Human beings – especially the English – seem programmed to use the weather as a metaphor, and the recession has been no exception. You’re probably as tired of hearing about stormy weather and ill winds as you are of travelling in the real thing. Although there are no bonus points for collecting the set, the missing cliché is the one about battening down the hatches.

But it’s not one to dismiss. Last week’s news coverage included updates from the OECD on growth forecasts. The anticipated growth rate for the UK for 2010 has risen to 1.2% – recession is ending, at least by its dictionary definition. The OECD expects unemployment to continue to rise throughout 2010 and possibly into 2011, albeit at a slower rate. Here are the opening words of the OECD’s Economic Outlook No 86:

The economy is set for recovery, supported by improving financial conditions, an expansionary monetary policy and stronger international growth. However, the pick-up will be slow with GDP projected to grow by slightly more than 1% in 2010 reflecting strong headwinds from balance sheet adjustments, a still weakening labour market and fiscal tightening. In 2011 the recovery will gain momentum, but resource utilisation will remain low and the unemployment rate is projected to reach 9.5%.”

Canadian cult novelist William Gibson may not pack the same workplace kudos as the OECD, but a quote from him is worth citing here:

The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

The OECD figures are general forecasts, not industry or region specific ones. A simple lack of demand won’t be the only reason that some companies continue to shed staff: shareholder pressure, cost-cutting, access to capital and servicing a legacy of debt will account for many lost positions. As an employer, there is another important message: some companies will be turning the corner, growing and recruiting. Possibly from you.

Unlike some European countries, the UK has not intervened to subside short-time working to avoid redundancies. This is a lesson that could have been learned – certainly Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman believes it could help the US – but ‘what might have been’ is a parlour-game, not an employment practice. Nonetheless, two contrasting stories (fictional or fictionalised case studies) – one from Germany and one from the US – are interesting reading. Taking government responses to economic crisis out of the equation, there is a sharp difference in attitudes to talent retention and in company practice. If talent retention is key to your company – and to its future competitiveness as recovery takes hold – the stories should provide a wake-up call. But as recovery does begin to take hold – or is more clearly on its way – there are issues both for talent retention and for recruitment.

Twist or stick?
Staff who are actively looking to move on don’t, by and large, announce their intention. Some who have keep their individual hatch well battened through the storm may now be tunnelling vigorously beneath it, making a decision as to whether ‘holding on’ will pay personal dividends or whether moving on may produce a greater return. Their work experience during the downturn will be a major factor in their private calculations.

If your employer brand honestly reflects their actual experience, their calculation might be weighted in your favour (provided both brand and experience are of a reasonable quality). Brands that have previously oversold their company and built idealistic views, by comparison, may struggle.

Unlike your product or service brand, employees experience your employer brand – your Employee Value Proposition (EVP) – unmediated, firsthand and for a large proportion of their week. It’s not an occasional purchase – it’s a big part of their life. (Why probably explains why no-one talks about a product/life or a service/life balance.) If the gap between the brand’s proclaimed view of itself and their experience of it is too wide, you might start seeing other gaps. In your workforce and your capacity – your human capital.

Staff who have suffered in silence may now decide to move on – and may even decide suffering slightly less somewhere else is preferable. If you’re not sure how realistic your employer brand has been, now is the time to act before the recovery gains strength – for your competitors.

Following best practice in building your EVP – involving staff and gathering their honest experiences, building on your values and mission, reviewing policies, processes and practices – will come at a cost, but so will replacing your existing talent, bedding in new staff (and losing others who carry the weight during the interim). But if staff are making their calculations, shouldn’t you be making yours? How much human capital can you afford to lose before you make a decision?

Here comes the flood …
As the economy moves out of recession, the labour market will initially lag – recession may have different causes, but this aspect is relatively constant. As you increase (or re-start) recruitment, a larger pool of applicants will be available.

As Jared Woods points out in his Professional Heretic blog, you don’t actually want to become everybody’s Employer of Choice:

Your brand needs to be relevant, targeted and honest. Otherwise, you end up having to manage a lot of expectations, and you create promises so meaningless and vague that it’s impossible to meet them to the satisfaction of your staff. You brand can’t be open to interpretation. It must be specific about the kind of people it is geared to attract, and the kind of people it wants to repel.”

Faced with an abundance, you don’t actually want to appeal to all of it. You will want to bag the best of what’s on offer, but using your EVP to encourage candidates to self-select will ease the toll on your HR department. As HR Zone recently reported:

In normal times people look for a career move when they are ready. In other words, they are in control and have a choice. Today, that choice element has disappeared for many and we are seeing an increase in the ‘serial’ job hunters as people apply for roles that under normal circumstances they would not consider. In fact, new research from Changeworknow, Online Recruitment – its all about the candidate, reveals 70% of applicants would consider taking a job even if it wasn’t the ideal job for them.”

If your EVP is clear, strong and direct enough, you may filter out a good share of that 70%. We assume that your aim in recruiting is to find the right people, rather than just as many possible people as you can? If you already know you have round holes, why attempt to appeal to square pegs?

But is your recruitment advertising defining the hole, or digging one? As Ross Clennett so wittily skewers them, there are innumerable Clichés, tautologies, vagueness and other rubbish found in recruitment advertising – and none of them help. (You might want to look at the London School of Economics’ recruitment guidelines for potential employers too.) It’s an advert: you’re selling your organisation and the experience of working for it. Most of us can assume we need to be ‘dynamic, flexible, self-motivating individuals’ (and so – interminably and unhelpfully – on). We want to know what the job entails (can I/do I want to do it?), what the culture is like (do I want to do it with them?) and the opportunity it can offer us (I know having the post filled successfully helps you – what’s in it for me?). Get your EVP and your recruitment processes wrong, and you either lose great applicants, drown in mediocre or inappropriate ones – or both.

Après le deluge
Once you have recruited, you will – of course- need to keep your new staff retained. A third aspect of a strong, effective EVP is employee engagement. The labour market will undergo significant change as recovery begins to be felt, and your EVP needs to move with these changes. Where budgets have been withheld or tightened during the downturn, there are grounds for optimism in 2010/11 that there will scope to invest in process changes and improvements.

Involving both your new recruits and existing staff in these changes could not only help your keep your EVP strong for the ‘better years’ to follow, but also increase their motivation and sense of being valued. Not only does this increase their sense – and experience – of engagement, it increases the probability that process improvements will be successfully implemented, as there will be a sense of ownership rather than imposition.

To quote Jared Woods again:

A good employer brand lives on the continual transfer of emotion, the ongoing renewal of that psychological contract. If your communications with employees feel more like impersonal manuals and less like messages from one person to another, you’re alienating employees from the brand they identify with. And there’s no faster way to make people fall out of love with an idea than assuming that you only have to fall in love with it once.”

Good times may come and go, but work remains a relationship. As you continue to review and rebuild your EVP, remember to keep that gap between rhetoric and reality manageable: it may not be only the rhetoric you need to modify – if feedback is telling the experience is flagging, sagging or floundering, take positive steps rather than punitive ones to improve the reality too. As anyone in a long and successful relationship will tell you, relationships depend on work just as much as work depends on relationships.

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