Employer branding is a major topic for many organisations these days, including housing providers.

With many sectors facing talent shortages, and often equivalent pay and benefits packages on offer, it’s more important than ever that employers can differentiate their brand to attract the best quality candidates.

HR expert Anne Elliott of EMA Consultancy answers some frequently asked questions on how to build and maintain a strong employer brand.

Employer branding Q&As

Q. How does employer branding make a difference?

A. Strong housing employer brands tend to recruit people more quickly and easily, as well as keeping good colleagues for longer. What people think of you makes a huge difference; and those views are formed long before a job advert hits the streets.

Housing providers need to be clear what makes them stand out from their peers. Great customer service, respected leadership, an exciting culture or development innovation… these factors (and others) can be a big pull for prospective candidates.

Being clear about what you stand for, and proactive in telling the world also makes it easier for prospective recruits (and existing team members) to connect. That gives you a head start in building relationships and creating a positive impression about your business.

Q. What are the key challenges for housing organisations in building a strong employer brand?

A. Many housing providers offer broadly similar benefits packages and salaries. As a result, more candidates are looking for purpose and an understanding of how their work will fit in with the bigger picture.

For example, our 2018 total rewards survey showed that around 50% of housing providers use benefits such as health club membership, time off for voluntary work, professional fees paid and flexible home working. But as these perks become the norm, often it’s business culture – or rather, perception of the culture – that makes a difference. Potential candidates can form views of an organisation long before they see a job advert.

When working with clients, our team takes a realistic view about their brand. We look for positives to build on, and potential challenges that need facing. You have to be authentic, as trying to sweep things under the carpet doesn’t work; these days, it’s easier than ever for people to find weak spots. Negative Glassdoor or Google reviews, social media criticism, governance and viability ratings… even old Audit Commission inspections can give people a flavour of what it’s like to work for an employer.

It’s useful to remember that prospective candidates will have a wide range of motivations and interests. The opportunity to turn things around can be seen as a positive challenge by the right people, especially at board and executive level. And some potential barriers to recruitment, such as working in remote locations, may be offset by other factors – such as improved quality of life or lower housing costs.

Q. How can organisations bring their employer brand to life?

A. Everything starts with the culture – the shared beliefs that define what you stand for as an organisation. Most housing businesses have a clear sense of purpose that conveys what they do and why they do it.

If say, customer service drives everything you do, then you’ll want the world to know about it. That’s your company brand. The executive and board shapes this and typically, housing associations put out a lot of information as standard… from corporate plans and strategies, through to rent statements, press releases and so on. Where senior personnel are active on social media, their views and communication styles may also be seen as representing the brand.

At the same time, you need to attract and keep employees who will deliver great customer service, and help you keep your promises. That’s where employer branding comes in. It’s still part of your overall public image, just tailored to a more focused audience.

When working on search and selection or governance reviews, we always check the story behind the brand. It’s pointless trying to portray your organisation as trendy and innovative if that’s not who you really are; safe, caring and trustworthy are equally good descriptors, especially if that translates into job security, local support and opportunities for personal development.

There are many more tools that you can use to showcase employer brands these days. Recruitment used to be all about job packs, letters and .pdfs but that feels very out of date now. We encourage clients to use more varied marketing channels, as this boosts their chances of finding the right people.

Video in particular is a big draw; this introduces key people and gives candidates a chance to see who they’d be working with, absorb the surroundings and get a sense of the culture. Of course, that content can also be used on recruitment micro-sites and shared on social channels to extend the impact. We’ve done a lot of work with Johnnie Johnson that has helped to attract talented people and build brand awareness.

Q. How important are awards to having a strong brand?

A. If you have awards, quality marks or accreditations under your belt – Best Companies, IIP, RoSPA, Housing Heroes and so on – that’s great, especially if there’s pride in the team and people want to talk about it. Anything that increases ownership and positive communications is a good thing.

For example, Cartrefi Conwy in North Wales has secured multiple awards. This has been a huge motivator for its team and boosted the organisation’s employer brand. The association looks for awards that focus on professions with a known demand for talent. This helps raise profile among relevant professionals and can be cheaper than editorials or adverts.

Cartrefi also found that the Best Companies award process and feedback helped to improve employee engagement. And when colleagues feel valued and recognised, they can become workforce advocates – a positive force for recruitment and retention. After all, if people inside the business are motivated to endorse you, it speaks volumes about how you operate. Authenticity is a key component of any brand.

Equally in some smaller organisations, award applications can involve a lot of work and drain limited resources. We tell people not to beat themselves up if they can’t justify the resource, just use other ways to express a strong culture.

Anne Elliott is managing director of specialist HR, learning and development and governance consultancy EMA. The company’s services include search and selection, complex strategic HR advice and reward, pay and benefits consultancy.