The New Year has people across the country in a frenzy of self-improvement. The dawn of a new year traditionally triggers periods of self-reflection and a determination that the coming 12 months will be better than those that preceded it; a sense accompanied by a strong drive towards personal discipline and self-sacrifice that has the fitness industry laughing all the way to the bank, as we engage in the annual regime of punishing exercise, detoxes and pledges to be a better person by virtue of being thinner and fitter.

In the midst of this renewal madness is often a desire to reinvent our careers. Despite the recession, the war for good talent continues with organisations often struggling to attract the very best talent. And as the competition for talent remains strong, organisations continue to rely on the power of their employer brand to draw good talent.

Are aspirational employer brands the problem?

Despite the push towards branding, it’s clear that there are still real challenges. Engagement remains stubbornly low (Rayton, 2012) and organisations still face the expense of people leaving within the first six months of their employment. Despite best efforts, poor recruitment decisions are made, day in day out, with regard to person-organisation fit.

I suspect that the practice of creating aspirational employer brands may be part of the problem. An employer brand that represents what the organisation aspires to be is commonly used as an instrument in facilitating organisational change. While the rationale behind this practice makes perfect sense, it carries risks. A brand that is too aspirational will present a false impression of the organisational culture for prospective employees, and run the risk of disappointing them when, after a few months, they realise there is a difference between what the brand describes, and what it’s like on the ground. A brand that’s too aspirational also runs the risk of alienating existing employees who may feel they no longer belong in the brave new world described, or start to question the integrity of the organisation if the branding messages don’t tally with their experience.

The importance of values & aspirations of the individual

Interviews invariably fail to probe deeply enough into the values and aspirations of the individual, to understand the degree of alignment with the organisation. Or if they do, there may be a tendency to overlook any mismatch, perhaps in the belief that the individual will change. But our beliefs and core values do not fundamentally change. As in any relationship, there may be some benefit from the principle of ‘opposites attract’. But in the cold stark reality of day, opposites are probably just going to wind each other up and disappoint.

The onus is with employees, too

But the onus doesn’t just lie with organisations. Research that my colleagues and I conducted at The Work Foundation ( Sullivan and Wong et al, 2010) highlighted the forensic process that employees go through in the early stages of forming their deal with the employer. Crucial to the formation of the employment relationship is a sense of alignment with personal values, perceived opportunities to fulfil needs and aspirations, and the ability to build trust-based relationships with the line manager and significant peers. This process is continual, however, and it’s this continuity that is often overlooked; employees are constantly scanning the environment, looking for clues to either reinforce their deal with the employer, or highlight where cracks are emerging.

Although our research emphasises the resilience of employees in the face of deal violation, it also highlights the potential consequences of perceived breaches of trust, should any significant element of the deal be found to be wanting. Again, the deal is no different to any other relationship in its susceptibility to breach and its openness to rebuilding. Once trust is broken, it’s difficult, if not entirely impossible, to restore some sense of balance.

Yet where organisations are painting a picture of their organisational culture that’s not entirely true to life, it becomes difficult for employees to accurately and objectively assess the extent to which the employer is the right one for them. Where the gap between employer brand ‘front stage’ and cultural reality of the ‘back stage’ is too wide, then it’s little wonder that new employees become disappointed, their initial enthusiasm and willingness to go that much feted extra mile seriously dented. Or they simply leave, and the game starts again.

Start 2013 right: make good recruitment decisions

Joining a new organisation represents a wonderful opportunity for employee and employer alike, and can mark the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship. Where the match between the individual and the employer is poor, however, it can be a painful, expensive and difficult time for both parties.

In the spirit of the new year transformation let’s hope that organisations recognise that employee engagement doesn’t start with an initiative; it starts with making good recruitment decisions, and building a culture and working environment in which people want to work and continue to feel motivated, inspired and valued for their contribution.

Written by Jane Sullivan chartered, registered occupational psychologist and accredited coach

Jane is a chartered, registered occupational psychologist and accredited coach with 11 years consulting experience. She has broad experience of evidenced based consulting projects in the areas of leadership development and coaching, OD and strategy, organisational culture, dignity and diversity at work, the physical working environment, team facilitation, and employer of choice and employee engagement.

As a consultant and coach Jane has worked with all three sectors: public sector, focusing on local and central government, policing, and NHS; private sector focusing on manufacturing, banking, creative industries, retail, and services; and a number of charities in the not for profit sector.

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