When Steve Cadigan took over recruiting for LinkedIn Corp. in 2009, he faced the daunting challenge of helping the company quickly expand its employee base while going head to head with bigger, more well-known and better funded companies.
At the time, the as-yet privately held social network was still small compared with the likes of Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. Yet the Silicon Valley giants were LinkedIn's competition for software engineers, Web developers and other entry-level engineering and computer science workers in the area's white-hot tech job market.
Cadigan competed the only way he could—by beefing up his David of a company's employer brand to compete with the Goliaths.
To make LinkedIn more desirable, Cadigan and his team worked internally to make the company into the kind of innovation hotbed that attracts developers and engineers. They polled existing employees regularly for feedback to see how their attempts at improvement were working, and they also matched bigger industry players' compensation packages as best they could
The changes paid off. LinkedIn's head count doubled every year, from 500 in 2010 to more than 3,400 by the end of 2012. "We started to build muscle," says Cadigan, who was LinkedIn's talent vice president until leaving last December to work for himself. "Our offer acceptance rate went up, the number of senior-level hires we closed and the candidates we needed to make offers to fill a position, those numbers improved in our favor.
Tech companies aren't the only ones paying attention to how they promote themselves as employers. With competition for top job candidates fierce and as companies transform themselves to respond to changing markets and business goals, more are using their employer brand to distinguish themselves. Over the past few years, such diverse companies as CH2M Hill, Electronic Arts Inc., Mars Inc. and Marriott International Inc. have been lauded for stand-out employer brand efforts.
"The world's best recruiters are increasingly thinking like the world's best marketers," LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner told attendees at the company's 2012 corporate user conference last October.
Eight of 10 recruiting leaders believe a strong talent or employer brand is critical, according to results from a LinkedIn poll shared at the conference.
Thirty-nine percent of companies plan to increase employer-brand spending in 2013, according to a separate 2012-13 survey from Employer Brand International, an Australian human resources consulting and training firm.
Companies use different approaches to building an employer brand. Some like LinkedIn work from the inside out, allocating resources to cultivate an attractive corporate culture. Others focus on prospects. More than half (52 percent) of 90 companies participating in a just-released Candidate Experience 2012 report from the nonprofit Talent Board use some type of employer branding service to enhance their recruiting efforts. Those include search-engine optimized career sites, Facebook and LinkedIn company or career pages, Twitter feeds, chat rooms, text-message campaigns, webinars and podcasts, and career blogs, according to the survey. . Still other organizations pay attention to both internal and external efforts.
Some companies that have been singled out for their employer brand practices include:
CH2M Hill: The $6.3 billion global engineering, construction and operations company created AlumniConnect, an online network for retirees and former employees or interns, to re-recruit people who might want to come back, according to The Talent Board's report. CH2M Hill also promotes itself by having executives speak at industry conferences, present white papers and write trade journal articles, according to the report.
Mars Inc.: The president of the $33 billion privately held candy-maker gave his first interview since 2008 as part of a campaign to "build a more visible employer brand" in a recent Fortune article. Until now, the company, which made Fortune's 100 best companies to work for list for the first time, focused on internal employer brand efforts. Those include funding training and education, allowing employees to experiment with new ideas, offering regular and "reverse" mentorships, and giving up to 100 percent annual bonuses.
Dell Inc.: As part of Dell's change from selling products to services, the tech company's recruiters are working with its marketing department to learn how to be better marketers, Brent Amundson, executive director of global talent acquisition, said at the LinkedIn conference last fall. Dell also offers employees courses on the company's brand and encourages them to be active online. "Our CEO tweets," he says.
Marriott International Inc.: This year, Fortune included Marriott in its best places to work list for the 15th time in a row, calling the hospitality giant a "social media superstar" because of its online jobs and careers initiatives. One of those is My Marriott Hotel, a Facebook game the hotelier created in 2011 to fill 50,000 jobs in just six months. The game gives players a chance to manage a virtual hotel restaurant kitchen and other operations. People who want to learn more can click over to Marriott's career site.
Electronic Arts Inc.: The maker of Madden NFL, The Sims and Medal of Honor created a career microsite inside its EA Sports fan website. It also holds so-called "hackathons" and career-oriented networking events to attract gamers who might be interested in joining the company.
During Cadigan's tenure at LinkedIn, recruiters realized that while they couldn't always match competitors' salaries and perks, they could offer something many engineers and programmers valued just as much: interesting, innovative work with managers they could learn from, and the chance to make a difference. "We didn't want a culture where [compensation] was the most important thing—that's not the kind of person we wanted to have," he says.
With management's blessing, Cadigan's team tweaked some operations to emphasize innovation. Among other things, they instituted inDay, one Friday a month where employees work on pet projects, and [in]cubator, a quarterly pitch session where workers present new business ideas to LinkedIn VIPs, a number of which the company has instituted. The company also created boot camps to help new hires adjust.
To find out how initiatives were working, Cadigan's team polled employees every six months. Performance reviews went from once a year to every quarter, "which helped with feedback," he says.
Over time, the changes bolstered the company's recruiting efforts. Eventually, "Our close rate and interns-converted-to-hires were off the charts, better than anyone," Cadigan says. The company "is in a really good place right now."
As more businesses focus on their employer brand, software vendors are jumping in to help. LinkedIn has become such an employer-brand advocate that the company added a data analysis dashboard to its corporate recruiting software that customers can use to measure the effectiveness of their employer brand on its network. Companies also are using Glassdoor.com, CareerBuilder and other services to measure their efforts.
However, calculating whether an employer brand campaign is working isn't easy. Part of the problem is deciding what to measure. Companies use retention rates, employment engagement, quality of hire, cost per hire and a number of applications to measure success rates, writes Employer Brand International head Brett Minchington in a post on his self-named blog. The key is matching what's being measured to the company's goals, he writes. Regardless of what a company chooses, it needs to be reliable and predictive, Minchington adds.