It's staff who square the circle

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"OUR employees are our greatest asset." It's been talked about for years, but how many companies put the theory into practice and become renowned for it? You've heard of Nike, Coca-Cola and Versace, but now there's a new brand: employers.

Nowadays, even the most established companies are finding that recruitment and retention of staff are not quite so easy. Earning the tag "employer of choice" is not optional, but necessary in a marketplace driven by the search for competitive advantage, and by the fact that the period from innovation to imitation is shortening all the time. Employers need to count on employees staying put and giving them the edge. This means that employees have to feel it is worth their while to stay.

"Companies only exist on paper. Without people they are nothing, " says Alan Crozier, a consultant at US-based firm William M Mercer. He has evolved a model which he calls Total Employment Relationship Management (Term) to help companies become truly good employers at root, instead of adopting a "patch it up" philosophy. "It struck me that if there was such a thing as an employer brand, there should be something called employer branding, which is managing that process. I started to think about what accords them that status," says Mr Crozier, who believes a systematic approach is vital.

One conviction which he says needs to go is that loyalty and long service are synonyms. Companies need to recognise that giving employees a "good working experience" and letting them go with grace - to pursue other options, and perhaps to return - is essential; the power of choice is passing increasingly to the employee.

US companies are feeling more of a pinch in keeping staff, says Mr Crozier. But British companies also need a more holistic approach. "In the West, we tend to reduce things to their smallest components; we deal with it as an initiative. But given that people are the company, you can't afford to think these will give you the results you would like."

Internal branding, he says, is about relationship. Term itself is a model which starts with the premise that companies are complex, and no issue can be dealt with in isolation. He identifies three "drivers" of an organisation - market forces, vision and mission - and several "facilitators", which include values, leadership, compensation, performance management, recruitment, organisation design, communication and reputation. "It isn't possible to make a single intervention in an open dynamic system because of the unpredictability of the feedback loops and the indeterminate links between cause and effect," he says. Instead, executives should take into account four employee attitudes, which correlate directly to profit. Staff who feel they do their best every day; believe their opinions count; can see a commitment to quality; and a link to the company's mission will judge their employer to be good.

Senior executives should consider the need for communication as an integral part of company strategy. "It is not a management tool to be plugged into the back of an issue to give it energy ... Business is communication," says Mr Crozier. Developing a reputation for excellence is vital.

The 100 best companies to work for in the US were those that promoted trust, empowered people, and inspired pride. "It's easy to have chief executives say: `You are right', but difficult to get them to change things. We have to give them confidence, but they need to know it's not a quick hit."

For more information about Term, contact Alan Crozier on 0141 332 8621.