Increasingly, organisations are taking time to identify what is pulling employees to their business – and discovering that a positive culture and career development opportunities are more rewarding than a good salary. But how do you determine the benefits that are unique to your business?

2nd October 2018

The demand for talent is intensifying, and more and more employers are investing in projects to identify the reasons why anyone should choose to work for them. Employees, too, want to know exactly what kind of experience they are going to get in return for bringing their expertise to the workplace.

The elevation of “employee value proposition” (EVP) from corporate jargon to a core recruitment and retention tool is largely due to changes in how people work and seek work.

Online resources are helping people make more informed choices about their next permanent roles, while the gig economy is giving the fast-growing freelance population glimpses inside different workplaces and, if their expectations aren’t met, the freedom to look elsewhere rather than renew a contract.

All this has forced comms and HR teams to assess what makes their company an attractive employer, so they can promote those elements and bring the right people on board – and hang on to them.

Linking external and internal perceptions

The challenge is to match the internal experience with that which employees bought into on the outside. You’ve got to make sure the two link up, says Dominic Wylie, senior communication consultant at communication specialists Like Minds.

“You can’t have an external look and feel, and story, and something else happening internally,” he says. “You don’t want to attract people to the organisation, for them to then say, ‘Wait a minute, this is not the picture I saw.’”

A carefully considered and defined EVP needs to be consistent and run from recruitment through to exit interviews. The authenticity of this promise you make can have a serious impact on your ability to attract prospects.

“When people leave your company, will they advocate you, or will they go on Glassdoor and trash you?” asks employer branding leader Simon Rutter.

The employer–employee deal

Your employees want to know how you are going to make them feel at the end of a day’s work. EVP is this deal between the employee and the organisation: what do people get in return for their performance and contribution?

The fringe benefits of a job role that might have tempted you 15 or 20 years ago – a company car, gym membership, luncheon vouchers – no longer float the average candidate’s boat. And while a good salary is still important – a company’s ethics aren’t going to pay the mortgage, right? – it isn’t the be all and end all.

These days, brand-savvy candidates are picking out ethical companies with a culture for openness or genuine regard for career progression, or businesses that deliver something positive to the world around them. Others want to find companies that are genuinely comfortable about flexible working.

These ostensibly softer factors that might once have been additional benefits are now hardcore deal-breakers. People want to feel proud of where they work, and fulfilled in their careers. A subsidised café and 25 days’ annual leave isn’t going to cut it.

Respondents who said that the internal culture was most likely to attract them to their next employer (27% said salary and financial benefits; 23% career progression; 6% company ethics)
IoIC poll 2018

Get your EVP right and it will give your business an edge, says Steve Mason, business development director for employee services specialists Personal Group.

“The cleverest organisations realise if you improve EVP, treat people well and make sure they’re looked after, you improve productivity. But you need internal will and resource to stick to it.”

While internal communicators place a lot of emphasis on making sure employees feel engaged, the EVP needs to come from a different angle.

It will be made up of a mix of elements, says Steve. “I imagine EVP as a wheel with culture in the middle. What feeds into it are a number of elements, including employee benefits, reward and recognition, learning and development, leadership visibility, communication strategy, health and wellbeing, and working conditions. These all make up the characteristics of an organisation and its EVP.

“The term that overlaps them all has long been ‘employee engagement’, but that’s changing. The new buzzphrase is ‘employee experience’ – how people feel within and about the organisation.”

“No one says they come to work to be engaged,” agrees Cathryn King, strategic communications consultant. “People don’t use that language. It’s the sense of purpose that is really important.

“People want to feel like they have done something of value, that their expertise has contributed to something. People want to learn and grow – and that doesn’t always need to be through formal programmes, but through opportunities to learn from experts or in a culture of innovation. Once the hygiene factors are covered, these are some of the real reasons that people come to work.”

Gathering evidence

You need to understand the reasons why your particular employee audience selects job roles. You can’t build an EVP based on what you think it is, or what the leadership team wishes it to be.

Hold lively, interactive focus groups with current and past employees; talent elsewhere in your sector; customers and anyone who uses your service; clients; and recruitment agencies. Encourage people to talk openly about what is and isn’t working.

Leadership feedback and comments from sources such as values workshop materials and exit interviews will point you to the current state of your business. In reviewing competitors, you can get a fair bit of information from desk research – from rankings in national publications or by employer branding leader Universum, to user reviews on Glassdoor.

You want as much feedback as possible, but it doesn’t need to be a huge onerous project, says Simon Rutter.

“If you don’t have someone in a dedicated EVP role, you can go and talk to people yourself, through one-to-ones, over a coffee,” he advises. “That’s fairly easy to manage in smaller organisations. There are sources and guides online to help you quickly put surveys together, for example SurveyMonkey or a Doodle poll.”

Catering for different cultures

In a global business, the trends and needs of employees will vary, so it’s important to find principles that cater for every culture, and to allow a little leeway here and there. Test the EVP in different geographies and regions to check it resonates.

Cathryn was group internal communications manager at transport operator First Group when it developed the first version of its EVP three years ago. The company has different business types across five divisions, with two in the UK and the other three in North America.

“We had seven or eight EVP statements initially, and people weren’t sure if they would fit for all areas of our business, so we needed to test it,” recalls Cathryn. “There was some discussion around having a different EVP in the UK from the one in the US, but the whole Group
has the same vision and values, and shares the same strategy, so our aim was to have one EVP, even if it had to be translated differently in the implementation detail.

“What came out of our initial discussions was that the EVP might not look exactly the same from one country to another, but the principles should align.”

Aspire to greatness

Your research will likely uncover areas where you are not as strong as your competitors. Within your EVP, positively address the changes you need to make by being both realistic and ambitious.

“You need that balance,” says Cathryn. “It needs to be authentic. You can’t promise something that is so far removed from reality that no one in the company would agree that could ever be the case. But at the same time, your EVP should strive to be forward-looking and progressive in order to give it longevity. There has to be an element of aspiration, even if you’re not currently delivering on certain points.”

Being honest can pay dividends, insists Like Minds’ Dominic Wylie. He recalls working on the EVP for a client who had prepared Dominic’s team for some negative feedback in focus groups on one particular issue.

“People did say the business could do better in this area,” he recalls. “But by talking about the things the company was looking to do, we warmed employees up to embracing that issue within the EVP. When employees saw that element of the EVP – what might be done to resolve it in the future – they appreciated the transparency.

"You need to stretch the ambition and say, ‘We are not quite there yet, but this is where we want to be.’”

Where does the EVP buck stop?

While many companies have their own dedicated employer branding resource, the task elsewhere of piecing together the EVP will fall between HR and internal comms.

Dominic believes if IC owns and runs it, the project is “unhindered by the corporate machine”.

“You can tell the story and bring people on a journey, and show that their colleagues have been involved by providing snapshots of the sessions,” he says. “If you hit it right, it’s such a great temperature check of the employee experience that internal comms can use it to rubber stamp the engagement plan. There is loads of valuable feedback from the employee EVP sessions that you can bank and feed in to other projects. Internal comms gets double bang for its buck.”

The rest of the business can benefit from this fresh knowledge, too.

At First Group, the IC team wrote summary reports of focus group sessions to give division leaders a flavour of what their people were talking about.

“It wasn’t just about EVP topics,” says Cathryn. “Other things came up naturally in conversation. Those insights were a tangible output the leadership valued.”

First Group’s EVP project was a collaboration between HR and IC, which Cathryn says was effective for the very reason that neither department wholly owned it. 

“We were similarly minded, but we had different motivations and so it became obvious who did what bit,” she reflects. “How the EVP translated into the people strategy, processes and policies was clearly in the HR camp. How you communicate it, how you tell a compelling story and how it fits into the broader corporate narrative was internal comms’ responsibility.”

Get senior leaders to promote the EVP

You might not have senior stakeholders in the room at every meeting, but they should be involved all the way through – from the beginning, when you are identifying the need for an EVP project, and through the focus groups, when they should not only be encouraging employees to have their say, but urging their management heads to get involved.

“If you’ve done the groundwork and sessions correctly, leaders should read it and find it inspiring,” says Dominic. “HR directors and CEOs should sign off and buy into it. You don’t want them to tamper with it or come back with a lot of changes or comments, because it loses its integrity.”

Simon Rutter led employer branding at Takeda Pharmaceuticals. He had to make sure that leaders felt comfortable endorsing the EVP.

“Leaders left us, as subject matter experts, to sift through the content,” he says. “But what we produced had to chime with their own views.”

Bringing in an impartial, external perspective

Getting an impartial perspective can help prevent the final product from being reshaped to suit an unrealistic or over-ambitious vision. Outside experts can also help you rationalise the results and support you in producing something clear and creative.

First Group worked with recruitment marketing and communications agency Dawson Walker to analyse the data.

Adam Winterton, client services director at Dawson Walker, says independent EVP specialists can challenge you, offer new ideas and see the broader view, as trusted creative thinkers.

“You may need an agency with a global reach, who can help you think about positioning your EVP for a local culture or marketplace, or it can run focus groups,” he suggests. “An agency should bring you a balanced blend of analytical thinking and creative inspiration – it’s a truly renaissance project.”


The final judgment

The next stage – turning the findings into something meaningful – is, believes Adam, “a kind of day of reckoning”.

“You’re identifying the core proposition and the pillars of your EVP,” he says. “It will be the sentiment from which all your messages are generated. It’s a bit like a brand model – at the heart is a statement or intent, but wrapping around that are core promises that make that statement real. You should shut yourself away in a room and lock the door until you agree it.”

But how do you pinpoint the distinct selling points? Surely every company within a sector will have similar goals. Won’t every oil and gas company be aiming to safely explore new resources? Isn’t every government department trying to build a better Britain? What makes one manufacturer of family cars different from another?

How do you scratch below the surface to present something that makes you stand out?

“This is where it gets really interesting,” says Adam. “Competitor benchmarking helps us understand how you differentiate. We did a big piece of work for a well-known FMCG company and discovered six out of 10 of their competitors had a shared employee proposition – they used slightly different terms, but none of them was really standing out.”

The problem, he adds, wasn’t so much what they were saying, but how they packaged it.

“For me, there’s always a difference to be found – and that’s part of the art. How creatively can you make it your proposition? When you read it back, you should know that it belongs to your brand and no other. And don’t just look at your direct competitors. Think about the potential changes in your organisation – where are the future talent pools you might be fishing from?”

Holding a mirror up to the organisation

The goal is for candidates to self-select. “Every pharmaceutical company, for example, will say they’re patient-centric, so how can you go one level deeper?” asks Simon Rutter. “Where is the space you can own?

“It is about holding a mirror up to the organisation. The more honest you are, the more likely people are to know whether or not the company is right for them. You’ll get people applying to work for you who are pre-qualified. They are quicker to on-board – and there are no nasty surprises.”

Examine the reasons why people have joined your company and what they’re saying about how it’s different from where they’ve been before.

“People who work for Takeda, for example, said previous companies were more process-driven and bureaucratic,” says Simon. “And Takeda isn’t like that. Some people will love the sense of empowerment, but others might struggle.”

Consider who naturally gravitates to your organisation. What kind of activity or emotional pull will get the right people applying to work for you?

People value different things and it’s important not to have one tactic, says Steve Mason of Personal Group. “If your organisation’s average population is male and in their mid-twenties, you need to think about what they want and need. But most organisations have a mix of people, and you need to be as comprehensive and broad as possible. There is not a silver bullet or one answer.”


Broadcasting the results

Once you’ve got it down on paper, what should the finished product look like? How many bits of paper, in fact, should you have in front of you?

Dominic from Like Minds believes you should be able to write down your EVP on two sides. “There are larger documents surrounding it, but you can summarise it. Craft it into headings and support statements, and ‘we will’ and ‘you will’ pledges – we’ll do this and we expect this in return.

“You might follow it up with a brochure, poster or video campaign, or a central hub on the intranet. Briefing packs for line managers and frameworks for HR and recruiters will let them know their responsibilities in bringing the EVP to life.”

At First Group, most of the principles of the finished EVP were already in the organisation in some form or other, so a big-bang launch campaign didn’t seem right.

“As it was the first incarnation of such within the company, the EVP work brought together lots of things that were already happening in a way that made sense to people,” says Cathryn King. “We put it into our corporate narrative. That was the part that was missing.

“We created a diagram showing how the proposition was aligned to the vision and values. The four areas were broad, but we advised how they could be developed into more detailed and relevant propositions for each division. You can’t shoehorn everyone in the organisation into the same mould. We wanted businesses to play to their strengths, and create their own version of the EVP.”

Cathryn and her team developed an assessment guide so that leaders could see how closely aligned their part of the business was to the new EVP – and where the gaps were.

“We didn’t just give them a pack and leave them to it,” Cathryn explains. “There were workshops planned and we piloted it in one of the divisions. We worked side by side with the team, offering guidance and support, and check-in meetings.

“We told leaders that they didn’t have to fill every gap straight away. Find out what is most important to your own employees and start there, with a plan to work on the other things over the next couple of years.”


Sharing a consistent message

After defining the EVP and delivering it with its own creative look and feel, embed it at every stage of your candidates’ lifecycle.

“Get the sentiment into everything,” says Simon. “That means doing recruitment marketing in a more targeted way, such as by building personas. Embed it into interview guides for managers. Give them the tools and capability to talk about it.”

However you promote it, the EVP will spread from within – from the moment your employees exit the early focus group meetings and continue the conversation.

“Your people are your most powerful external marketing tool,” says Adam Winterton. “They will talk to colleagues, ex-colleagues, future colleagues. If they understand your EVP and are great ambassadors, you’re on to a winner. They will amplify your message.”


Percentage of IoIC poll respondents who said the culture of their company and the benefits of working there completely match the employee value proposition promoted before they joined; 57% said partly; 14% said not at all.
IoIC poll 2018


The EVP needs to be nurtured and looked after. While, in some ways, it’s up to every employee to ensure the spirit of the EVP is kept alive, it makes sense to have someone dedicated to managing it, or at least overseeing it, and a plan for monitoring and refreshing it. Many things can have an impact on how stable the promises are – a restructure, a different operating model, hiring more gig or contract workers, a merger or acquisition, a change in leadership, or external events beyond your control.

An EVP is an everyday project, insists Adam. “It’s forever changing, evolving, developing. As well as having a core steel thread of a proposition running through, an EVP has to be responsive to changing conditions.

“Make sure you set measurable objectives for your EVP – and that you do measure them – to prove the business case and keep it a living thing.”

It’s worth the investment, concludes Simon. “Employer brand is related to getting better people through the door, so it has a tangible purpose. There is a genuine business objective. You can’t run a business without the right people.”

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