"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.