David Collings is a Professor of Human Resource Management and Co-Director of the DCU Leadership and Talent Institute. He has researched and consulted with a number of multinational companies in the areas of global mobility and talent management. 
In the movie What Women Want Mel Gibson’s character gains an innate insight into the wants and desires of the fairer sex after being electrocuted in a bath. As organisations give increasing consideration to how they position themselves as employers of choice, in the context of employer branding or employee value proposition, I wonder how many organisations have a good sense of what top talent want in terms of creating a compelling value proposition for current and potential employees.
One key example in this regard is the high profile that employee perks as a key HR offering particularly in tech companies has gained in recent years. The expectation is that perks such as free snacks and drinks, games areas, free hair cuts, pet friendly workplaces, egg freezing, concierge services etc will help to attract and retain highly engaged and productive talent. But how much do these really matter to talent and how long does it take for the novelty of such perks to wear off? Sure they create an image of what it is like to work in an organisation but I am often struck by how rarely I see employees playing games in games areas at top tech companies or indeed how few pets are evident in the offices. So how effective these perks are in attracting, retaining and engaging top talent is an open question.
What we do know is that talent are highly motivated by feeling a sense of purpose in their work. For example research by Julian Birkinshaw at London Business School and colleagues demonstrated that companies defined by a sense of purpose, as opposed to driven by the delivery of shareholder value, and that prioritise employees as stakeholders have more highly motivated employees. This is because there is a greater sense of alignment between employee and organizational goals. High profile examples of organisations that have built their HR systems around prioritizing employees as stakeholders include US retailer Costco and Southwest Airlines. These organisations have consistently outperformed competitors in terms of financial performance and share price performance. Frankly in many organisations HR simply doesn’t given enough consideration to their top talents’ objectives in the workplace. What an organization stands for and how this matters to the society in which we live might be a much more effective starting point in an employer branding strategy. Consider for example the work that Paul Polman as CEO of Unilever had done in repositioning Unilever as a more sustainable organization through Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan. This significantly impacted on perspective as an employer and Unilever was recently ranked as the most attractive UK employer for Gen Y employees.
Another recent study gives some more good insights. Monika Hamori at IE Business School in Spain and her colleagues argue that it is development opportunities that are most effective in retaining top performers. Based on a study of high preforming new managers, many of whom were top performers in leading MBA programmes, their research identified the following as the development practices valued most by these employees. Key practices identified included involvement in high stakes projects, senior management support, formal training, developing new directions, support from supervisors and coaching and mentoring. Worryingly the same study found that the biggest gaps between what these high potentials desired and what they got in the work place were in relation to coaching, mentioning and line and senior manager support. This is a further indicator that HR perhaps needs to reconsider its focus in terms of understanding what top talent wants.
So does HR have a good understanding of what their top talent wants? My sense is that at times we get too tied up in the latest bandwagons and in blindly imitating high profile organisations. What works for Google or Facebook or Twitter may not be well suited at all to another organization. Indeed, as noted in the example above there is little evidence that the perks that have become so high profile in these companies are effective in attracting, engaging and retaining top talent. The research evidence points to the importance of articulating a sense of purpose in the organization and ensuring the your top talent get the development opportunities they seek as potential key drivers of your employer brand.
©  David Collings, Dublin City University Business School.
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