Purpose a double-edged sword for employers

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AMBA's Careers and Talent Forum explored the importance of culture, onboarding, exit interviews and alumni networks in attracting top talent

The imperative for organisations to focus more on purpose as part of their employer brand is “a double-edged sword”, according to Phil Sproston, UK country manager at the Top Employers Institute.

Speaking at the Association of MBAs (AMBA) Careers and Talent Forum 2019, attended exclusively by HR magazine as media partner, he explained that two years ago he’d have struggled to articulate what perks employees were most attracted to, due to the vast number of “benefits thrown on the heap” by employers. But “today there is definitely much more focus on sense of purpose, reason and trust”, he said.

That’s “good because this is low cost”, he added. But this is “also really hard to do well" because “you’ve got to make sure you genuinely live it". Sproston highlighted research from Deloitte which found that nearly a third of employees are not stimulated by what they do, and more than a third believe what they do is not meaningful.

“Businesses will fall by the wayside that don’t [promote a genuine sense of purpose], because people won’t want to work for them,” he warned. “I think we’ll see a lot more ethically-minded principled businesses, and that can only be a good thing.”

Sproston advised that, despite the popular notion that purposeful culture doesn’t arise from policies and procedures, this is a good place to start in encouraging certain kinds of behaviour.

“[Having a policy] doesn’t make [culture] inauthentic,” he said, giving the example of making it illegal not to wear a seatbelt (which people would now generally adhere to even if this wasn't legally mandated). “It then becomes a habit and authentic… you put policies in place as signposts and Post-it Notes to remind people where they’re going.”

The right culture is now the top differentiator for employers in attracting and retaining talent, said Sproston. “If you get that culture right, if someone’s working somewhere where they feel part of something bigger than themselves, they won’t move for a higher salary or shinier car,” he said. “They might move for a better purpose, but that’s just life.”

In this latter instance employers should just “let them go”, said Sproston, but in a way that keeps the door open for them to come back. He highlighted his organisation's research which found that 63% of top employers actively take information from exit interviews to improve processes.

“There’s been a move within top employers to consider the long term rather than persuading employees to stay with counter offers… So looking at the big picture and accepting and embracing regretted losses, and understanding why they’re leaving and maintaining positive relationships with them,” he said.

He also highlighted that, according to Top Employers' research, 4% of employers now hold six-month exit interviews with talented alumni, advocating this as a “fabulous way” to potentially attract people back who are “a known quantity and who fit your culture”.

Active alumni networks can also play a critical role in the ongoing war for talent, said Sproston. Regular contact avoids a situation where former employees “feel distanced” from the organisation because the employer has “waited three years” to get in touch and “everyone they knew has moved on or been promoted” in that time.

“I think there’s a lot more to be done with this,” he said, adding that employers should take their cue from business schools who already do this well. “This is one of the few places where the education sector is ahead of the curve,” he said.

Onboarding should also be a key area of focus, he said, highlighting research from Roche that found, while onboarding costs £290 per person, the churn of a disengaged employee leaving costs nearly £2,000.

He also urged the importance of flatter company hierarchies, highlighting that 80% of top employers highlight “horizontal opportunities” to staff and 67% cross-functional opportunities.

Some businesses still focus far too heavily on the top “tiny 1% to 2%” of talent within their organisations though, he said, advocating the power of giving a much broader pool of talent opportunities to show their potential through more gradual promotions and stretch projects.

“It’s about doing away with the traditional promotions ladder,” he explained. “Because if you promote someone to a managerial position and you've got it wrong there’s a huge impact. If you move someone to a slightly different position.. where they have a chance to demonstrate their broader skillset… it’s actually a safer journey both for them and the business.”

Sproston said he was encouraged by the fact that most executive teams are now recognising the critical importance of talent attraction and retention to their firm’s success: “There’s now near-universal enthusiasm and commitment from top teams to talent.”

He added that “when it comes to talent attraction, the top priority is now that talent meets long-term business requirements”, meaning the emphasis is now on candidates who are able to flex and adapt over time and depending on the situation. “That’s valued more than fixed and static skills, no matter how well developed these are,” he said.

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