Ep 110: Why Your Employer Brand Matters, with Laura Tolhoek

Nov 17, 2021

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Why Your Employer Brand Matters, with Laura Tolhoek

On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Laura Tolhoek discuss the importance of your employer brand and how it impacts hiring, recruitment, and more.

Episode 110 Links

Essential HR:
YouTube Channel:
Vimeo Channel:


Duration: 21:33



Kelly: Welcome to Thrive, your agency resource. Seems like everyone’s having a really, really difficult time hiring these days. Today, I’m actually joined by Laura Tolhoek who’s the founder and CEO of Essential HR in Canada. And we’re going to talk about the importance of your employer brand and how that relates to hiring and recruitment and all of those things. We have really got to start to think about how we sell our agencies to potential employees. So, Laura, thank you so much for joining me today. I’m really, really happy to be here with you.


Laura: Kelly, I’m so excited to be here. I think this is going to be a really fun chat.


Kelly: So alright, let’s just start when I say employer brand, what do you actually mean by that? Because I think that there’s going to be an initial question mark right out of the gate. And obviously, why would it be important for agencies?


Laura: Yeah. So, when we think brand, I mean, your people understand brand, everything they do is around brand. And so, it’s really easy to think, when I say brand about, what is Southwest Airlines brand, what is Target’s brand? What is the Starbucks brand? Automatically as consumers, we put characterizations around that, based on what they put out in the world or their own experience of what their product and services are. But I want you to flip that around and think about what I think of Southwest Airlines as an employer? What do I think of Target as an employer, or McDonald’s or Starbucks, or Apple? What are those first characterizations that I give to it? And where’s that coming from? What has been established that has made me think of Apple as a good or bad employer? And that’s what we’re talking about when it comes to the employer brand. Now, you may say, well, Laura, do I care about employer brand, I’m not Apple. I’m not Southwest Airlines. But this is the thing. We’re competing for the same top talent for new hires, as the companies down the street, the big guys, the Targets, the Starbucks, we’re competing for entry level individuals, those great new hires that are fresh out of college and university, full of ideas and full of energy as Southwest Airlines. So, we really need to know who we are as an employer, and start establishing our business and our story, from not only the brand for our clients, but the brand for what we want people to think of us as an employer.


Kelly: It almost seems to me like you’re talking about something that is outwardly facing that is sort of an extension of like mission, vision, values positioning, like who we are in the world, who we serve, but also from that employer standpoint, who we are, what’s important to us, what is our purpose, what is our lived mission, and what is it going to be like, potentially, if you work here as an employee.


Laura: Especially when we’re starting out, and we don’t have a large team, putting effort and time into consideration into that, we might know we want to be a good employer, or we might have had some bad experience in the past with some other corporate employers and said, we are not going to be like A, B or C.


Kelly: I don’t know what you’re talking about Laura.


Laura: But we also know we want to be like D, E and F. But as we’re growing, let’s be honest, we have 1000 hats. And the HR hat wasn’t one that we thought, yeah, this was the one I’m going to pick up and I’m going to run with and sometimes these considerations get pushed on the backburner. And all of a sudden, we have a candidate in front of us that we really love. And we’re trying to win them. And we haven’t set up a system and we haven’t really established who we want to be as an employer to provide that employment story to them and to why they want to work for us.


Kelly: That’s interesting. So, employer story or employment story. That’s interesting. Like I had never thought about that in this context before. That’s kind of interesting. So, I’m imagining that there’s some kind of intersection between the agency brand, or the brand of the agency, and then that employer brand. And is that kind of where that story intersects for these new recruits?


Laura: I’ll give you a little bit of essential HRs employer story just to frame it out for interest. So, when I started essentially, HR, it was because I wanted part-time employment. I had a young family, and I thought if I’m going to work 60 hours a week, it’s going to be for me and not for somebody else. Of course, I didn’t want to work 60 hours a week. I wanted to work 30. So, I started Essential HR and we hit a great thing and we needed to expand so we started hiring employees. And I thought to myself, if I wanted part-time employment, flexible work opportunities, there’s got to be other passionate, amazing HR people who also want these flexible work opportunities. And that’s how we started building. Our employer brand is all about fractional, flexible and remote opportunities. So instead of hiding behind the fact that I was hiring only when we started out part-time people, that became a standard for which we were looking for people. And in the same sense, when you’re having to hire, you really want to figure out why did I start this company? And why do people want to be a part of it? So, was it for your family, was it a passion? What is the underlying reason for why you started the company? Because people want to attach themselves to something they can be passionate about. And you’re like, Laura, I’m a garage, or I’m an agency, we help people with marketing. It is what it is. It’s not rocket science. We’re not saving lives here. But you’ve got to dig down and say, okay, but there’s something important to what we do. And we want people to be excited about that as well.


Kelly: Right. Like Simon Sinek says, do you believe what we believe, right?


Laura: Absolutely.


Kelly: Yeah, interesting. So, what kind of things would negatively affect an employer brand?


Laura: Yeah, so we can throw all and I’m not suggesting you throw all kinds of money into building an employer brand, if you’re a small organization, because I think relationships trumps all the fancy websites or career pages that you might throw money at. I think what you have to really, really dig down into when you’re establishing this employer brand is the systems for how you communicate with people. Now, in a lot of our companies, we’ve established communication systems for our clients, we have very high standards for how we communicate with clients, and the amount of communication and how often. But oftentimes, when it comes to hiring somebody, it becomes sidelined. And we know there’s this awful stigma in the HR world that HR people tend to ghost potential applicants. And I call it a stigma, but it’s the truth, we do. And it’s something that as HR we are trying very hard to change, because when an applicant applies to you, and you don’t look at that resume for three to five days, that might be normal, because maybe you’re looking at them all a week after you post.


Kelly: Sure.


Laura: But that applicant, the minute they apply at your exciting opportunity that you put great information and a great job posting out for, they’re waiting with bated breath every single second of the day, and 24 hours goes by that why haven’t they called me yet. I’m the perfect candidate. I’m so excited. I really want to work there. And so, you got to know that, what feels like a week goes by, and it’s a snap of a finger of time for you. For them, they’re anxious about every minute that goes by, hoping that you’re going to call them. And so then maybe you step in front of them and you have whether it’s a virtual interview, or face to face interview. And I know again, we’ve all had that opportunity where we’ve gone for an interview, and you go and sit down and introduce yourself to the receptionist, say I’m here to meet so and so. And you sit down in your way and you smile nervously at everybody that walks by to show how excited you are, you showed up 15 minutes early, and it only brings more pain to your gut as you sit there nervously wondering if you should ask where the bathroom is. And then the person who’s interviewing you shows up 10 or 15 minutes late. And so now you’ve sat there for half an hour, and you’re still trying to make a great impression. And then you sit down for the person who’s interviewing you, and they never open your resume. It doesn’t feel prepared. All of that. And I get it. We’re busy people as entrepreneurs, and as business owners, we have tons of things going on. But all of those little interactions establish your employer brand.


Kelly: Thank you for doing that. Thank you for walking through what it was like, from the experience and the perspective of the potential candidate, the potential employee, because what you did was you literally just dropped us into a really empathetic moment where we were living their experience. And so, whether you’re an agency leader or owner, on the leadership team, or dealing with something related to HR, I think it’s important for everyone to understand what that experience was like. I mean, we’ve all been there, regardless of what position we have right now. We’ve all been there. I was laughing as you were talking about it, because I’m like, oh, yeah, I literally did that once. Only once but yeah, entrepreneurship was definitely my path, but we’ve all been there, right? And so, remembering what it’s like, is really important because what kind of experience do you want that candidate to have of your employer brand, right?


Laura: I’ll give you an example from one of our clients who was competing for fresh out of university students. This was about a year ago. And when she offered her the job after going through the interview, the girl said, “Listen, it’s Thursday. I have an interview on Monday with another employer. I just feel like I really need to take that interview to be able to make the right decision.” And our client called, she’s like, “I’m freaking out. I really want this girl. She’s amazing. She’s awesome.” And we said, “Listen, you’ve done everything right to this point. You provided a great experience. Your office is beautiful. You have an amazing team. Let it be.” And then Monday, literally one o’clock, right after the interview, she called our client and said, “This interview has solidified the fact that yes, I want to work for you guys.” And that’s the difference. And you’re like, again, I’m 10 people, what does it mean? It makes a difference when your experience and everything about what you’ve done for this candidate makes them feel important, makes them feel like you’re the right choice for their next career move.


Kelly: Yeah. And especially right now where it is so difficult to hire people, to find them, to hire them. I’ve had lots of clients say, okay, we’re in the process of hiring for this particular position, we found somebody that we love, we waited three days to get back to them, because we were wondering about this other candidate. And in the meantime, they took another job. And we’re like, gutted because of it. And that’s the thing like even that at the tail end, once you’ve made a decision, if you are sure, make the offer because especially right now in this market, it’s a wild west out there.


Laura: It is. And we’ve had clients who, the person has accepted the offer. And then four days later accepted a different offer. And or we’ve had, once I’ve gone on my favorite, they went all the way through the interview process, and then decided in this environment, it’s too risky to move, they’re going to stay where they are. And it’s just like, oh, so now we’ve changed how we interview when we’re pre-screening for clients to ask things like, tell me about any qualms that you might have? Or are there any other offers that you’re engaged with right now? Are there any employers? And especially all the way through asking if you were to receive this role, what concerns do you have about it, so that we can try to get it off at the beginning, have that conversation in the beginning. And not two weeks or three weeks into the interview process, after the offer that they say, you’re a really young company so I think it’s a little risky at this point.


Kelly: Yeah, no, that’s great. Those are great tips. And just changing that whole narrative and the whole set of questions that you might ask someone. I love that. [Commercial] So what types of HR policies and practices are typically necessary or included in creating an employer brand?


Laura: Yeah, so I would say the first system is the job description, getting clear about what the job is so that you can post it in a way that, so I call a job description as it’s everything involved in that role, to responsibilities, tasks, work environment, key performance indicators. So, what makes somebody successful in this role? What are those statistics, and then you want to turn that into your job posting, and your job posting is not going to list the 1800 responsibilities and tasks. It’s more like your dating profile. You really want that job posting to be enticing. And you want that job title to be something that makes sense. So, a lot of companies love to make up these creative titles, just for whatever reason, but it doesn’t accurately explain to somebody on the outside what the role is, in the same way, that general laborer isn’t exactly an enticing job type, either. So, you want to make sure that job posting is something that somebody be like, yeah, I really want to work there. So, when you start working at recruitment flow, so when we kind of touched on that, it is really important in the employer brand. The next step of it, though, is your onboarding. So once somebody has said, yes, they’ve signed on the dotted line, what are you doing to make sure that you’ve rolled out the red carpet for them? And again, I’m not judging. I get it. Everyone is so busy that you’re like, Laura, if I had time to roll out a red carpet, I wouldn’t need to hire somebody to begin with. But this is the thing, the statistics that they have, and I’m not going to quote them because I’ll probably make up the wrong numbers, but they’re pretty strongly suggesting that the engagement that you provide a new hire in their first day week, month, significantly impacts their efficiency, their effectiveness. So how quickly they get on board and their loyalty and engagement to the organization. So that investment upfront, makes great, great rewards on the back end.


Kelly: Yeah, it’s almost like what you put into that person from the onset is what you’re going to get out of them in the long term.


Laura: So having a system that when they show up, they feel like you knew they were coming. And there can be little things and big things. I’m not the best in terms of hospitality. It’s never been my forte, but a few pieces of swag from your organization sent in advance with a letter saying, we’re so excited to have you join the team, let me tell you how much of a long way that goes, or even just a little vase of flowers on their desk, if you’re a brick and mortar. And then having on Monday morning, if you have an onboarding system, and it doesn’t have to be intense, it doesn’t have to be like, again, I’m talking to small businesses here. We don’t have an onboarding department. But just some agenda that they need to talk to, what they need to do so that they feel that you are prepared for them. That’s going to go a long way. Also, when an emergency happens on Monday morning, and you need to step away from that individual to take care of that fire, they have something to do other than stare at an empty desk and twiddle their thumbs or read an outdated employment policy manual.


Kelly: Right. Such a good point. I feel like this is where everybody falls off, like the onboarding process, primarily for employees, also for clients. But that’s a whole other show. But primarily for employees, this is where it all falls off. It’s like, “I don’t know, Joe, starting on Monday. I guess he should talk to Amanda. Maybe he should shadow so and so.” Right? That never works as like pulling him off on some other employee who’s potentially going to be doing something similar or has been in a similar role.


Laura: Yeah, on that note, though, maybe you aren’t the right person to be doing onboarding. So, for example, if you have somebody on your team, who is the extrovert who brings the office together, who is that like light and without them, the energy’s just a little bit less. They are your point person for that onboarding.


Kelly: That’s a good point.


Laura: Maybe it’s not you.


Kelly: I mean, it shouldn’t be you as the owner, right?


Laura: So that being said, prepping the individual who is doing the onboarding, giving them the tools, time and resources to be able to do it properly is important. But let’s just take a step back and figure out who is the right person to be giving the best experience to this individual. Who should we be setting them up to go out to lunch with?


Kelly: Okay, so now we have an idea of what we’re talking about by employer brand, why it matters. So, as we start to wrap up, how do agencies get started with their employer brand strategy? If this is new to them, and trust me, this is new to 95% of them.


Laura: Yeah, I think it’s taking it step by step. So, you can eat the whole frog in one bite. Let’s start with the recruitment process. So, what pieces in the recruitment process do you need, and the easiest place to start is just the communication. If you can just change your communication with a client, or with a potential applicant, it’s going to change that whole dynamic of that loyalty in that engagement, that person wanting to work for you. And then the second piece, take a look at the onboarding. And that’s a system that can be set up based off of your state, federal, or even your municipal requirements for what an individual needs to have, from a payroll health and safety perspective, paperwork, stuff, paperwork, stuff, but also in terms of any person that comes in the organization, how do we integrate them in our team. So, if you can just take one hour to put your mind towards those two items, and then write it down on a piece of paper, because the thing is, your next new hire is going to come quicker than you know, and all of a sudden going to be like, oh, I wish three months ago, I put that onboarding information together or so let’s try again. Again, I get it. Let’s try to be proactive on this rather than waiting again until Monday morning. So, take it in small bites. But if you’re also looking for some information in terms of defining your employer story, we’ve created a guide and we call it the five steps to amplify and identify and amplify your employer brand and it just helps you think through things that you might be overlooking in terms of your established culture, which could include things like your physical environment, how your team deal, how your team interacts. So, we have that download available for your listeners if they’re looking to do that, and that can be found at


Kelly: That’s perfect. Thank you for putting that together. I will definitely make sure that the production team puts that in the show notes. Absolutely. Laura, this has been really, really helpful. I think it gives agencies as employers a really good sense of why this is so important, especially as they’re trying to compete with other agencies for top talent. And a lot of these little things. A lot of these things are small tweaks, right? It’s not that you have to reinvent the wheel. But it’s little tweaks and little optimizations along the way, along this entire, I guess, I would call it like candidate experience. So, we say CX is like customer experience, but maybe CX in this case is candidate experience, and really being very intentional about how you communicate with them, how you integrate them, how you make them feel like part of the team. It goes such a long way. So, I really, really appreciate your insights on this.


Laura: Oh, I’m glad to be here Kelly. Thank you so much for having me.

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