Sunday, March 8, 2009

Where have all the thinkers gone?

You know, being a settled Pom over here in this fantastic country, some things really make me seethe.

I can put up with the laid-back attitude. I'm at home with blue skies. I can just about cope with the endlessly enticing beaches. But I simply can't fathom the way this downturn is being managed by employers.

The way I see it, a downturn like this is part of healthy economic cycle. Businesses should look to come out the other end (note to employers: There will be an end to the downturn.) leaner, meaner and more innovative. Markets have shifted, so they need to adapt, take stock and come up with new ideas. So where are these ideas coming from? Their employees?

Working for an advertising agency, we trade in the business of ideas. But are employers listening to us, mulling it over, and thinking of ways to make it work? No. They're restructuring and cutting costs. I repeat: Restructure. Cut costs. Duh. Duh. Same. Same. Who told them that this was the only way to justify HR's existence in a downturn?

In the olden days of advertising, an advert served as a rather pleasant notice: This is my product. It's rather nice. I think you should buy it.

As competition increased, new ways were developed to increase sales: This is my product. It's rather nice. It's has certain features that are better than other brands. You should stick to buying my product.

Times marched onwards, and advertising starting selling ideas: Buy my product and become the person you want to be.

In Australia, many employers are still placing recruitment advertisements like rather pleasant notices. They pay lip service to terms like 'employer branding', but don't invest in the areas that they will, eventually, need to. Let me make it clear: People will still want to work for a certain organisation because of their beliefs about them - and how closely this matches their desires of who they want to be. And employers still need to work hard at reinforcing the messages that accurately reflect them. Want to be seen as innovative, forward-thinking, young, vibrant, quirky? Go work for Virgin.

I'm not saying to employers: "Hey! You! Keep advertising or the future targets won't know why they'd want to work for you!" (although this may be the case).

What I am saying is that the businesses that come out of this downturn in the best shape, will be those that continue to attract more of the right people for the right reasons. The reputation employers have built will continue to decline the less their message is repeated and the less control they have over the ideas and beliefs people have about them.

So here's my rallying cry to employers: First, look to the people at your organisation. The people who have chosen to work for you. The people who believe that your organisation says something about who they are. These people are your spokespeople, your advocates, your evangelists.

Engage them, inspire them, encourage new ideas. Get them to talk to others, and share their experiences about why they work for you. In times of downturn, look to ways to build a fortress from within.

And talk to recruitment strategy experts to help you do it. Don't just react to every cost-cutting measure.

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