Today, all organizations, including public sector agencies, are locked in a fierce competitive struggle to attract, hire, and retain top talent. Unfortunately, the days are long gone when an organization could simply put an advertisement in the paper, interview, conduct a background check, and then pick and choose between a large pool of potential candidates. Organizations today are locked in a race where they must Actively Manage their Reputations (the ARMs race) as potential employers.
In this and the next column, I will look at how public sector organizations can actively manage their reputations. In the current column, we will discuss the general topic of reputation or image and its relation to selection strategy. The next monthly column will be devoted to a discussion of practical steps that public sector organizations can take to manage their image as future and current employers.
Importance of Public Sector Branding
Whether referred to as a brand or a reputation, the topic of the management of an organization’s image is one that has attracted a great deal of recent attention in the popular media, technical press, and the academic literature. For example, the most recent IPMA-HR News (see the November 2013 issue, articles by Amanda Cuda, Branding: What You Can Learn from the Private Sector, and Tim McManus, A Better Brand Can Drive Talent to You), featured two separate articles on branding. Now, one could argue that organizations have always been interested in their image, but what is clearly new is the recognition that recruitment and assessment strategies play a large and growing role in shaping the image applicants and employees hold of private and public sector entities. At the same time, there has been a growing movement aimed at improving the applicant experience during recruitment, assessment, and onboarding.
The management of image can be seen as particularly important in the public sector because a common stereotype is that young job seekers are not attracted toward government agencies and jobs. In recent years, this negative image of the public sector has been exacerbated by political attacks on government work, the perceived loss of benefits such as job security, and local crises leading to a loss of confidence in the public sector. Now, my own reading of the data and research suggests that many job applicants still view public sector employment in a very positive light. Nevertheless, perception can turn into reality and human resource professionals must be concerned with the maintenance of a positive public sector image.
Improving Your Image through Recruitment and Assessment
It would seem rather obvious that a government agency’s reputation would impact its ability to attract talent. However, the newer and less obvious realization is that selection strategies can impact the image that applicants, employees, and the general public hold of my organization; effective assessment strategies can even help to overcome a negative image, even one born out of a serious crisis. Thus, as assessment professionals, we should monitor and take accountability for the impact of our selection methods and decisions on the reputation of the organization.
There are three major elements that may be under our control:
- The employment website.
- Our recruitment strategies and methods.
- Applicant reactions to the quality and relevance of our selection systems.
Of course, poor assessment can hurt our image and this is particularly true in the public sector, where there is typically a great deal of transparency. Selecting the wrong fire chief, a rogue police officer, or an unethical accountant, can lead to a loss of public confidence and a poor image as an employer. Extended litigation often attracts unflattering media attention, even when it is not the result of poor assessment. A botched or failed recruitment campaign can result in a public relations crisis.
On the other hand, providing a positive candidate experience can not only reinforce a favorable image, but can in some cases help to repair a broken or negative image. Our own research has found that a strong assessment containing job relevant content can improve the attraction and reaction of candidates, even in the presence of an overall negative brand image.
Large private corporations are increasingly brand conscious and public sector agencies need to embrace this trend. From a practical perspective, the following are three questions that should be asked in order to assess and diagnosis the quality of your human resource strategies:
- Consumer-generated word-of-mouth is viewed as more credible/less biased than traditional marketing/recruiting campaigns. Where and how are candidates finding out about the good and the bad about your organization? Do you know? What resources are your candidates using to make their decisions?
- What are job candidates doing based on what they discover about your organization? Applying? Not applying? Encouraging others to apply/not apply? Seeking further information on jobs and opportunities?
- How can your organization manage its reputation through effectively leveraging candidate-generated word-of-mouth? How can you control and improve the message that is being generated and received as to the reputation of your organization?
What image do applicants hold of your organization? Do you know? As a fun exercise, do some research into your reputation as an employer and public sector organization. A simple first step is to google your agency in order to find relevant comments. Another place to look is Glassdoor. Disgruntled, or satisfied, job applicants may also post comments on your Facebook page; assuming you have one. You never know, your image may be a lot more positive than you think. On the other hand, if it is negative, what steps can you take to improve your image?
Once you have diagnosed the problem and know more about how candidates are learning about your organization, you can respond by:
- Managing brand and image through improvements to your assessments, assessment content, and your employment webpage.
- Incorporating assessment and recruitment materials that focus on the “candidate experience,” incorporating realistic organizational and job previews, and emphasizing positive elements of the public sector employer image.
- Treating your candidates well, even those who do not get the job. How you treat candidates makes a difference.
In this month’s column, we have briefly surveyed the important topic of how HR can partner in developing the brand of the organization through contributions to the management of its reputation or image. Of course, this emphasis on the active management of one’s reputation also has direct impact on the quality of applicants, the likelihood of an accepted job offer, and the retention of talent. In next month’s column, I will explore some of the practical factors that determine how applicants perceive and react to your assessment efforts.
In order to encourage reader participation and also obtain your opinions or attitudes toward the public sector brand, I invite you to complete a short survey; it should not take more than three minutes. The survey covers different aspects of the public sector brand. I will summarize and present the results as part of a future column. You can find the survey at: http://akron.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_0Oh7i9mp2C44udn.
In closing, I welcome your comments, questions or criticisms. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.