Engineering the employee experience

As the value of most companies is increasingly embedded in their intangible assets, corporate culture has become the new Holy Grail. One of the main challenges is to make sure leadership, communications and human resources pursue a genuinely integrated approach. But what are the roles of communications directors in building a culture with character?

Silicon Valley is famous for giving birth to the most innovative and fast growing companies in our day and age.

(Photo by Zhen Hu on Unsplash)

Google, Apple, Tesla, Facebook, Adobe and Netflix are redefining the world as we know it. While there are many theories to explain their success, one red thread shines through: they all nurture their culture as one of their most precious assets – if not their most precious one. Surely, there is something communication directors from all fields and industries can all learn from here.

Nurture your culture

The way these tech companies have changed the world of work might be more game-changing than we realise. Unlike many large, traditional organisations that are blind-sided by focusing on benchmarks and generic best practices, these companies started at the root of their existence and identity – and then invented the people practices that best expresses their companies’ personality. From there they’ve had the courage to stand out from the crowd, explore and experiment – and literally invent, pivot and evolve their own people-practices as they grew.

Netflix chose to abolish its vacation policy: according to its CEO, “our vacation policy is: there is no vacation policy”, testifying that its culture centres around freedom and trust. Adobe was one of the first to abandon the traditional performance management cycle and ratings in order to make regular, ongoing ‘check-ins’ the new normal. Google continues to set new standards in creating stimulating, creative work environments and extraordinary teams. Facebook engineers enter a six weeks’ on-boarding programme where they get to work on numerous projects in order to discover what their exact job profile will become. And Tesla’s hiring approach is not based upon education or experience: rather, it is geared at selecting people based upon their ability to solve complex problems and learn under uncertain conditions -.

Clearly, these companies share a consensus on the true secret of their success: their people. They are fundamentally ‘people-businesses’, and lo and behold: they act like they actually care about their people. In the exceptional cases where these types of companies seem to not care much about their people, guess what? Eventually they pay the price. Ask Amazon. Ask Uber.

Connecting what the organisation ‘wants’ with what it ‘can

Culture, brand and reputation are more closely intertwined than ever. When a reputation issue emerges around a company, the culture is often mentioned as the root cause of all evil. Apparently it appears quite a challenge to connect the perspective of what the organisation ‘wants’ – mission, values and brand promise – with the perspective of what the organisation ‘can’ based on the people that actually work there: their talents, capabilities, engagement and culture.

"Culture, brand and reputation are more closely intertwined than ever."

The ‘want’-perspective is typically owned by the specialists of marketing and communications who are dominantly externally focused, with the emphasis on external stakeholders like customers , shareholders and society. The ‘can’ perspective is typically considered the territory of human resources and is focused on internal stakeholders like managers and employees. Each function has their own orientation, convictions, dynamics and jargon, and cross-functional collaboration isn’t the easiest thing. To top it off, senior management tends to ignore the topic or waive it aside as fluffy and vague. We are talking about ‘intangible’ stuff that doesn’t fit into a spreadsheet or let itself be managed in the traditional sense.

Culture is something we can’t afford to leave to coincidence. Which is why we as communication directors should look beyond our traditional scope to pursue a truly integrated approach to culture, an approach co-owned by leadership, communications and human resources.

Connecting people and brand through the shared personality

The first thing we need is a practical way to look at culture, one which unites both perspectives and worlds, and helps the specialists across functions to combine their strengths into an integrated approach. In a book on brand culture that I’ve written with two fellow authors, we argue that companies, like people, have personalities and this ‘shared personality’ is the key to connecting people and the brands they work for.

The underlying idea is that companies with a ‘hero’ personality have a different culture from companies with a ‘caregiver’ personality. As do ‘explorer’ versus ‘everyman’ type companies. The shared personality unites an essential element of brands – the brand personality – with the personality of the people and culture of the organisation. Defining an organisation’s shared personality means looking at the organisation as a living ecosystem, with the shared personality as the organising principle.

Redesigning the employee experience

Alignment starts with identifying the core personality archetype, and then permeating this consistently into the employee experience across the full employee journey. This journey starts outside with attracting and assessing new talents to the company. Then, once people are hired, the internal activation focuses on brand-specific on-boarding and activating employees to perform, towards developing and appraising them in order to ultimately convert them to become ‘advocates’: both for the companies’ products and services as well as for the company as a place to work.

When one wants to influence people and culture, a traditional approach based on top-down steering, planning and control is no longer sufficient. We know this, right? The relationship between people and the brands they work for is highly sensitive and dynamic. Internal activation is really a matter of consciously orchestrating the way values, rituals, culture and behaviours are experienced by managers and employees. So we need to take the 360-degree employee experience as the starting point and build interaction and iteration in by design. And we want to make sure employees ‘want’ and ‘can’ demonstrate the behaviours and commitment we hope to see from them. Creating coherent employee experiences requires perfect alignment. So let’s look at who does what on a practical level.

Internal activation

It all starts (or ends) with leadership ensuring vision, connection and commitment. The vision that enthusiastic employees create enthusiastic customers inspired Tony Hsieh to shape a unique ‘happiness culture’ at Zappos. ‘Delivering happiness’ became a gospel and is permeated in extraordinary values – like “create fun and a little weirdness” – that are brought to life in exceptional ways.

For the human resources team, the focus should be on ensuring truly characteristic on-boarding experiences, original employment terms and conditions, culture-specific learning and development experiences, and performance, appraisal and reward practices that emphasise the shared personality of the company.

The ‘no vacation policy’ example of Netflix is a human resources practice that perfectly strengthens their ‘creator’ archetype. It really gets to the essence of Netflix’s culture of freedom and trust, which is exactly what highly creative people need to flourish. In routine jobs the best employees typically perform two times better as the average ones, while in creative jobs the best ones are more impactful than the average ones by a factor of 10 to 100.

"The ‘no vacation policy’ example of Netflix is a human resources practice that perfectly strengthens their ‘creator’ archetype."

There’s your business case for wanting to recruit, engage and retain the best creative people. And the way it’s done is not through fancy advertising or putting empty values on your recruitment site. It’s through fundamentally rethinking every part of your business, human resources and communications practices and building a truly characteristic employee experience. Actions speak louder than words.

Communication directors have a critical role in providing direction, purpose, inspiration and involvement. A major part is about involving the involved. Clever internal stakeholder management and employee consultation and dialogue is key to success in any transformation: as an old Chinese proverb, variously attributed to Confucius or Xun Kuang: “Tell me and I forget, Show me and I might remember, Involve me and I understand”. So although storytelling and visualisation are still important to our work, orchestrating  genuine involvement, interaction and dialogue is more fundamental to our roles as communication directors in this context.

What’s important is co-creating and generating employee feedback and input, while encouraging and empowering employees to bring the brand to life in their day to day mind-set and behaviours. Apart from live events, team workshops and interactive intranets, social platforms and serious games can prove helpful in involving large group of employees.

At NN Group we’ve used serious games to test and sharpen the preliminary new brand and values in different rounds in every country, and later on to bring the values to life, involving thousands of employees in  around 20 countries. This has made a significant contribution to the progress and buy-in for the development and internal activation of the brand and culture. If you are interested in learning more about the transformation of brand and culture at NN Group, it is featured in the new book Branding Inside Out from Nicholas Ind.

External activation

Now let’s look at external activation. Based on the shared personality, communication directors want our colleagues in human resources to ensure characteristic employer branding and hiring practices. This includes strategic workforce planning. L’Oréal, for example, sets its business plans five years ahead and is very conscious of the talent it need to realise its ambitions. It is a ‘leader’ archetype and its vice president for global talent acquisition told the BBC how, without passion, entrepreneurialism and the ability to connect with others, “you will die at L’Oréal”: clearly signaling what type of personality the company is looking for. Communication directors also want human resources to foster a targeted talent group approach, build talent communities and design an exceptional candidate journey, allowing the company to hire for character.

As communicators, we want our leaders to be ambassadors for the company as a place to work by expressing the companies’ unique mission and culture. Unilever’s Paul Polman embraced bold sustainability ambitions, which he continuously shares externally. This attracts talented people who are inspired by this mission and want to contribute. Apple’s Tim Cook is frequently spotted at informal student recruitment event, demonstrating that he cares and signaling that everyone should be a recruiter.

Communication directors can make a significant contribution by making sure the right stories and anecdotes reach the relevant audiences and by helping to maintain a dialogue with relevant talent communities. Unilever UK has a ‘By Grads for Grads’ Facebook page that allows students to connect informally with Unilever graduates. Increasingly, recruitment sites and career pages on Indeed and LinkedIn are celebrations of the culture of a company, rather than simple job vacancies. Companies like Philips and EY have successfully entered smart owned/earned/paid social media campaigns to create engagement for their employer brand.

" Increasingly, recruitment sites and career pages on Indeed and LinkedIn are celebrations of the culture of a company, rather than simple job vacancies."

Telling the employer story has become much more dynamic and interactive. In a conference that helped to inspire our brand culture book, an American communications manager from a large corporate put it like this: “Our role as communications is less and less about broadcasting, and more and more about ‘party planning’: inspiring people to say the right things”.


Organisations that are aware of their personality and permeate this consciously, drastically and consistently throughout every part of the employee experience, will harvest a more motivated culture on the inside and a vital reputation on the outside. A characteristic culture is expressed through characteristic traits, habits and rituals that provide employees with a sense of direction in day-to-day decision making and dealing with dilemmas and conversations in, for example, social media. The shared personality connects people and brands and is the key towards a strong brand culture.

Chris Kersbergen

Chris Kersbergen is communication business partner at Rabobank and co-author of a Dutch management book on brand culture.Beofre Rabobank,  Chris worked for NN Group, where he was global head of employee experience, after being head of branding and involved in preparing the global rebrand from ING Insurance and Investment Management to NN Group. His background includes different marketing and communication roles within ING Group and agencies like Euro RSCG and BBDO.