Look after the Silver Ladies

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ONE OF the abiding confusions of organisational life is the mismatch between what employers say about the importance of their people and what they actually do about them.

In particular, it has become a sad truism that senior executives treat their organisations' greatest assets - their staff - like old-fashioned fixed assets that can be driven into the ground until they buckle and break and then replaced.

But the problem is not just about people being exploited or worked too hard. Even organisations that are "touchy feely" in their employee relations can fail to get the best out of their people - usually because they are not giving clear directions about what is expected of them.

According to the consultancy People in Business, the difficulties arise from a lack of understanding of the factors involved in managing people.

Simon Barrow, chairman of People in Business, says that human beings are at their most complicated when they are at work. Accordingly, discovering what will make a particular employee tick is a lot more tricky than simply establishing and communicating a vision.

People in Business, he says, thinks that employee relations should be treated like marketing. In other words, there is "a mix" made up of several dimensions that can be balanced and given different priorities.

Consultant Sue Clemenson has been especially closely involved in the development of the concept which People in Business has trademarked as "The Employer Brand". She admits that the term "employer brand" has been bandied about a lot recently - and been used to describe everything from promoting the organisation to employees to aligning employees behind the corporate brand.

"All organisations have an employer brand," she insists. "It is the combination of factors that differentiate you as an employer and shapes the perceptions of past, current and future employees."

Managing this concept involves applying marketing and brand management thinking to the employment experience: understanding, managing and valuing employees with the same care and coherence that usually go into top-quality consumer brands such as Rolls-Royce. The key, says Ms Clemenson, "is defining your ideal employment offer to support overall strategic objectives".

There are 12 dimensions to the concept - ranging from policies and values, through communication and recruitment to rewards and performance management. As well as developing the concept, People in Business has come up with a research tool that measures and identifies the gaps between what the organisation hopes to offer employees, what employees actually value and how managers and employees view performance across the 12 dimensions.

The concept was reached after "a variety of research projects", says Ms Clemenson. Late last year it was tested in a pilot carried out in association with the pollster NOP among employees and senior managers in six large UK companies. The project satisfied Ms Clemenson that she had come up with something worthwhile, and the idea is now being pitched to organisations as a means of assisting them to achieve "coherent people management".

It requires employers to think about their employee brand management as they do about their consumer brand management. "It requires strategy, co-ordination, research and action to secure the long-term loyalty of your best customers - your employees," says Ms Clemenson.