Employer branding: Attracting a new generation of talent

by Sara J. Gillis, Director of Talent & Workforce Development
Published 12/03/2019

It’s a persistent notion that all companies, large and small, are facing today: where will the next employee come from, and what can be done to retain a current employee?

In response to a tight job market marked by historically low unemployment rates and the need to meet employee expectations that are on the rise, the answer for some organizations seems to be as simple as bait on a fishing line: incentives.


Generational shift toward company culture, community impact

According to a recent survey conducted by SHRM on talent incentives, organizations in the United States have expanded benefits offerings in the following areas: health-related benefits (51 percent of survey respondents); wellness (44 percent); employee programs and services (39 percent); professional and career development benefits (32 percent); and leave, family-friendly and flexible working benefits (each 28 percent). The top reasons cited for increasing the slate of offered benefits? Talent retention (72 percent) and talent attraction (58 percent).

Another layer of the talent attraction and retention game involves the entrance of Generation Z into the workforce. This generation of young people, typically reserved for those born after 1996, has contributed meaningfully to the shift away from yesterday’s more traditional terms of standard employment and compensation packages toward more flexible working conditions and more forward-thinking, community-focused incentives. And according to a 2017 Deloitte article, Generation Z Enters the Workforce, this shift marks a permanent change that, they contend, has morphed from a “perk” into an “expectation.”

While the use of incentives to attract and retain talent is not new, the importance and the quality of the incentives has changed with Generation Z’s arrival in the workplace. According to Denise Guzzetta, Vice President of Talent and Workforce Development for the Sioux Falls Development Foundation, who conducted generational research in partnership with the Pew Research Center, Generation Z expects more from their employer than previous generations. In fact, what makes today’s young people born after the year 1996 unique is their motivation to make an impact in their communities and to serve causes they believe in as part of, not outside of, their careers.

"For Generation Z, what's important is the intersection between community, career and cause," Guzzetta said. "They'll want to work for sustainable companies, to have time to volunteer during the work week, and to work within a company culture that's positive, innovative and fulfilling."


Employer branding: True differentiator that all employers can cultivate, deploy

Not all employers may be able to expand their slate of benefits or to offer such trendy – and costly – incentives like remote work environments or student loan assistance. But one particularly inventive – and inexpensive – way that companies are cultivating potential hires involves employer branding.

While there is no shortage of research on the importance of corporate branding in today’s marketplace, it’s the employer brand – which typically involves surveying current employees and using what they say about the company to attract like-minded potential employees – that sets a company apart, both for prospective employees and for potential customers. Or, to put the potential impact of a well-executed employer brand in greater perspective, an article in Forbes quoted one entrepreneur saying, “we realized our only real chance of bringing talent to us over our much bigger competitors was via our own employer brand and company culture.”

The impact of employer branding is further echoed by the leadership of Jennifer Smith, CEO and Brand Ambassador for Innovative Office Solutions. Under her leadership, Innovative Office Solutions, based out of Minnesota, has grown to nearly 300 employees, mostly through sweeping acquisitions of major players in the office products and retail services industry, including S&T Office Products, Inc., in 2015 and, most recently, Brown & Saenger, whose 9 locations in South Dakota and North Dakota were acquired by Innovative in 2018.

And according to Smith, who will be speaking at the Sioux Falls Development Foundation's Recruitment Council meeting on Dec. 5, it’s this brand identity that existing employees at Brown & Saenger responded most positively to during the acquisition process in 2018, a transition which began when Innovative secured the office supply contracts for both the State of North Dakota and the State of South Dakota. While the acquisition was certainly a smart move in terms of distribution, Smith was also pleased at how quickly and fervently the North- and South Dakota-based employees embraced Innovative’s brand.

“What we experienced in Sioux Falls is that people were craving and were excited to embrace the fun, energetic culture and brand that Innovative inspires,” Smith said.

An effective employer brand is seamless and ubiquitous, and Innovative’s branding is a great example of both. What potential employees see from Innovative in the marketplace, whether the messaging captures interactions with customers, the community, or colleagues, is consistent with Innovative’s brand promise, “Relationships Matter.”

The enthusiastic reaction of Brown & Saenger’s employee base to Innovative’s company culture further points to the growing importance, both in Sioux Falls and nationwide, of finding a fit within a company’s workplace culture. And according to Joel Eiesland, Human Resources Strategist at Innovative’s Sioux Falls location, he witnesses the power of a positive employer brand every day.

“At Innovative, we believe that relationships matter, and sometimes, that involves allowing an employee to be present as a father or a daughter by working remotely, providing opportunities for employees to give back to their communities, or encouraging flexible workspaces where people are encouraged to work where they’re comfortable, whether from a counter-height desk, an armchair, or a large work table,” Eiesland said. “We try to meet our employees where they are – literally – while also providing an environment that supports where they want to go.”

Another aspect of Innovative’s culture, prioritizing community service, is also emphasized throughout all touchpoints of Innovative’s brand, from the company’s social media presence and marketing to the onboarding process and the day-to-day happenings at work. Innovative employees can join a CARE team, which are tasked with guiding and executing what it means to be “all IN in the community,” one of the company’s values. Innovative’s InSports Foundation, which regularly distributes scholarships and offers camps and programs to support sports teams across the region, is but one example of the difference that Innovative makes in communities across the Midwest. Smith sees these contributions to the community as essential not only to Innovative’s culture in the workplace, but also to Innovative’s growing success in business.

“Innovative has always given back in some capacity to the communities in which we live and work, but the younger generations have taken particular pride in sustainability efforts and in giving back to the community, which are major components of the products that we sell and of our brand as a whole,” Smith said.

Throughout all of the changes in the past nearly two decades of business, both to the company’s overall structure and to the marketplace in which Innovative does business, what’s remained consistent for Smith, and for Innovative, is the importance of honing the company’s winning culture as a key differentiator for customers and for employees.

“The workplace setting and an employee’s needs have changed, and thus, so has the marketplace,” Smith said. “People aren’t using paper anymore, and in the past, when 50 percent of our revenue came from products that relied upon paper use, we had to reinvent ourselves, and we’ve continued to do so numerous times over the past 18 years. Innovative’s brand promise and our clearly defined set of core values have allowed us to prioritize relationships externally with our customers and internally with our employees.”