Welcome to the Lead with Indeed podcast, a series of fireside chats with experts in employer branding, recruiting, HR and more.

Lead with Indeed logo, featuring Emily Firth.

In this episode, Bryan Chaney, Indeed’s Director of Employer Brand, speaks with Emily Firth, creator of the employer brand (EB) consulting practice thetruthworks. As the former Global Head of Employer Branding at travel site Booking.com, Firth brings a wealth of experience and innovative ideas to the employer brand space, and helps clients to attract and engage talent in an authentic way. Their conversation spans key employer branding topics including:

  • Employee resource groups and how to use them
  • The importance of competitive storytelling
  • Proving employer brand’s value to executives

More episodes:

Facebook's Camille Richardson brings a unique perspective to building a strong employer branding team

Chrissy Thornhill of Salesforce reveals the key to empowering recruiters to also be marketers

Instacart's Rian Finnegan explains how to foster remote company culture and create content like a journalist

Alex Her of Informatica shares his secrets to managing as a team of one and his journey on the talent brand career path

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Prologue

Bryan Chaney: Welcome to the Lead with Indeed podcast, where we chat with the experts in employer branding, recruiting, HR, and much, much more. We'll hear how and why they do what they do, and expand our knowledge of how they're driving results in today's world of work. I'm Bryan Chaney, Director of Employer Brand at Indeed. 

On today's show: Emily Firth of thetruthworks. She's worked in marketing roles, directed the employer branding team at travel site Booking.com, and today works as a consultant for firms looking to up their employer brand game. With so much uncertainty in the labor market right now, the landscape for attracting talent to your company has changed and keeps changing, and it's important we share thoughts and insights to solve these challenges together. With that in mind, I spoke with Emily about employer resource groups, competitive storytelling – that's a thing – and proving employer brands’ value to executives. Let's get started. 

Introduction

Bryan Chaney: We are here with Emily Firth. Welcome to the podcast. I'm so glad to be chatting with you. Now, as I remember, you were the global leader for EB at Booking.com, and you previously came from a marketing background. How did you get into the talent brand space? 

Emily Firth: It's a really good question. I guess I sort of fell into it, which I think is true of quite a few people. Booking was one of my clients, and they were looking for an employer brand manager. And I read the job description and thought, ‘Wow. That seems interesting. It's basically everything I'm doing, but with a human lens, and for people, and to help make the experience of everyone's workplace a lot better.’ 

I also had a lot of negative work environments, so I was pretty passionate about that topic, and it just sort of grew from there. And then, when I got to Booking, I didn't really have a clear role or job description, and it turned out it was some sort of vague, “help-the-TA-org attract talent.” And I really did a lot of reading and exploring in the area of employer branding, and realized there can be so much more. So what I ended up doing there was really defining this very broad scope. 

Bryan Chaney: When you came in, the role wasn't really defined. Right? They had an idea of what you would be doing. But when you came in, you realized that they were trying to solve the problem of the symptom, and not the disease itself. And sorry for the pandemic pun. 

Emily Firth: Yes. That's fine. [laughs]

Bryan Chaney: But when you think about it, people say, ‘Okay. Can you help me solve this problem?’ And you come in, and you're like, ‘Hey, I realize that's a problem you wanna solve, but it's more deep-rooted than that.’ And you have to not only build a network internally, but showcase how all these things are connected, so that you've made the case. 

Emily Firth: So I really built sort of an agency model there. And what was interesting was, we're sort of a victim of our own success. So as we grew and started producing really good work, people wanted to use us more. So we ended up supporting other teams as well, which is partly how I justified us growing and expanding. But the organizations aren't typically set up in that way, so they're usually set up in silos with direct reporting accountabilities. 

Where it gets very gray and messy is when you actually say, ‘Okay.’ But this has the possibility to support so many different functions, and to work in this really sort of holistic, overarching way to join the dots in a lot of areas of the business. And I think that's maybe easier with smaller organizations. It becomes very complex, and I sympathize now, speaking to a lot of my EB peers, about the challenges they're having because they see the opportunities, but the structure of corporate businesses isn't set up that way. 

And I guess I was also positively naïve in a way, coming in, because I'd worked in a marketing background where — when you're acting as a strategist or a business partner, you're seeing the bigger picture all the time, and your job is to join the dots. So then, going in-house, I assumed, “Well, I'll just help join the dots” — probably the reason I've ended up as a consultant. I think I work better ‘bigger picture,’ and being able to sort of break the rules and ignore the silos. 

Employer Brand Challenges

Bryan Chaney: Now, when you're hired to come in and you're talking with leaders, what do you hear are some of the biggest barriers that these leaders face? So who's the person that typically pulls you into an organization to have that conversation? 

Emily Firth: So I think, as with most employer brand professionals, it's usually a head of TA. I would say, increasingly, I'm being pulled in by heads of people, which I think is a much easier springboard. When you work directly with the people, either you've got a bit more opportunity to say, ‘Okay — how will this impact different areas of the business?’, because they've got a wider view. So I am increasingly working with heads of people or heads of HR, which I'm seeing is an easier route in. 

And usually, their primary challenge is, ‘I'm doing this, and my leadership supports me, but they're not that interested in being a part of it.’ Or they kind of see it as a people thing — an HR thing, that sits over there — and they're not really sure of what their role would be. It's not necessarily always that they're not enthusiastic about it. They don't always know how to be involved as a leader in a project like developing an employer brand position. So that's usually one of the biggest challenges. 

Increasingly, one of the challenges is our people are demanding more from us, as employers, and we can't keep up. We feel out of control. We're not really running as fast as they are, and there are issues in the media and society that we are not ready or equipped to have conversations about with people, both in terms of the extent of talent we want to attract, and also our current people. So there's been a slight shift recently due to current events, but those are probably the two things that I see most often. 

Bryan Chaney: And there's just a lack of knowledge around what – let's face it – what employer brand is, and how it overlaps and connects pretty critically with the consumer and marketing brand. How do you have those conversations? What's your first question when you feel like those are the challenges? ‘Okay. Tell me about this…’ 

Emily Firth: Well, I would firstly, say that: As part of my process, the initial process developing any employer brand that I do with a client is to start by speaking to their leadership team — their full exec — across the board. And I start there, rather than starting with talent, because I want to hear where the leaders of the company think the culture's going and what they think is important in building the culture. And it's always really interesting for two reasons. One: because then you're able to see if there are disconnects when you start speaking to their employees about whether they actually agree with anything the leadership have said. And you've got something to kind of push against and test. 

And the other reason it's a really good way in, is you start very early on by talking to leadership about what you're doing. And what always surprises leaders that I talk about, is that I talk about their business. I don't just talk about culture as this … touchy-feely, nebulous cloud that sits around. I say, ‘Okay. Well, you're telling me about one aspect of your culture, and that's really interesting. How does that help you achieve business success? And how does that tie to your product, or how does that tie to where you're going as a company? And why is that significant? And why is that important? And when you think about the talent that you're trying to hire, why are you trying to hire that specific talent? What has that got to do with your business goals?’ 

And, actually, when you have those conversations straight out the bag with leadership, they're instantly more interested in what you're doing because it's not an HR thing. It's something which says, ‘Okay. In developing this employer brand, I actually can get the talent I need to achieve my business goals, which is usually what most leaders are thinking about. And if I don't land certain culture traits, I will lose people that I need to achieve my business goals.’ 

Bryan Chaney: I love that. And what I love about that is twofold. The first one is that you are not only — and I know we've talked about this in the past, so — you advise people to read what your business leaders are reading, pay attention to all the things that are occupying their head space, understanding how they're thinking about their own business objectives. Right? So, first of all, you come in saying, ‘I speak your language.’ And that puts you above a lot of people who just don't understand the business. They understand their worlds, but they don't necessarily understand how it connects, that direct relationship. That's the first step. 

The second thing that I love is that you asked them to justify your job. So what I mean by that is you said, ‘Tell me the connection between having the right people and achieving your business goals.’ So they're, in effect, telling you how to be successful. I love that. That's amazing. 

Competitive Storytelling

Emily Firth: Yes. You mentioned the thing that I had talked to you before about, which is what I read. I spend a lot of time reading everything, from The Economist to trash news, mainly because it's of interest to my clients. And you have to have a business lens because, actually, you need to connect that dot between attracting and retaining the right people, and what they're thinking about — which is this month's targets and goals, and what the consumer are thinking about — and you have to find that synergy. But what's been interesting recently is those worlds are colliding, and what their customers are interested in talking about is also very relevant to what their employees and talent are talking about. So that audience is really merging, and I'm finding that super interesting. 

I especially find it amusing when we, as employer brand — and we're all guilty of this — and talent professionals, talk about prospective candidates or future talent we want to attract, potential candidates. Who is a potential candidate? A potential candidate is just a person going about their business, scrolling through Instagram, reading the news. They're not a potential candidate to themselves. They're not even thinking about you. You're not even on their radar. So when you start just talking about very bottom-of-the-funnel things like benefits, like perks on the job — those things are only really of interest to people who have already considered you, and they're pretty far down the funnel. They're already kind of into you. 

Bryan Chaney: Yeah. They already know why they wanna talk to you. That's, ‘Hey, I'm already walking down this path. Help me affirm that I've made the right decision,’ versus, you're competing for the world's attention with the world. 

Emily Firth: I think, if you're gonna go to the trouble of creating employer brand content, it better compete with other content in the world because your media budget is probably a lot smaller. You know, much fewer people are going to see it or care about it. 

I always encourage employer brand managers to think more like journalists and more like PR managers. So I sort of see it as where PR and HR intersect. What would make a great story that is a human story about how you treat people at your company? That's the brief. And act like a journalist. Go around your organization.

First, know what you stand for, and know what your platform is that you want to speak about broadly. So what's your umbrella? What makes you unique as a company? Hopefully, you have that in your EBP. If you don't, at least look to your values and say, ‘Okay. We stand for innovation.’ What's a story of incredible innovation? And there were so many of these that came out of corona about companies completely pivoting what they were making to create hand sanitizer or face masks, or do something completely different. 

If you think about connecting those dots and you think about what will create great stories, they're the things that reflect your culture that aren't necessarily about the day-to-day work. They can be things that are surprising or different. They can be much more human stories, which is where you get more freedom versus traditional marketing, 'cause you're not hard selling the product. You're trying to create an emotional connection. 

Proving the Value of Employer Brand Efforts

Bryan Chaney: I love that, that way of thinking. When you think about opportunities, 'cause you talk to a lot of companies — I know you're working with several clients right now — but when you're talking to them: What are some of the biggest opportunities that you see for engaging with leaders? Because, a lot of — for lack of a better term — ‘rank-and-file’ employer brand managers are struggling for attention. They're struggling for the value proposition internally of, ‘Why should I be paying for this?’ What are some of the opportunities that you see that these leaders might have to engage their actual executive leaders? 

Emily Firth: Yeah. It's a really great question. And look, I know how scary it can be. Let's just first be honest about the fact that we're probably pretty high up on the list of people to be furloughed or let go in an organization, because that perceived value is so hard to fight for constantly and because it's such a long-tail game, as I spoke about. These are long-term games, that you're building a brand that people want to come and work for. So it's hard to be brave, but what's the alternative? Sit and wait for someone to make you redundant? Because they will do that anyway if you're not perceived to be adding value. Or say, ‘You know what, the world has changed and there are vacuums of opportunity. I now have to rewrite and reinvent my role to rise up and meet that opportunity.’ 

And I think that, presented in the right way, it is quite obvious that there is a lot of evidence now that you can use to reinforce the position. Employer brand has become front page news for the first time ever, I would say, at this scale. Seeing discussions about companies laying off workers being on the front page of paper, or how they've done that being on the front page of the news — those are all employer brand issues, and companies that are not getting it right are seeing negative headlines about themselves. Now that impacts things like customer perception and shareholder value and share price, and all of the things that your leadership are concerned with. 

So you have headline news to bring to them and say, ‘The work that I do is now super visible. How we treat people in this economy, in this environment because of all of these shifts in the world has suddenly become super important, and I want to play a bigger role in that. And I can see joining the dots that this impacts our internal engagement, and people are feeling lost and scared and confused — and you need support with that. And I can see that it impacts our PR team because they're struggling with these negative headlines. And I can see that our people team is overloaded trying to deal with all these situations.’ 

There is a big vacuum — there's plenty of work to do. You just have to put your hand up for it and find where you can add value and say, ‘Look, yes — we're not focusing on talent attraction right now, but look at what employer branding can and could impact and influence, and look at what it can be.’ And look at what it can be done well, and look at what it can be done badly. And look at all of the areas that this impacts, and bring them their evidence and say, ‘This is how I want to help.’ 

And the other thing I would say is, that's quite scary to do on your own. What's less scary is going to all of your allies that you've built slowly, because no one is more networked and connected and good at hustling the employer brand manager — because that is what we have to do to do our jobs.

Bryan Chaney: You have to know everybody.

Emily Firth: You have to know everybody. Go to all those people you've made connections with and present it to them first. Go to your PR managers. Go to your struggling HR teams. Go to your benefits teams who are on their knees. And go to your marketing team and say, ‘I think there are ways that our teams can work together to tell a better story.’ Marketing has never leaned so heavily on using employee voices to talk to customers. You are invaluable, you just have to put your hand up, build a case, make allies and be brave about saying, ‘This is something I can help with.’ 

If they don't buy into the theory, people buy into ideas, and it's so easy to make a prototype idea. It doesn't cost anything. You take your phone and you film people in your organization talking passionately about something. Whatever your idea is, whatever you want to create — you need your audience to emotionally connect, but first of all, you need your stakeholders to buy into it. 

So use the same tools and tactics. Get them to form an emotional connection. Stop showing them stats and figures and say, ‘I have an idea, I've worked it up. Just play it, just listen to it, just connect with it for five minutes. If you don't like it, fine — no harm, no foul. Instead of sitting here waiting to be furloughed, I've been hustling. Here are a list of 25 employees who have amazing stories. Here are sound bites from their stories that would benefit all of these different departments.’ 

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

Emily Firth: So here's the final pivot on that one: ERGs, which are a fascinating hot topic at the moment. So employee resource groups, and the reason I mention ERGs is, let's see ERGs as sort of the — they’re used very differently in different organizations — the spotlight is on them at the moment to kind of plug the gaps between leadership and the floor, shall we say, of people who are working and managing your business day to day. And, also groups that are not being heard within your organization.

And I think there's a lot of pressure on ERGs at the moment, particularly around the Black Lives Matter movement. A lot of pressure for ERGs to suddenly become these sort of agents for change, and do all of this on top of their day job. To be advising leadership, almost on a consultancy basis. To be proposing solutions. To be lobbying for change for their groups, and I think they're really … I think it's really interesting. There's a lot of interesting trends around this.

But where I think employer branding can help is: One, there's too much pressure on ERGs. And I think employer brand can play a role in saying, ‘Okay, we need to take the pressure off somewhere because these are people who have a day job. And we need to find ways to connect with our employees and be a conduit to help them have a voice without putting extra burden on them.’ And I think, again, employer brand are very well-placed to do that, and to handle some of those challenges really sensitively. 

And I also think just understanding how to connect and engage with people in those ERGs in a way that is useful for leadership is also a role that employer brand could think about playing, because as those structures become much more important in organizations, they also become very important to your employer brand. And you see, increasingly, companies using their ERGs almost as a, ‘Don't worry we're taking care of all these issues because we have an ERG.’ And they're almost a shield from criticism, and I think that's a lot of pressure to place on employee and employee groups, and I don't think that's sustainable. 

So I do think there's an interesting vacuum there as well. And I think employer brand can play a role in thinking about how you can expect employee groups to play this internal role — also this external role — and actually formalize that into, you know, some sort of ambassador program and lobbying and representation program that is more efficient and more effective. And I think they're well placed to do that kind of role, to be honest, and I think it will help build employer brand in the long run.

Bryan Chaney: I think a lot of that has to do with, is there a group responsible for making sure that the ERGs or resource groups are staffed appropriately? Do they have the right tools? Do they have the right channels to communicate and escalate things? 

So right now, like, they've got the microphone. In fact, it feels like a press conference because there's five or six microphones in front of them asking for all these different things. And so we have to be careful too because we're asking employees to share their stories. We're asking them to have a voice, and it's all of this on top of whatever the resource group is already asking for on top of their day job. So we're trying to be mindful not to go too many times to that same well before it runs dry.

Emily Firth: Yeah, I think it means the employee brand manager's role has to shift somewhat, because it's not going to be as easy as maybe it has been to go up to certain groups and say, you know, ‘I'd love you to tell your story because everything's rosy.’ People are going through real trauma coming out the back of COVID, and people are dealing with really, really difficult issues at the moment. So these conversations are much harder. Like do you think the employer brand managers have to shift the way they're thinking and really lean into their human skills as much as their marketing skills.

Conclusion

Bryan Chaney: Well, the internal communications aspect of employer branding, the engagement. It educates, it communicates and it really compels employees who had no idea that these things were happening; had no idea that these stories were living and breathing all around them. What's the takeaway? What's the takeaway for employer brand leaders who are struggling? How do they start that conversation?

Emily Firth: Be brave, be human, be honest. 

Bravery above all because you have to be, and I feel like there are no gains in our space without being brave; without speaking up; without showing what you can do. Because no one's going to hand you that opportunity on a plate, I don't think — certainly not in my experience. We're still too unknown a quantity and we're still too easy on a list of, ‘Things that I need to run my business,’ to be seen as a ‘nice-to-have.’ 

I think ‘be honest in your storytelling, and act like a journalist’ is a really key takeaway for me, because I think that ideas and stories, above all, are what people buy into, so you have to read the room. You have to read what's going on in the world and think what does our company stand for? Where could they contribute somewhere? Whether it's something very small or something very big, and then how can I connect that story to this being an amazing culture.

Bryan Chaney: Thank you so much for sharing. Thank you so much for spending the time with me today — I could talk about this for hours on end — and I really appreciate your perspective. So thank you for joining us, Emily, and ‘thetruthworks, people’ — you heard it here.

[music]

Bryan Chaney: I am Bryan Chaney. My thanks to our guest, Emily Firth, and a big thank you for listening and I think there were some key takeaways for us all. Focusing on employee content and — be brave in your storytelling because you have a lot more competition for attention than you think. And don't forget to ask your executives how they see the connection between hiring the right people, and their own strategic business objectives. 

Sign up for Lead with Indeed for more content, episodes and to meet more independent thinkers and doers from the evolving world of employer brand. Up next, Rian Finnegan, Senior Manager of Employer Brand at Instacart.