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Ethical Employer Branding: How to Attract Candidates With Shared Values

Being an ethical business requires alignment of word and deed. Candidates have plenty of tools and resources to determine whether corporate communication matches the reality of business practices. So organizations must think carefully about how they present their values. 

Getting this right will reveal organizational authenticity and attract the best recruits.

In this post, we explore the value of being an ethical business and how such organizations can reveal their values and principles to candidates. 

Examples of Ethical Organizations in Practice

When U.S. companies recently received a federal tax cut, outdoor clothing company Patagonia decided to donate its $10 million to nonprofit environmental groups committed to fighting the effects of climate change.

Patagonia’s donation is a great example of an ethical organization whose behavior is consistent with its corporate messaging. Sarah Clayton, EVP of employee engagement and change management at PR firm Weber Shandwick, says employer brands that succeed have clear corporate purpose and values.

Patagonia pays its environmental interns, provides time off for civil disobedience training, and offers a commuter reimbursement scheme to those who choose not to drive as well as a flexible work scheme so employees can balance their lives and work. Clayton says the results of such an approach are obvious: Patagonia has a 6-percent voluntary turnover rate, which is 29 percentage points lower than the industry average.

TIAA is another example of an organization that aligns words with deeds. As TIAA Chief Compliance and Ethics Officer Rohan Kohli writes, values even inform investment and partnership decisions. 

“We believe our culture is one of the main reasons employees come to work at TIAA,” Kohli writes. “We want to protect that culture in any venture that involves bringing a new company into the fold.” 

When recruiting new hires, TIAA can confidently demonstrate to candidates that it talks the talk and it walks the walk.

The Shared Characteristics of Ethical Employers

For the last 13 years, Ethisphere, which measures corporate ethical standards and promotes best practices in corporate ethics, has published its World’s Most Ethical Companies list. 

Ethisphere measures the companies it puts on that list against categories such as governance; ethics and compliance; and how they interact with employees, third parties and broader society, says Erica Salmon Byrne, executive director of Ethisphere’s Business Ethics Leadership Alliance. 

These organizations share commitments to long-term investments, to community and employee engagement, and to building stakeholder trust. They also demonstrably understand authenticity and transparency. 

Consider a company like the international consultancy Dun & Bradstreet, which has been named one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies for 11 years running. “Now more than ever, companies want to do business with organizations that mirror their own values and have a strong culture of doing the right thing,” Dun & Bradstreet’s CEO Anthony Jabbour says.

That message appears to resonate with employees. According to the Great Place to Work Institute’s data, approximately one-third of Dun & Bradstreet employees have been with the company for 10 years or more. Further, 91 percent of Dun & Bradstreet employees surveyed report that they “feel good about the ways we contribute to the community.”

Volunteer Group Clearing Litter In Park; Ethical Employer Branding concept

Personal Ethics Bleed Into the Professional Realm

Employees want their employers to care about the societies and environments in which their businesses operate. 

Ethics aren’t reserved for out-of-work hours, says Alison DaSilva, an EVP at Cone Communications. Consequently, employees and candidates want their employers to provide opportunities for them to make a difference. 

Research from Cone Communications shows that candidates are looking at organizations’ social and environmental commitments. As many as 74 percent of employees regard their roles as more fulfilling when the can work toward environmental and social improvements. 

How to Communicate What Your Company Stands For

It’s up to ethical companies to define their purposes and make this evident to candidates. Organizations might want to start by publishing mission statements, charters, articles or constitutions that commit them to ethical behavior, Luke Andreski at HR Zone explains.

The next step is ensuring these value statements become real and lived in the company’s daily operations. 

But the brand message is only as good as the true sentiment behind it. So, companies that commit to causes will need to really believe in them and want to foster change. And these particular causes need to be wholly integrated into the organizational ethics and identity. 

“Make it impossible to think about your brand without thinking about this ethical consideration,” says consultant Serenity Gibbons.

The Importance of Employer Brand 

Employer brand and candidate experience are closely related: Candidates live the experience of the brand narrative. Jörgen Sundberg, founder of LINK Humans, says both affect recruitment and retention. He argues that organizations should think of them as two ways of speaking about the same issue. 

The candidate experience always begins when the hiring process starts. Increasingly, however, it starts even before the application process, when candidates first engage with an organization’s social media, or its services or products. An employer brand that is clear, consistent and honest could help to convert these moments of engagement into potential future hires.

First Impressions Matter

How the employer brand is communicated during the hiring process is essential. This is because candidates say they can already determine company values when hiring begins, say researchers Nicholas Epley and Amit Kumar, at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the University of Texas at Austin, respectively.

In the interview and evaluation processes, candidates will already be able to spot the organization’s values. For instance, asking about how a candidate has fulfilled a customer’s unexpressed need signifies that treating customers with respect is a core organizational value. This value feeds into a broader system of ethics, Epley and Kumar explain. 

They give the example of Johnson & Johnson, where employees are appraised according to four components — essentially the company’s ethical credo to guide behavior toward customers, employees, communities and stakeholders. Key to these evaluations is determining whether employees live up to the credo or engage in borderline ethical behavior that compromises integrity.

Confident millennial applicant smiling at job interview, Ethical Employer Branding concept

Stamp Out Unconscious Bias

There’s a lot more awareness these days of how unconscious biases can negatively impact recruitment and lead to discriminatory practices. But the problem persists in many organizations, where it can often get reinforced by grand narratives of company culture. These are cultures that encourage conformity of look, for example, or where everyone is an Ivy League graduate.

The problem with these types of biases is that they often go unchecked. Of course, hiring managers can become more aware of their biases and work to counteract them. They can do this by purposeful and honest reflection on their choices and opinions of candidates. 

But a technique such as blind screening offers a more robust approach to ethical hiring. The process is straightforward: A candidate’s age, gender, race, ethnicity, education background or previous employers are kept hidden. Instead, only skills and knowledge applicable to the role are assessed, often through performing a skills-based task, Alison Doyle at The Balance Careers explains.

The benefits of a blind screening approach are mutual: Employers find candidates with the best skills, and candidates know they were not unfairly discriminated against, Doyle adds. 

An even better approach to self-reflection and blind screening is to use sophisticated AI to remove the biases. This is particularly important as having true organizational diversity leads to teams’ success and innovation, as well as enhanced employer brand.

Check Yourself For Discrimination

Most companies will want to believe that their hiring processes are fair, ethical and devoid of discrimination. But unless they check the data, they have no way of knowing. 

Doing this kind of check, says Peter Cappelli, Wharton professor and director of its Center for Human Resources, is good for business and protection against claims of discrimination. 

For instance, if an organization tends to hire fewer people from a certain race or ethnic group, it needs to show that its hiring processes do not purposefully discriminate against candidates representing these groups. There might be practical reasons for these choices, Cappelli says, and these would need to be proved. 

Proof would be in the form of statistically significant predictions of candidate success, and Cappelli says this would need to come from the employer’s existing data on applicants and hires.

Welcome Employees’ Authentic Selves

It’s better for business when employees can bring all of themselves — their real, authentic selves. Employees who can integrate their true identities into their jobs express greater feelings of authenticity and are less likely to perform any unethical behaviors, says Maryam Kouchaki, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

Kouchaki and fellow researchers investigated 800 participants across four studies and found that participants’ inability to integrate their identities — multiple selves along with two broader categories of professional/work or non-work — led to feelings of inauthenticity. There was a sense among some participants that their identities must be segmented, and this feeling increased the chance of unethical behaviors. 

In the controlled environment of the studies, “unethical behaviors” meant things like lying about the results of coin flips. In a real-world business environment, it’s reasonable to imagine those same behaviors would persist.

Allowing employees to be authentic is important, but Kouchaki warns against pushing people too hard to bring all of themselves to work. Older workers may not regard it as important or appropriate, so it’s best to find a way to encourage behavior but not enforce it. 

Ethical businesses know that the causes they support need to be wholly integrated into their brand identity. So, they need to behave in ways that are consistent with the values they espouse. Authenticity and honesty are powerful guides when communicating employer brand values. Getting this right will help to attract some of the best candidates who share the organization’s fundamental values.

Images by: Square, stockbroker/©123RF Stock Photo, fizkes/©123RF Stock Photo

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