People-First Employer Branding

Put people and a great EVP — not numbers or goals — at the center of your recruitment efforts.
Multi-color silhouettes of individuals from diverse backgrounds.

I recently ran into my neighbor Mark, a lead software engineer at a FAANG company. Every day, recruiters from some of the hottest companies in the world inundate him with emails and voicemails. One company, he told me, had been calling him so much he resorted to blocking them.


It’s a candidate’s market the likes of which we’ve never seen. In 2021, 4.3 million people left their jobs — and 36 percent quit without having a new job lined up. Coupled with that is an extreme shortage of technical talent, which won’t just affect the tech sector but any industry that relies on tech (which is to say: every industry). In 2022, 64 percent of executives cite the shortage as the most significant barrier to adopting emerging technology. Only 4 percent said the same in 2020.


As HR leaders, we’re working against all odds to attract and retain a cohort of chronically cynical professionals who have worked through a pandemic, rampant burnout and a silent epidemic of loneliness. Their mental, physical and emotional resources have been taxed, tested or depleted.


The only way to overcome these challenges — the only way to be successful in hiring and retention — is to put people first. As leaders, it’s incumbent on us to build people-first brands.


Your employer brand is the lived experience you promise, and then deliver, for your candidates and employees. It spans every interaction from interview to exit (and beyond). It’s not just your EVP, mission statement or set of core values. It’s the extent to which you make good on them.

In this climate, companies with people-first employer brands understand candidates and employees have a new set of expectations for employers. And they move mountains to meet them. Those are the only companies that will survive the years to come.


Built In is in a unique position to offer insight into these expectations. Millions of professionals who work across disciplines in the tech industry visit monthly, and we frequently take their pulse.


In one recent survey, we asked professionals what mattered most to them when considering job prospects. Career growth, benefits and compensation were each important for more than half of respondents. Drilling down to specific benefits, about half listed remote work and 44 percent pointed to mental health and wellness programs.


Four things would impel them to leave a job: better pay, work-life balance, more upward mobility or a stronger culture.


DEI is also now a requisite for hiring and retention. In Built In’s 2022 report, “The State of DEI in Tech,” 58 percent of professionals said DEI is “very important” when seeking opportunities.


No employer can afford to ignore this — and yet, they do: In spite of the DEI promises many companies made in 2020, 30 percent of employees said their companies either don’t have any DEI programs or are making a “very poor effort.”


It’s easy to see the through-line. Each of these expectations require us as leaders to value our employees as whole humans with lives, futures and aspirations that extend well beyond their tenures with our companies. If we listen — and we must — we can hear the collective voice of workers everywhere, challenging us.


Talent is saying: If we are in fact your “most valuable assets,” prove it.

Prove it by empowering us to show up to work as our true selves. Embrace what we bring: an exceptionally human, often messy, always beautiful mix of talents, quirks, competencies and personalities.

Respect our right to live full, healthy lives. Offer the flexibility we need to be well and perform sustainably at high levels. Help us grow into our potential. And, please, don’t tell us you’re committed to DEI unless your actions show it.

If we can’t heed their call, they move on. But they don’t forget.

Consider Mark. He shared a story with me about the company whose recruiter he blocked. Years ago, when he graduated with his CS degree, he applied to a role there. The talent market wasn’t nearly as competitive, especially for fresh talent, so the company ghosted him.

“Eff them,” he told me.

Here’s the PG version of that sentiment: Brand impressions endure.

Companies with people-first employer brands treat employees and candidates with respect even when they don’t desperately need them. They provide them with growth opportunities even if it could help them get their next job. They’re inclusive even when no one is watching.

More than half of employees don’t have faith that companies will realize this kind of human-centered future of work. To me, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m calling all of us as HR leaders: Let’s prove them wrong.

For inspiration, we can look to Seattle-based Gravity Payments. In 2015, its CEO Dan Price, who recognized the injustice of the CEO-to-worker pay gap, raised employees’ minimum wage to $70,000. He slashed his own $1.1 million salary to match that.   The press went wild. Gravity was flooded with 4,500 resumes in one week. In the years that followed, the company tripled its payment-processing volume for small businesses and grew revenue annually until 2020. The company halved its turnover rate. Employees bought Price a Tesla to thank him.

That Gravity lost half its business in March 2020 has less to do with the compensation model than the ravages of the pandemic. In fact, to help deter mass layoffs, employees volunteered to take a temporary pay cut.

The company has since recovered and repaid employees’ lost wages.

Silhouette of diverse group of people

Compensation is more tied to employer branding than you’d think. I’d venture to guess you didn’t know the company prior to 2015. Today, a Google search for “Gravity” and “$70,000” yields 1.37 million hits.


In 2021, Price spoke about his compensation model with CBS News: “I feel like I’ve been shouting from the rooftops like, ‘This works, this works, everybody should do it!’”


Am I saying you need to pull a Dan Price to attract and retain top talent? No. But I am certain of this: Companies that seek to survive must create unequivocally human-centered, people-first employer brands.


To paraphrase the Robin Hood of tech himself: It works, it works, everybody should do it — and fast.