Every Employment Brand Needs an Extreme Makeover — Because We’re Never Done
The New York Times ran an article recently that caught my eye: it said that most tech jobs today are in mainstream industries such as healthcare and retail — industries that one wouldn’t readily think of as “tech-y.” But the fact is these verticals are increasingly looking for talent with highly prized digital skills.
While pure tech plays such as Amazon and Meta are shedding talent, they’re quickly being scooped up by the likes of JP Morgan and…Walmart?
“It’s not a secret that Walmart is not the first brand you think of when you think of tech,” a senior technology recruiter at the retailing giant told the Times.
I’ll say. But that quote underscores the huge responsibility you and I have when it comes to brands in general, and the impact it has on a company’s ability to hire. It’s up to us as CHROs to develop and sustain a gold-plated corporate reputation that makes people say “Yeah, I understand what the company is about, what it does, how I fit, and I want to work there.”
That’s why I joined Phenom last year. I was attracted to the purpose of helping a billion people find the right job. I have a service mindset by nature, and it just seemed natural to join a company that was using AI and data to forge a new talent experience helping companies all over the world support people.
Ask yourself this: why is Warren Buffet one of the biggest investors in American Express? Because “the most important thing about American Express is the brand and the customers that aspire to be associated with the brand.”
I wondered: could that same philosophy extend to people who are looking for their next employer?
It certainly does for The Cigna Group, the health insurance giant whose 70,000-plus global workforce gives life — literally — to the brand.
“We all come behind one mission,” said Effie Gikas, who leads an enablement team at Cigna responsible for talent acquisition, recruitment marketing, and employer branding. “To improve the health, well-being, and peace of mind of those we serve — and that includes our customers, our colleagues, the communities we're in, and our employees.”
Attracting talent wasn’t really a problem for Cigna. It was getting a handle on the skills of existing employees. Gikas explained that it was harder for internal talent to find their next role than it was for those outside of the company, and that frustration eroded the employment brand internally.
Cigna wasn’t going to let its promise of well-being fall apart with their internal team. So they partnered with Phenom and solved for a pretty complex challenge of matching skills and roles across the company to support internal job placement.
That's a great example of a company not backing down from their employment brand promise, but rising to the challenge and doing what they say! Cigna reinforced its reputation as an employer of choice to talent inside the company as well as outside.
It’s a fact — empowering self-directed career planning and increasing the speed at which you upskill and reskill employees drives retention and increases your positive reputation and profitability.
How Does Your Organization Treat People?
I had a great conversation with a CHRO recently about brand reputation. She said the way you conduct business is also likely the way you treat your people. If you have a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog business model, chances are that’s how you treat talent.
Her point of view resonated with me, because I have long believed that whatever you do most consistently is your brand. It's not what you think you do, it's what you do most consistently. If you don't think about your employment brand and look at it every year, then that's your brand. It’s happening whether you like it or not, so you should do something about it.
Most CHROs do. They have an inkling of what people are saying about their organizations through LinkedIn and Glassdoor reviews.
Here’s one review — pro and con — of a random major tech company I found on Glassdoor:
"They provide great benefits and you get a lot of exposure if interested in [a] full-time corporate role."
"Bad managers abound and there is not much remedy for that except for leaving the job."
So some positive comments, some not-so-positive. It’s all there for the C-suite to read.
To me, the real question CHROs ought to ask themselves is: Am I taking in all of this data and more, while also hyper-focusing on and prioritizing my brand? I started the article with this challenge. It’s not a bottom priority, this is a top 1-2 priority to build and defend the employment brand of their organization. Is this a top 2 priority to you?
If not, here’s how you can take the first step.
1. Create a Sense of Urgency
Thinking about your employment brand and how it’s perceived is one of those “very important but non-urgent” things that organizations tend to put way at the bottom of the list of priorities. By lacking routine prioritization where CHROs are continually evaluating what people are saying — good, bad or neutral — things can languish much longer than you want them to. Remember what I said earlier: whatever you do the most, even if it's inconsistent, that is your brand.
The other piece of that is the ability to strategize and work internally to get the time, talent, and treasure in your organization to actually prioritize the employment brand of your company. Oftentimes what happens is you get the throwaway thoughts and assets from the consumer brand to build your employment brand. And the employment brand has a different point of view. So it becomes a “we know it's important, but we need to make it important” attitude.
Action: Your employment brand falls on you, no one else. Give it the urgency it deserves.
2. Be True to the Brand
Once you build a brand strategy, is your team structured to meet the daily challenge of sustaining the effort? Do you have a dedicated talent marketing manager to maintain your career site and Glassdoor ratings, similar to how your marketing team has a dedicated digital marketer (or more) to focus on your consumer brand and website? And what are you physically doing inside of your organization to truly make fundamental changes to build a brand that you’re proud of so it's not just a facade?
Today’s talent lives in a real-time feedback loop. They aren't getting an impression of you over years; it now takes minutes. And you know the old cliche — you never get a second chance at a first impression.
So, you need to be really aware of the message you're delivering.
Because if you have a dog-eat-dog culture — and that’s fine if you do — then make sure people are clear on that with your employment brand so they can decide whether they want to be a part of your brand or not. You don't have to make your brand something it’s not. Just be true to yourself, and then manage that brand, hire to your standards, and retain your team with the white hot passion of a thousand suns!
Action: People can spot a phony a mile away, so make sure your brand is on the up-and-up.
3. Measure, Move, and Never Settle
After building your brand, run it carefully and diligently with passion and fury. Measure, measure, measure! Challenge leaders and the C-suite to get serious about the promise you are making. Measuring takes effort. External tools like Glassdoor are good. Engagement scores are good too, but even better is a single source of truth on your talent pipeline for both external and internal talent.
Do you know where they are coming from, why they chose you, how many are dropping out, abandoning the brand... and why? Do you know how your internal people are doing in self-selecting skills and new roles they would like to consider? Can you partner them with a mentor or a gig opportunity to better improve their changes at the stretch assignment?
One of the reasons I love Phenom’s purpose of "helping a billion people find the right job" is the experience mindset it fosters. A talent experience that will give you — the CHRO — the one source of truth.
Action: Dig into the numbers. You may be surprised by what they’re telling you.
When it’s Easier to Get into Harvard than Your Company
It may sound like hyperbole, but it’s actually easier to get into Harvard than it is landing a job at some companies.
In fact, a CHRO once confided in me that her former company accepted just 2.5% of applicants — less than half of Harvard’s acceptance rate of 5%. (It’s since fallen even lower — just 3% for the class of 2026). Her point: how do organizations maintain the same brand cachet as Harvard so that people a) want to keep applying or b) want to transfer within to other roles.
Fact is, if you don't have a good employment brand, you're going to be in big trouble to even get that 2.5%, or to get the best of the 2.5% to decide to choose your organization and then to stay long term. It's one thing to promise something to candidates in the advertising. It's quite another thing to actually follow through.
I speak from experience. Similar to the CHRO’s story mentioned earlier, I too once told my recruiting team at Life Time it was easier to get accepted into Harvard than it was to get a job in the company!
Harvard can afford to be choosy. You and I can too. We also have a business to staff in a tight talent economy. So we better find a way to make it easier and faster for talent to choose our company and easier for our talent teams and hiring managers to acquire and retain people. Not an easy task, but a task worth doing for sure. This is legacy-building work for the CHRO.
That analogy is such a good level-set for people because it’s a challenge for some hiring leaders to appreciate what a sophisticated labor marketplace we are actually in, especially with the advent of technology.
Knowing who you are in the market allows you to focus, tell your story, and recruit. Talent is empowered to see and know the truth, so make sure you start there and then move to your strategy to assist your business leaders in hiring the best talent for your company.
So I’ve walked this walk, and I can help you navigate a successful path. Create urgency, know and be true to your brand, and then measure and move to win. Please connect with me on LinkedIn and I’ll be glad to show you how to build a powerful employment brand that rivals anything your competitors have to offer.
Jess Elmquist is the Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Evangelist at Phenom. In a previous career as the Chief Learning Officer at Life Time, the healthy way of life company, Jess hired more than 200,000 people and spoke to hundreds of his executive peers about talent trends.
Get the latest talent experience insights delivered to your inbox.
Sign up to the Phenom email list for weekly updates!