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Understanding the New World of Employer Branding, with Charu Malhotra

The war for talent continues to rage on and organizations are trying to stand out and rise above the noise. But as the landscape of work has changed dramatically over the last few years, so too have candidate needs. So if you’re struggling to attract, hire, and retain the talent your business requires to succeed, it’s worth asking yourself the question – has my employer brand altered to reflect this evolution?

Joining us on The Shortlist to chat about this is Charu Malhotra. Charu is a leading HR expert who has led employer marketing, brand building, transformation, and diversity at Unilever, BP, McKinsey & Company and Primark. Together we discuss practical advice on how organizations can optimize their employer brand to reflect the needs of today’s candidates, and look at the importance of communicating authentically.

Employer branding

In this episode:

  • How has employer branding changed?
  • Recruitment marketing as product marketing.
  • The benefits of employee advocacy.
  • The importance of authenticity.
  • The relationship between employer brand and DEI.

Key takeaways:

1. How has employer branding evolved over the last number of years? About a decade ago, employer branding was so focused on the attraction element, and less on actual employee experience. But today, the two are more linked. In the past, new employees entering a company would almost be set-up for failure as the actual DNA of the organization didn’t reflect the employer brand. Now that external and internal perceptions line-up better, employees get a more accurate representation – and according to Charu, this is a massively positive change in how employer branding operates.

2. Embracing authenticity and avoiding ’employer blanding’. Job seekers are looking for genuine information. They are considerably more aware of inauthentic messaging from organizations and this will alienate them. And it’s why leaders, as the visible faces of the company, need to separate themselves from the corporate sameness, have an opinion and a stance, and be authentic in how they represent themselves and their organization. It’s not enough to replicate a company message – their thought-leadership should be unique. And this goes for enabling employee advocacy too. Encourage your staff to share their voice and drive a more powerful employer brand. Charu refers to an ‘elegant tension’ – give them the freedom and guard rails to promote success.

3. Employer brand shouldn’t gloss over DEI journeys. Charu cautioned against companies that talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk when it comes to representing a picture of DEI that doesn’t match internal activities. Instead, she advocates for authentically representing the journey. Don’t hide your warts – be vocal about the progress you’ve made to be more inclusive, highlight the areas that still need more attention, and be accountable. Candidates respect this approach rather than any disingenuous false advertising.

Learn more: How to Create the Perfect Candidate Experience

Our guest’s final piece of advice:

“Constant consensus can lead to a collective coma.”

Employer branding should be authentic and should celebrate difference.


  • [2.09] Introduction
  • [3.20] How has employer branding changed?
  • [6.44] What’s the next phase for employer branding?
  • [11.02] Recruitment marketing as product marketing
  • [13.27] Impact of the pandemic on employer branding
  • [17.59] Authentic leadership exposure
  • [21.45] Consumerisation of employer branding
  • [26.10] The tools of employer branding – do they work?
  • [29.05] Employee advocacy
  • [31.59] How do you maintain authenticity at scale?
  • [34.03] Employer brand and DEI


Johnny Campbell:

Welcome, it’s episode 122 of the Shortlist. I’m your host Johnny Campbell, CEO and co-founder of SocialTalent. And you’re very welcome to today’s episode where we’re going to be talking about how to communicate company culture through your employer brand. We’ve all heard about the war for talent and it rages on despite the crazy inflation that we’re seeing and signs of recession. Organizations are still struggling to find talent and therefore they’re still struggling to stand out and rise above all the noise of everyone else who’s hiring out there. But as the landscape of work has changed dramatically over the last few years, particularly post pandemic, so to have candidate needs.

If you’re struggling to attract, hire, retain the talent of your business, the talent your business requires to succeed, it’s worth asking the question, has my employer brand and my company culture more to the point alters to reflect the evolution and changes over the last number of years? Joining us here today in the show is Charu Malhotra. Charu is a leading HR expert who’s led employer marketing, brand building transformation and diversity at Unilever, BP, McKinsey & Company, Primark and many other fantastic big brand organizations. She’s got a lot of experiences. Together we’ll discuss practical advice on how organizations can optimize employer brand to reflect the needs of today’s candidates and really importantly look at how you communicate your company culture.

Charu, it’s great to have you on the show. Thanks so much for joining us. Can you maybe share a little bit with our audience about where are you joining us from, why this topic is so important to you, how you got into this game in the first place?

Charu Malhotra:

Absolutely. Hey Johnny. I’m Charu Malhotra. I’m joining this call from Surrey, my home office where I’ve work four days a week. I moved into employer branding about a decade ago. As Johnny said, I’ve worked at many big brands globally, worked across many regions and geographies and I’ve really loved this intersection of employer branding, communications and talent. Really almost weaving that sort of story, if you will, to candidates and more increasingly employees. I fell into it like most people who do employ branding, started off in recruitment, really had a passion for communications. I’m a word nerd and that’s where I saw the magic of the emotion happening and moved into some employer branding, which some people call talent marketing. Some people call it recruitment communications. It’s telling a story. So yeah, I’m looking forward to this conversation.

Johnny Campbell:

The name may have changed to your point, right? Folks talk about different things now, they might use fancier names. Tell me about what has and hasn’t changed in the last decade or so. Where were we 10 years ago? Where are we today? What’s different between now and then? And what’s different if anything, between now and perhaps just before the pandemic?

Charu Malhotra:

I think what has changed from a candidate perspective and an employer branding perspective is this increasing, and rightly so, view on you can’t talk about things externally that aren’t accurate internally. When I was working in this space a decade ago, we were so interested and focused on attraction, be it content creation for attraction, campaigns, being on campus, that we lost sight, that actually those candidates that we were busy attracting and spending money attracting would become employees. I think these days, and I’d say in the last five, six years, people in roles like myself are very much linked to the employee experience as well as external experience. And that’s the right change. Why set yourself up to be saying things that are inaccurate or inauthentic when within a microsecond of someone joining the business they realize that no, this is just not for me. The DNA rejects me.

I think that external, internal alignment and the closer working relationships with branding and communications and employee experience is a relatively new thing I would say in the last five years and it’s a really positive thing and long should it continue. Because when these two don’t work together, that’s when horror stories happen where candidates come in, become employees and leave after six months because the organizational DNA rejects them. What hasn’t changed in the last 10 years I think is just this recognition that candidates expectations are always higher, higher and higher and higher. 10 years ago we spoke about candidates behaving like consumers and wanting an Amazon-like experience in terms of personalization. We’re saying it now still, I want a personalized experience, talk to me like I am Charu, not like I’m a hundred other people. That hasn’t changed and I don’t think it ever will.

I was talking to a very well known job board yesterday and they have an empty chair in all their meeting rooms that represents the candidate, the job seeker if you will. And now call that notional, call that a bit of a fad, I really liked it. Because I think as I sit there, I’m the voice of the candidate. I’m not here to serve the company. Of course I want to be in a situation where I’m employed, but if it doesn’t ring true for a candidate, an employee, what am I doing? What am I creating? It’s just a story. It’s not authentic. I think those are the two what’s changed and one what’s not changed.

Johnny Campbell:

If we look back to, you mentioned 10 years ago, you’re right, what I remember of it is that we were producing a lot of content to tell everyone that we were what they want. We were just trying to figure out what do people want and then how do we produce lovely content and branding that basically says hey, we have that. And then maybe to your point, it evolved into actually what are we? Because maybe we were not what candidates want. Maybe we’ve been focusing on marketing something that isn’t truthful and authenticity and being unauthentic became the rage and the buzzwords, and we’ve begun to do more listening. We looked at EVPs, et cetera, and we began to really understand what we actually were, why people came to work. And then we tried to adjust our marketing towards that.

Are we in a third phase though, Charu, where rather than just accepting what we find out when we do this listening, when we research the EVP, that we’re looking and saying that’s not good enough and that won’t work? And then we’re trying to push back to change it knowing that there’s no point in going to market with the truth because the truth won’t be good enough. We can’t lie. We can’t make it up anymore, but we need to actually influence this. So the truth is genuinely better. Is that maybe a third evolution of that? Are you seeing that? How does it work? What’s the role of the recruitment marketer?

Charu Malhotra:

I think the first thing around the EVP is really interesting place that we’re all in. I’ve done six global EVPs in my career. And actually if someone said do one tomorrow, I would probably challenge it. I think when you’re working in a big global organization, often the EVP can take six to 12 months and you lose sight of actually what you’re trying to achieve, which is then communication. It’s activation. I’m actually, I think, and EVP has its place, but we have to be much more nimble and agile and much more clever around the segmentation. That’s thinking about the value proposition pillars and the messaging becomes important as long as you can activate it. I think gone are the days where you go, I work for, let’s say Unilever did EVP. I think that segmentation becomes really, really key now.

Companies don’t have one EVP, they don’t have one culture, they’ll have one set of values. But I’m sitting in Indonesia, I’m sitting in India, I’m sitting in Poland. How I experience that brand and experience of me as an employee can change and be very, very different. There’s that EVP conversation that I think we should come back to. I do think maybe it’s a third or fourth evolution where employer branding has to have a voice and a seat at the table if you will. When we’re evaluating the culture, cultural audit, what is it like to work here, Johnny? What is it like to work here? What does it feel like? Your duvet flip is a question I ask, not what brings you joy, why’d you get up in the morning and log on? Why’d you get up in the morning and why’d you work here? What’s your duvet flip?

I think it’s that if you are hearing challenges or stories around DE&I or you are hearing stories that actually I probably don’t anticipate being here for more than three years because I don’t see any progression or if you are hearing stories that tell you, actually I won’t stay here very long because actually paternity pay or maternity pay here isn’t very good. So I see my tenure going somewhere else. We should have, and I’m very lucky that where I’ve worked, I’ve built that voice, where I’ve worked I am allowed to have an opinion and I think we all need to, is okay, we need to be change agents, we need to be a litmus test for this isn’t good enough. And I’m hearing this because we are in a space of luxury to do listening groups, to do social listening, to meet so many employees and recruiters and stakeholders.

The things that aren’t working people share with us really candidly and really frankly. If we’re not doing something with it, then shame on us. And in that same vein, nobody wants perfection. I wouldn’t believe a company that said they were perfect. I would just think it’s disingenuous and it’s just advertising. But I’m much more likely to believe a company that says we are looking to fix this and these are the five or six things we’re doing. So to answer your question, absolutely we are in this third or fourth evolution, but only if people like myself and I’ve got a lot of peer groups are having those conversations about we’ve heard this, it’s not good enough. How do we fix it? It’s not over to you HR, go and fix it. We’re part of the problem solving.

Johnny Campbell:

Before we went on air I mentioned an analogy of a product marketer in marketing, which for those of you who don’t work in marketing, a product marketer sometimes actually works in product and sometimes works in the tech part of the organization, not marketing, is somebody whose job isn’t actually to brand what we have so much as they are there to understand what should we be making, what does the market want, and then influences the product roadmap to have that and then communicates that matching the customer needs with what we actually deliver to market. They sit in the middle between actually trying to market what our product is and then trying to influence what our product is.

Do you think that’s where recruitment marketing, employer branding is today, sitting in the middle of trying to promote it and create audience and generate interest, but also influence the product being the culture let’s say in this analogy in the first place?

Charu Malhotra:

I do. I think on one hand we have the curse of knowledge. We think everyone knows what we know because we’re sitting in the organization. So we often only present things not superficially but not deep enough. But absolutely I think not recruitment marketing as such, but employer branding, talent marketing, we are able to go, this is where we want to be in three years time. Whether it’s thinking about retention, whether it’s thinking about organizational design, this is what we’re hearing about the workplace in the next two, three years. Career returners, thinking about how many people have left the workforce in the last two years, how do we get this back? If we want to get here in three years time, these are things that we need to build and programs change of culture. These things happen slowly, they don’t happen overnight. But absolutely we could be very much a vehicle for that change if we’re in the right environment for that to happen.

Not everywhere has that. A lot of organizations is quite streamlined, you are recruitment marketer just transact on those 20, 30, 50 jobs that are hard to fill and support the TA team. I see my role and I have been very lucky in most organizations I’ve worked in, it’s been much, much broader and working very closely with HR and the business and marketing and brand to think about the employee experience and the candidate experience. I think it’s very much product marketing if we think about product as the culture. But I have an allergic reaction to this culture being this one element and my experience being the same as someone else, especially as we all work, well, a lot of people work remotely now, my experience could be vastly different to someone else’s, let’s not have this hypos going on.

Johnny Campbell:

Let me pull that thread for a second. You mentioned a lot of us working remotely, that wasn’t the case before early 2020, and the pandemic arguably changed a lot, candidate expectations changed, the dynamics of the labor market changed, organizations changed the way that they worked, many organizations changed where they worked, how they looked at their role in someone’s life, the idea of the balances in it’s one or the other work or life began to fall away in a lot of situations. What’s been the impact for employer branding from the pandemic and from those changes? Do you have to start again and rebrand? What does it look like on the ground for someone who’s responsible for employer branding, who’s seen this radical change in the way that their organization is run?

Potentially they’ve moved to remote or distributed as a business, they’ve changed the way that they lead, the values of their employees have fundamentally changed. New employees want a different EVP. What do you do if you’re in your job and you’re living through the pandemic the last two and a half years, what has happened on the ground for organizations because of this?

Charu Malhotra:

I think one of the lenses and the pieces I always put to the table is I’ve worked remotely for the last eight years. I don’t think everyone has suddenly had this massive change. A lot of organizations, you’re quite right, have gone in the last few years now we need to change the way we’ve worked. But an awful lot of organizations still were doing this. They haven’t had this massive knee jerk reaction. I think sometimes we lose sight of that. The world obviously changed, we’ve got a lot of scars from the pandemic, but not everyone had to suddenly think about, oh my gosh, remote. And I think that’s key to remember. It’s something I think we sometimes lose sight of when we do board strokes around this conversation.

From an employer branding perspective and a recruitment perspective, absolutely. Candidates are consistently asking, demanding, searching for, what are the opportunities to work? How will I work? Hybrid is now being probed in a way that perhaps wasn’t six months ago. What do you mean by hybrid? When you put hybrid on a job advert, what are you talking about? Because if it’s coming to work on this specific day a week, that’s not flexible working. I think the demand and the awareness and the level of forensic questioning that I’ve seen talking to my peer group of candidates is quite immense. And it’s definitely changed in the last six months. This sort of acceptance that just by putting hybrid on a job advert or we might accept remote working as an option, it’s just not good enough anymore.

How has it impacted my role in roles like mine? I think we’ve had to really work on leadership styles, because it was okay perhaps a year ago or a year and a half ago for leaders to be able to go, actually I don’t know how to create a team morale or manage remotely, because everyone was going through this really extreme, extraordinarily hard circumstance together. But I think that forgiveness is gone now. It’s harder because how do you communicate and transmit culture? How do you build a gluey, sticky company culture, team culture when a lot of people aren’t in the office all the time and if they are, they’re in there doing zoom calls as that recent Slack survey told us. I think it’s harder because we’re trying to communicate something when we’re all working like this a lot of the time. And there’s only so many times having screenshots of this is interesting or remotely exciting.

And then secondly, I think that leadership sense, as employer branding individuals when we think you’re thinking about showcasing your leaders, their ability to talk about how they build a compelling, well gelled team is something that’s of interest to candidates and they’ve got to come up with a story. How do I promote people that I don’t see all the time? How do I make sure that proximity isn’t something that I go to my default? And the reason I bring it up as employer branding is candidates are asking those questions and they want to see visible evidence, little touchstones of this coming through on the content journey. It’s interesting times.

Johnny Campbell:

I’ve heard evidence that, again, not to jump on the generational bandwagon, but let’s say folks early in their career are spending an increasing amount of time when they research an employer, let’s say when they have an interview, they’re going for an interview, trying to find interviews with the leadership that they’re going to meet with or leadership that represent that company on YouTube or different places, not visiting traditional perhaps employer branding channels like Glassdoor or LinkedIn. But actually going out to just media channels saying, I want to know what this company is like. I want to understand what their CEO’s position is on ESG. I want to know what, et cetera, et cetera.

I want to hear from her directly, I want to see, has she spoken at any conferences. And that the absence of that can be a real negative and even C minus one, minus two, minus three even, other execs are feeling the pressure to have a presence because people want to know about them, who they are rather than just read the values and the principles on a website. Is that a thing you’re seeing? Is it real?

Charu Malhotra:

Absolutely it is real. I think that vacuum, the fact that if it’s not visible, that in itself will create an understanding and a conclusion in the candidate’s mind. We don’t want employer branding, we don’t want beige tepid content just because oh I’ve been told I need to post and I’m a senior leader, because that just backfires. But absolutely that’s of natural sense of I am a visible face of my organization and when I say thought leadership, it’s about what is your thinking, not what the company thinking is, not using the same buzz words. I think to answer, absolutely seeing evidence of that. I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do. I’m interested. The other area that we’re seeing a lot of when I again talk to my peer group in the infor running, is that reluctance to actually reach out to senior individuals via LinkedIn way before they’ve met in the interview stage, even if they aren’t in the interview process.

I’ve seen and heard where the CEO’s been sent a note and in terms of, I’m coming along for an interview with X Y, Z, what is your take on climate change? And again, neither of us want to over index on generational differences, that’s not what we’re here to do. But I do like that boldness. I think it’s right. If you have a CEO that has a wonderful grandiose statement about IND or CSR on the website, which a lot of CEOs do, then actually having the challenge of, what does it actually mean to you? I think has only been a good thing. I do think that advocacy and the visibility across the business becomes really key. But I think the distinction from about five, six years ago is, and I’m really quite interested in this, is it’s not enough just to have the company message.

We’ve all seen those organizations where everyone’s LinkedIn says the same thing and they’ve obviously got a SMAP or some advocacy tool where everyone then posts the same thing at the same time. Of course there’s an option for personalization, but people are time poor, too busy, so they all post the same. It’s a turnoff. I think that boldness and having an opinion sometimes can be polarizing and candidates might read it and go, actually no this isn’t the place for me. But that’s what good employer branding is. It should give you as much insight into this is the place for me or this isn’t the place for me.

Johnny Campbell:

I remember there was an article a couple of months ago in the Harvard Business Review that talked about this change and expectations of leadership. And if you look at the three main stakeholders of any organization being investors/ shareholders, they’re people which I think includes potential new talent and their customers. 20 years ago people cared about, did the product do what it’s meant to do? And employees and investors cared about is there a strong financial performance. And the role of a CEO or leadership was to deliver those things. But that’s something 80 or 85% of people in all three of those camps say that they want to understand the leader’s position on things.

Now this is now the role and you need to have, call them celebrities in the business, not just at the C-level but all across the business. People who stand for stuff, people who people can rally behind, to your point, have an opinion that may not be the same as the consensus leadership opinion but are willing to put themselves out there. It’s a new bar that a lot of people are really uncomfortable with though. But you’re right, people have expected, they want go, who am I working with? What do they stand for? I can read your four values in your website, ignore that. What do you stand for? I need to work for you. You’re the person. But let me go back to something you said earlier on about consumerization of employer branding. And you mentioned back in, whenever the early days, was five, 10 years ago, we talked about consumerizing the application procedure.

I read or heard two weeks ago at LinkedIn Talent Connect about as an example, that Goldman Sachs have a career site that allows candidates rather than search for jobs, which I’m sure they can do as well, you enter your skills and it tells you what roles could be suitable for you. So moving towards this, this is me tell me what you’ve got versus having to interrogate a system. Do you see that kind of thing happening more and what else do you see happening that is akin to more consumerization from a positive perspective, Charu, that that’s making it super easy that’s giving the candidates the experience that they actually want?

Charu Malhotra:

I think a recognition by organizations about The Squiggly Career. It’s a book which has been out a couple of years, if you haven’t read it, I definitely recommend it. And it talks a lot about actually careers aren’t linear. So often when you go to a website and you see those wonderful articles, they paint a very traditional portrait, most people’s careers are squiggly and they will become increasingly squiggly as life goes on and organizations design change. I think there’s that recognition. So therefore organizations are, and it’s good when they’re thinking about content, certainly it’s not just about their organizations. If I can give you something that will give you insight into, let’s just say into engineering or into whatever cyber security. You may not find it relevant and insightful for the job application that you are doing in my company, but actually it’s given you something back that you’ll remember for your next application.

I think that circle of, okay, if we are going to be creating great stuff, let’s not just think about that one job. How can we be thinking about what it gives the candidate back? Now companies aren’t stupid, they’re not doing it because they all want to join forces together or there is that talent shortage, which again, I’m dubious about are we doing enough to think about all the talent segments we’ve ignored for so long? But I think I have seen that change. So coming to a website, coming to a Webex, coming to an event or conference, not just honing into my organization but actually thinking about the skills that you might be able to transport and take away in all your job seeking experiences. Because again, companies aren’t doing it for the good of their heart.

Prepped for an interview and I got some really great insight, I got a job over there, but I remember that company gave me something back. I think that portableness is something that companies are doing increasingly of. And you see it a lot on, the BP website does it in terms of along with its candidate charter, put in your skills, how BP are you? It’s about giving something back. The other thing that I think is quite useful that candidate, I wasn’t it the LinkedIn conference, that there is that sense of the why, so not the why this big grandiose purpose statement that takes a year to create and lots of money and so on, but the why. I think companies are recognizing that my why and your why are increasingly important to get articulated in the process and much early on in that dreaded job funnel.

Understanding what the why is for you will help me then think about, okay, how do I make this job right for you? And again, a recognition that everyone’s going to have a very different experience of their why and their wants. I’m seeing that the companies that want to have a great employee experience and retain talent, I wasn’t at the LinkedIn conference, but I saw enough data that retention, internal mobility, visible career paths, articulated visible career paths are very much where we need to be focusing our energy and time. I think that’s marquee, it’s about retention of the people we’ve got in employer branding much as attraction.

Johnny Campbell:

Let me shift gears to some of the more operational aspects, the plumbing or mechanics of employer branding so to speak. I was at a conference last week and was stunned to hear maybe I’m the last person who’s heard this, right? But at the conference they were talking about an article in The Guardian in the UK I think a couple of years ago, that was again substantiated by a further news publication around programmatic advertising, Charu, which we’ve heard a lot of in recruiting. Maybe like everything comes later to recruiting than traditional marketing, where we’ve gone into a world where we’ve all these tools that can spend our marketing budget and optimize whether we spend money on Indeed our website or different places. And it just does all the magic behind us.

And this Guardian article uncovered that more than half of the sites in the experiment that they did, that programmatic advertising tool placed their ads, the websites were broken or did not exist. And actually they could only trace the ad spend back to something like 15% of the actual sites that the programmatic tools are meant to go to. So calling bullshit on programmatic, maybe it’s been fixed since then, but certainly this was a big topic of conversation amongst the economists in advertising and the chair of Ogilvy was on the panel talking about this as well. Have some of the tools like programmatic lived up to their hype? When you get down to the operationalization of spending a budget to try and drive demand at the top of a funnel, do those things work? Do they not work? What’s your experience been?

Charu Malhotra:

My experience has been a very positive one, but I think it is very much around managing the programmatic and working really closely. When I’ve done programmatic media, I’ve worked directly with, and for a branding agency, our media agency if you will, and like all these things if you’re not tracking backwards from the corporate website, careers webpage, ATS, whatever the ATS is, success factors, smart recruits, whatever. If you’re not working backwards and working really closely with that vendor, with your agency and a programmatic media buyer, then of course you’re wasting your money. But my experience is, why would we not optimize and use this? It’s given me or I’ve seen really good results when I’ve used it well.

But again, if you are not working really closely with your supplier on this and watching it and having conversations around the narrative and the spend on a regular basis, then yes you might be sending people to dead links and so on. And I think if you have it at arm’s length and expecting it to do its wizardry in the background, I’m a control freak, I need to know all these things. But I’m not just a fan. I’ve seen it work. I think it’s effective. But like all these things, if you’re not managing these things well it just doesn’t work for you.

Johnny Campbell:

Tell me about employee advocacy. Does that have a place? If so, where is it? I’ve heard a lot of folks talking about dumping their creative spend and moving more towards employee advocacy efforts and training and promotion, et cetera. Where does it fit in within the mix?

Charu Malhotra:

I am a massive fan of employee advocates of ambassadors, employee brand ambassadors, whatever we’d like to call them. I’ve been hearing increasingly over the last couple of weeks people want to get rid of the word advocates. But for the sake of this conversation, encouraging our employees to share content on their own channels with their own tone of voice for me is what advocacy is. They become champions of the brand, in this case the talent brand. Not just a massive fan, I’m an advocate, I think it’s the right thing to do. But where I see the rub, the friction, is where you often have, let’s say the banking sector or certainly some tightly controlled sectors, the pharma industry where almost that PR, governance and the reluctance to allow employees to share becomes such a computer says no scenario. Or if you share you have to go through so many layers of approval, you go, I’m going to go back to doing my day job, which is being a scientist, I can’t be bothered.

It sits very much in that circle of, how do you activate a great employer brand where it doesn’t work? And I said that’s where the things have changed in the last few years is, I think candidates are smarter and recognize when it’s the same piece of content again and again and again. I’m not a fan of that. I’ll actively tell people to use their own tone of voice and I think that’s where part of our jobs come in. We have to make it easy and we have to explain why it works. But nothing is more off putting, a hundred people on LinkedIn sharing the same piece of copy with the same buzz words. I’ve read thought leadership articles from people and gone, this doesn’t even sound like them because I know that person. That to me is just as a very beige, tepid type of content and I’m just not a fan. What’s the point?

Content creation takes time and energy and if you’re not passionate about what you’re producing then just don’t bother. I would rather not push an advocacy program if the end result then is everyone pumping out the same. I keep going back to that employer bland piece. James Ellis shared something yesterday, which I reshared because it made me laugh, but it’s true. What’s distinctive is when everyone has their free con in terms of if I’m able to show myself in the content I share and I think I do, I believe I do. I try to. That to me is interesting. You follow me and you can see what I’m interested in, what I’m passionate about. If you are following 20 people in the same company, they share the same thing, where’s this distinction? There’s no distinction, you just look like company clones.

Johnny Campbell:

But in a large enterprise channel, how do you resolve that tension between we want to make sure it’s authentic, personal, real, but we want scale? Where is the happy medium between the two of those?

Charu Malhotra:

When I was at Unilever, and I think for me that’s always the environment I go back to, because that’s where for me it was a learning factory. We had some amazing marketeers I worked very closely with and learned so much there. I think A, there’s a wonderful phrase, elegant tension. I think they recognized there’s elegant tension between what they would want you to say.

What the employee wants to say. For me the elegant tension is giving employees the freedom and the guard rails. And by that I mean please share and this is why you should share enough times, again and again and again, some hints and tips. So again, I don’t want you to feel nervous when you come to share because what can I share? Giving you ideas but not giving you a script. I think, how do you do that at scale? You start like everything, you pilot and you see what works. And what I’ve really I learned at Unilever and then at BP was, my God, it doesn’t need to appeal to me. If a subsea engineer is writing an article about this amazing drill that he’s created, if it appeals to me there’s something horribly wrong. If it appeals to his peer group externally at Shell or at Subsea 7, then that’s the magic of the emotion.

So let people talk about the things that they’re passionate about. That’s the key. Not, here’s the brand pillars, go off and talk about those. That just doesn’t work. I think of course there’s lots of tools and technologies that we can talk about, about how you scale this up, but I think where the tension of that though is you end up having factory output, which going back to that personalization conversation we were having 20 minutes ago, almost has a bit of a rub. It’s that contradiction, isn’t it?

Johnny Campbell:

Last but really important topic I want to dig into with you, Charu. Talk to me about the efforts through employer branding that companies have made to try and gloss over their diversity inclusion and equity efforts or lack of efforts and where DEI meets employer branding and where it goes wrong. And then please talk to me about where it goes right or when it goes right.

Charu Malhotra:

Well, where it goes wrong is it the most topical thing today, isn’t it? Or yesterday was BrewDog. This is a UK organization that has been very grandly talking in the last 24 hours about their anti football World Cup starts because of where the world cup is being held, and has been very, very branded and loud and amplified as it starts from a DE&I equity perspective. And within 24 hours it’s been called out for its hypocrisy. I think that’s really interesting because it’s not just been called out by consumers but other brands and some really prominent journalists. I think for me that’s a brilliant example, a really good example of perhaps a company trying to be an activist and they’ve done it a few times. They’ve got game in this, trying desperately to be an activist and to have a stance on DE&I and then failing miserably because actually their talk doesn’t match what they’re doing internally.

So for me that’s a really good example of a bad example, if that makes sense. I think a great example of DE&I working is organizations where they are on the journey. There’s a lot of tech organizations, not the big ones. I’m not talking about the Metas of this world, where they’re smaller enterprises and they’ve been forced to release their DE&I stats. Pinterest is quite an interesting example where five years ago they were in an awful lot of trouble and quite rightly so where there was a lot of quite public claims from people, women of color talking about their experiences. And they have been very prominent and very vocal and very evident, visibly evident on the journey that they’re on. What are they trying to fix? What are the roadblocks? How are they getting there? What are they doing? What’s changing?

And for me that’s quite a nice example of, they’ve gone, we’ve really messed up here. How do we get accredited? How do we change? How do we listen? We’re not going to say we’re going to be absolutely brilliant in five years time, but let’s take you on the steps that we are taking. And I think that for me is a really good way of describing to companies where they are going. I’m a bit scared to talk about DE&I because we’ve got all male whiteboard. Well, don’t not talk about it because candidates are going to see that and they’ll be making their own mind. But talk about what you are doing to change that and how you are doing it. Embrace that. Because candidates are making their own mind anyway and they’re filling out the vacuum. Those are my two points on the DE&I piece, which I can talk about for hours because it’s an area I’m very passionate about.

Johnny Campbell:

Likewise. I’m going to ask you to go a little bit further for just a minute. Is it okay for an organization who are on that journey as you mentioned, who aren’t quite where they want to be but they’re making progress from where they used to be in how they represent themselves online to lean towards the future, less on the present. For example in how they represent themselves online in photographs, images, videos, perhaps they have an over dimension on underrepresented individuals, not lying, not making up people, but show a little bit of what they want to be in the future rather than having to show what they are today, which may be very white, very male as an example.

Charu Malhotra:

And your question is is it okay?

Johnny Campbell:

Is it okay to push more towards where we want to be and how you present yourself in images and videos? Or is it just know that’s not exactly what you look like today so you have to only show what you have today?

Charu Malhotra:

I think it depends on what the messaging is. I’ll give an example. If you have very, very few people of color in your business and your recruitment marketing videos are heavily, heavily populated by people of color, to me that feels very disingenuous and inaccurate. And anyone that’s joining the business based on that content or seeing that content is going to have a bit of an adverse reaction. I feel to me that feels like the completely the wrong thing to do and I wouldn’t want to be producing a piece of content like that. However, if you are creating a piece of content, again a video, where the messaging is we are looking to bring in more people like this, more women like this, more individuals that have got this skill set and meet three or four of individuals who’ve got different tenures, I think that’s a different message.

I think it depends on what the message is. If this is a big corporate video, Johnny, and every office shot looks very, very diverse and that’s actually being done instrumentally, then I think that’s false advertising. I think there is a balance there. As I said that the first example is where I personally and that’s where it comes back to having a voice. I’m not going to just take instructions. I will be creating content that I feel is accurate and if that isn’t an accurate depiction then I wouldn’t be creating it. But there is a balance, nor do you want a piece of content with nobody in it. It’s about having some representation and having the message. I know when I’m being clear because actually I think we all struggle with this.

Johnny Campbell:

Well, tell me, I’m hearing this, it’s okay to put your best dress on or one of your best dresses on, but not okay to steal someone else’s wardrobe entirely. As in this is how we look some of the time, not all the time, but definitely look like this some of the time. It’s not extremely different though. It’s not like a complete misrepresentation, but it is probably, it is a little bit of our best off. I guess, marketing isn’t showing everything we want to know, it’s not showing the absolute horribleness of some things. It’s trying to represent something true but airing on the nice side of true. Is that fair?

Charu Malhotra:

Yes and no. If I was creating that piece of content and I have done in the past, is actually having, and we’ll use women as an example talking about what it’s like to work there, the warts and all. Because I think actually candidates respect that. It has been a challenge being the only woman on a call or actually often I’m in meetings and I’m the only woman and this is how I experience it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sharing the warts and all if it’s done in a way that is not slamming but actually being quite, but this is why I want to change. To go back to the dress example, it’s absolutely showing the woman in the part address that I have one part addresses but not making out. I’ve got 12 because I’ve rented 11. So it’s that.

It’s very much a balance and I think it’s how you use that content. And also Adam Grant talks about this a lot in his podcast about work, is we cannot put the emotional tax on the unrepresented groups. I’m a woman of color and if I’m called into every single video just to depict a woman of color, that’s not my job. So again, if we have to be careful about the emotional tax that we put on the unrepresented groups just to help us build more in an organization.

Johnny Campbell:

Particularly when those folks are often asked to head up ERGs, get involved to try and attract talent into the business, jump on calls and do this all in addition to their day job and get no extra payment for that. You’re right, there’s a heavy tax for the folks who perhaps do the most to make the difference. They’re asked to do it over and over again. And the more successful you are at it, the more you’ll be asked to do it. Perhaps with less reward and less compensation, less even just removing parts of your job a way. Totally agree with you on that. And that applies, I imagine, again, we’re talking about diversity here, but it’s also issues. For example, over dimensioning on the issues you support, we do all this for the environment type thing. The BrewDog example.

Look at all these things that we do, if it’s disingenuous, it’s completely wrong, but you’re okay to promote some stuff that’s good. Because I think that there’s a fear that it’s not cool to say good things about yourself anymore as an organization. I guess that’s not true. It’s okay to say good things about yourself as long as to your point, you’re also being honest about the stuff that isn’t true, but you can talk about what you’re doing to improve it. Would that be fair?

Charu Malhotra:

Yeah, and I think it’s about being humble, not humble bragging, isn’t it? Why would you not say you’ve won this award? But isn’t it that just more beautifully done if the employees explaining why that award means something to them versus it being on the corporate channel. We all lean into the index, whether it’s true or not anymore, I’m not sure about employees content being much more credible, but I know I will say this all the time, CEOs say, I’ve won this and actually an employee posting about why it means something to them. It’s just that much more credible, that much more readable., It’s just seen as more palatable, isn’t it?

Johnny Campbell:

I love that and agree with that. And it’s a nice way to perhaps end, is just to bring it back down to the brass tax of that visceral reality, which is, who do you believe more? And then can you build your strategy around that. Charu, you’ve given us tons of advice, tips from your career, from different roles you’ve had, different journeys in the employer branding funnel, et cetera. But I’m wondering if I could steal one more. We ask every guest on the show to leave us with one tip to add to our shortlist of tips for our listeners. Whether it be something that you have gathered yourself from your own experience or was passed onto you from a colleague or peer during your career. What can you leave our audience with today?

Charu Malhotra:

My tip is more of a saying, which I heard about eight years ago at a conference and I loved it. And I truly believe it is. Constant consensus can lead to a collective coma. So don’t always go for the default, especially in my type of role. It’s okay to be polarizing when you’re thinking about content and messaging. Don’t always go for the consensus. So constant consensus can lead to a collective coma. Remember that.

Johnny Campbell:

I love that. It’s a tongue twister indeed. Charu, thanks so much for taking the time here to join us today. The light is fading behind you and in front of me as the sun sets so early in winter in this part of the world. Thank you so much for joining us. We look forward to having you on again.

Charu Malhotra:

Thank you. Bye.

The Shortlist is a workplace, thought-leader focused talkshow that broadcasts every Wednesday. You can watch it live on LinkedIn and on YouTube. Or, why not stream as a podcast after?

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