviours ('what I do') and appreciate that the two don't always go hand-in-hand.

2. Your EVP pillars will have different value at different times. 

Employer brands are often based on the pillars of an EVP: the things that define your ‘employee experience’ and differentiate it from your competitors. This is great for consistency but you can expect benefits like brand purpose, career progression and learning opportunities to appeal differently to your candidates at different times in the recruitment process.

These pillars pull on well-researched concepts from motivational theory, like competence, autonomy, belonging and reward. Organisations can use these insights to identify the most effective motives for the early stages of a recruitment process (i.e which will build reputation or encourage an application), and which to use during in the latter stages (i.e to encourage offer acceptance or productive on-boarding). The differences may be significant.

3. Your brand messages are likely to be gendered.

The language used in job descriptions has been shown to appeal differently to men and women, so it’s great to see organisations using tools like Textio to make their recruitment communications more inclusive. But in the same way you pay attention to the inclusivity of your job descriptions, you should also pay attention to the messages promoted in your employer brand and content strategy. 

The openness of your brand will depend on your primary messages, as well as the channel and activation strategy you're using to promote them. Using headlines that highlight flexible working, financial reward, organisational values or career progression are likely to appeal differently to different demographic groups. If your organisation commits to an equal workplace, then a scientific approach to understanding their effect will help you deliver on that promise.

4. We know less than we think about behaviour.  

When it comes to human behaviour, we don't have the luxury of absolutes. Behavioural insight can improve your likelihood of success but it will offer direction rather than answers. What worked in one organisation may not work in the same way for you.

That reality means embracing the unknown and approaching every project as an opportunity to learn something new. That might sound scary but it can also be exciting and liberating (as well as realistic!). As HR, recruitment or branding professionals, you can be explorers, scientists, researchers and pioneers.

You don't need to stop your focus groups or throw away your candidate surveys and industry case studies. Just combine that insight with behavioural research and organisational data and use it to challenge your assumptions. But don't simply roll-out your new ideas. Turn them into measurable 'hypotheses' and put them to the test in a well designed experiment*. 

You may be surprised how far it can take you... 


Notes — This article draws on general principles of behavioural theory, which is why I haven't included references in-text. If you're interested in the distinction between attitudes and behaviour, you may like to explore some introductory books on dual system processing like Nudge or Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. The insight on motivation comes from a few different places, but for a good start to the topic, I'd suggest either Dan Pink's Drive (Self-Determination Theory) or Adam Grant's Give and Take (Pro-social Motivation). Finally, I've drawn on the 'attraction' chapter in Iris Bohnet's What Works: Gender Equality by Design to suggest your EVP pillars are likely to be gendered.

*If you're starting to explore applied behavioural science for the first time, you may need some support with your first few experimental designs. But these skills can be learnt like any other — and once you have them, there's no looking back

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