“The Role of HR in Employee Branding in the Public Sector”

By Mike Phibbs
Private Sector organizations have known for years that both company and employee branding are essential to keep a competitive work force and to reduce turnover. The public safety sector has been slow to catch onto this idea, even while police, fire, and other E.M.S. units have relied on the aura surrounding their occupations to recruit. This lack of foresight in investing in a well thought out strategy of organizational branding in recruitment and in operations often has a negative effect on the new employee, and thereafter, an organization’s effectiveness. This was especially true after September 11, 2001, when people rushed to become police officers and firefighters or other EMS providers. There is a cost paid for hiring and training a person who is not a good fit in an organization, realized in the form of lower retention rates, increased recruitment, training, and overtime costs, not to mention potential civil liability for actions taken by a less committed employee. HR can be a strategic partner with an organization’s command staffs, and with leaders at all levels, to develop a culture that accurately depicts the vision and values of the organization.
Employee branding begins at the top level of the organization. The aura that surrounds being associated with public safety organizations is not enough to sustain an individual’s commitment throughout a career. The command structure has a responsibility to ensure that employees clearly understand the mission and vision of their organization. To ensure this, frequent, open forums should be held, where questions can be asked, rumors laid to rest, and the vision continued to be reinforced in the minds of the employees. At mid-level, leaders also have the responsibility to be clear on the mission and vision of the organization. Through continued emphasis on the mission and reinforcement of the organization’s vision, coupled with the implementation of HR strategies to successfully meet goals, the employees become branded into the culture and are focused on exceeding the vision.

Examples of organizational differences in the realm of public safety begin with the structures and deployment of personnel in field of law enforcement. Each law enforcement organization has to meet the differing needs of its community, and requirements of its own vision, mission statements and expectations for its officers for interaction within that community. Organization are differentiated in their structure and operations based on the needs of the people they serve, be it at urban level, rural levels, or other settings. Organizations must utilize different strategies to effectively deploy its personnel, while recognizing that these actions directly impact an organization’s ability to focus the commitment of the employees to the organization. Other points of differentiation include deployment of personnel into different divisions, development of shift policies, promotional opportunities, potential transfers to more challenging jobs, and the degree of autonomy to make decisions at the first line.

The closer organizational opportunities match the desires of the employee, the more likely the individual will show total engagement for the success of the vision, improve overall performance, and increase retention for the organization. An employee who realizes that the organization does not fulfill his or her expectations will likely leave. If the individual is committed to working in public safety, he or she will seek out other organizations that meet their expectations and needs. Simply stated, an agency that has spent time and money training an employee only to see them leave loses its investment because the organization did not effectively convey the culture of the organization before hiring. An organization that is able to attract and retain employees, who are engaged and committed to the organization’s mission, creates a financial advantage for the community by saving the taxpayer money. In the case of volunteer organizations such as volunteer rescue and fire departments the savings is in donated money; funding that is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.

With the large numbers of people attracted to careers in public safety, Effective employee and organizational branding can help recruit the people you want and dissuade those who you do not want. It is in the best interest of both individual and organization to ensure potential candidates clearly understand the culture and expectations of the organization before they apply. In the public sector organizations use various forms of media to announce job vacancies. The announcements include basic job descriptions and qualifications but often fail in representing the organization in the clearest possible light. HR should ensure applicants understand not only the job requirements but also the culture of the organization they intend to join. Through organizational and employee branding, organizations will recruit and retain people who more closely fit the culture of their organizations. Organizations spend thousands of dollars in recruiting campaigns, just to get people to take the tests, then incur the cost of the testing process, pay evaluators to participate in interview on selection panels, background checks, medical and psychological screenings, and finally bear the expense of formal academy and field training. Developing branding strategies that differentiate one organization from another ultimately saves the customer-taxpayer-money.

The branding process begins with the culture of the organization and influences the recruiting strategies. The new recruit should already have a basic understanding of the culture arriving at the training center with a set of expectations of the organization. Even in the training phase the new hire begins the process of deciding if the organization meets his or her needs. Once deployed to the field, the new employee continues to develop a cultural awareness of the organization. At this point, he or she will determine if the organizational branding lives up to expectations. If not, other organizations in the same field will be investigated to see if there is one that more closely meets professional expectations. Many public safety employees, to their advantage are enrolled in the Virginia State Retirement System, and are not penalized if they go to another organization that participates in that system. However, the organization that is left behind pays the price for hiring an individual that was not a good fit with the culture of the organization.

Employees who are enthusiastically branded into the vision of their organization are a great source for recruiting people who will fit the organizational culture, lowering the chances of an employee misfit. Recruiters should not be only concerned with filling today’s vacancies but be proactive in cultivating the branding image for future recruiting cycles. Recruiters can begin by visiting high schools, junior colleges, and universities, and explain to people who are still too young to apply what the organizational culture is about. With continual contact individuals who believe that the particular organization meets their interests can further explore the future opportunities within the organization. Recruiters can arrange ride-a-longs, site visits, and possible volunteer opportunities which continue to build upon the branding of the organization and employees.

Organizations, that have media relations departments, can also be utilized to strategically market the organization to the public at large. HR can work with the media relations departments to develop strategies that accurately represent the organization to the public. By the nature of their work public safety organizations have a multiplicity of opportunities to get their branding message out. Through the news at critical incidents, monthly public service broadcasts on public television channels, and general media announcements, the media departments can inform the public on the attributes that separate their organization from the others in the region. The more opportunities the public has to receive what separates one organization from another, the more the prospective employee will naturally gravitate to the organization that best fits his or her needs.

The implementation of a department’s vision and deployment strategies has a direct impact on the organization’s culture. Organizations want an individual who fits in well and can make positive contributions within the organization. The proper branding of an organization and its employees increases the likelihood of a proper hire. A person who is hired and does not fit the culture can actually hamper recruiting efforts by spreading negative information about an organization. HR can recommend strategies to the command staffs that develop and publicize the organization’s culture, which in-turn helps to attract people who will best fit into the organization.

HR should be employed to play an integral part in developing the culture and expounding it onto current and potential future employees. HR has the specific expertise to and should be involved in training programs to improve leadership at all levels. Ineffective leaders can drive people out of an organization. HR should survey employees and develop strategies to retain the best workers through fulfilling the satisfiers that keep the employees committed to the organization. Employees who choose to quit should be exit interviewed by HR for the same purposes. HR should stay abreast of the changing external and internal environment and prepare for challenges to the organization’s culture and ability to recruit and retain its employees. Utilizing HR, with its knowledge of organizational and strategic employee development, by the command structure will have a significant impact on the organization’s abilities to meet its goals for the future and better be prepared for the challenges of tomorrow.

Branding in public service organizations requires the total commitment of the employees and the organization to develop the aura that will attract the right candidate and dissuade others. Branding of the organization helps to drive the culture and focus the employees on a vision of themselves and the organization for which they work. Having people who fit the organization culture reduces the number of bad hires, saving cost in recruiting, training, and efforts to retain the best employees who may otherwise leave for other organizations. Branding will successfully further the organization in a fulfilling its mission.

Leadershiprva copyright 2008

Life Lessons from Bob

I arrived at my precinct the day after my graduation from the police academy. I walked into the roll call room with my bright shiny new badge pinned to my shift. I nervously introduced myself to the sergeant who just looked at me and pointed to a chair and said sit there. I looked around as the older officer began to come in and take their seats. They were joking about an officer who split his pants while jumping a fence on a call the day before. None of the officers spoke to me; they would just occasionally stare at the new guy. Eventually, the sergeant, still not knowing my name, came in and asked who would field train me.

An officer with glasses, salt-and-pepper hair, looked up and said, “I’ll do it”. The sergeant said, “Bob” you sure? You are about to retire”. He replied, “I got it”. After roll call, Bob introduced himself and said for me to get my stuff. Before we headed out on my first shift he sat me down and said, “This is a calling for some and a job to pay bills for others. In time they will all become your family. If you make it you will see things that will break your heart, and things that will make you fall over laughing. When you think about giving up, something will happen and you will see the impact you can have on people’s lives. Above all else, remember you are a professional and the people you come into contact all had the same hopes and dreams as you at one time. Some people made it and some didn’t. One day your career will come to and end and I hope you look back and think it was worth it”.

For the next six weeks I rode with Bob. At first, he showed me the area and where the problems were. He showed me the places that I must have back up and the places people like to hide. Bob would constantly explain, “It is important that the same number of officers go home alive as attended roll call. But if you aren’t willing to risk your safety to protect your fellow officers and citizens then I should get out before I risk someone’s life”. During the time I reinforced my basic tactics and learned how to start investigations. More importantly, I learned how to really talk to people. The officer walking the beat comes into contact with people determined to commit crime, wealthy people who do not recognize the officer as he walks by, the person who lost everything and is now homeless, and the happy-go-luck person who is simply enjoying life. I learned to blend into each societal group and make the connection.

I learned that Bob had only a few months left before retirement. He had two grandkids and he and his wife were going to visit all of the places they dreamed of over the years. A couple of times his wife would come down and meet us for lunch. He had volunteered to train me because the day he started out an older officer about to leave volunteered to train him. To that day Bob never forgot what his training officer had told him all those years ago. After a while the older officers began to warm to me and I learned their stories. Eventually, the six weeks ended and it was time for me to go to my permanent midnight shift. I would see Bob in only in passing most of the time. If I had a question I would hurry in to see him and he would walk me through the problem.

Soon Bob retired and began to travel with his wife. After a while I lost track of him. I met my wife and had two kids of my own. The officers I worked with did become part of my family and we all helped raise each other along the way. Bob was right, I did have heart breaking experiences, ones that were so hilarious that the best comedy writers could never create, and when things looked bleak somehow something would happen that touched you and made the sacrifices worth it.

As the years went on new officers would come in and older ones would move on. I trained my share of officers who went on to very successful careers. One night my wife and I discussed when I was going to retire. We picked a date and the next day I told my sergeant that I would be leaving in a few months. We joked for a few minutes about the good-ole-days when a new kid fresh from the academy walked in. He too had a new shiny badge; mine had tarnished years ago. The sergeant looked up and said, “I guess I’ll have to find someone to field train him.” I looked at the nervous young man and said, “I’ll do it”. The young man walked up to me and said his name was Joe. After roll call I took Joe outside and sat him down. I then told “It is important that the same number of officers go home alive as attended roll call……” When I look back over my career it was worth it, and my foundation started with Bob.

Bob was not simply a leader, a mentor, but a friend. At the end of ones career in any profession, you will be extremly luck to have had your own Bob.

Female Firefighters: Demonstrate True Pioneer Spirit

I recently met with a fire chief in the area. During the meeting the topic of females in the fire profession came up. For many organizations, there are only a handful of female firefighters at most. Imagine being the female who goes to work every day knowing she is entering a male dominated profession.

Law enforcement faced the challenge of integrating females into the profession many years ago, and in some cases still struggle with the issue. These female firefighters are the new pioneers of today. They have the same job responsibilities of their male counterparts, but have to work harder to trail blazed the path for those females to follow. In many older stations, the buildings were not constructed with separate bathrooms or bunk spaces for men and woman. Besides the issues of building construction, they must still live and work within the male dominated fire culture. At what point is a joke or comment cross the line from being funny to harassment? How does a female stand up for herself as a person without being labeled a derogatory comment? These issues and many more will eventually be worked out. As society, and demographics of the workforce, changes more woman will enter the fire profession. The woman who work in the profession today are true pioneers with the grit of the woman who walked across the great plains in the 19th century. There are creating the path for the future and have earned the right to be called “Professional Firefighter.”

Leaders in 2013 Must Learn and Embrace Diverse Cultures to be Effective

Leaders in 2013 face new challenges as work force demographics change and employees with different cultural histories begin to come into the workforce. I talk to managers and supervisors notice I did not say leaders, who say “foreigners” need to learn English, or why should I learn about their culture, they should learn to be American. This is a very short sighted view. First, America was founded by people from somewhere else. Even the original Indian inhabitants came from someplace else. As a country we became diverse because people did not completely give up on their old traditions and cultures just to become an American. You do not, and cannot, wipe your memories away when you become an American.

The effective leaders understand and embrace having a diverse group of people working for them. They inherently understand diversity reduces the chance of “group think”. They also understand that their success is based on the actions of the individual employee. The employee’s actions are based on how they interpret the directions of the leader. Their interpretations are based through the context of past cultural experiences. Therefore, to be effective, the leader needs to understand the cultural history and context which develop the individual expectations of their employees. Then the leader can tailor their message to the individual employee. The overall message remains the same, but the individual meaning is shaped through the cultural lens.

It may sound like a lot of needless work, but it isn’t. By learning a basic level of the cultures of your employees the leader actually builds a greater credibility with the employee. The leader learns something’s that they may not have known, but more importantly, they have a new tool to put in their tool box. Leaders who not only develop their employees but also develop a cultural awareness of their employees become a “hot commodity” for their organization. Opportunities to grow, both inside and outside of their company, will most assuredly follow. So, from even an individualistic point of view, learning the cultural histories of your employees and how to lead them creates greater opportunities for you