Life at Gem

Employer brand and EVP creation


Des Caballero

Director of Employer Brand

Posted on

October 12, 2022

Recently, Gem’s Chief Recruiting Officer Richard Cho published an article strongly advocating for the employer brand function in this market, since your company brand may be more important than it ever was. As Gem’s first employer brand hire, I couldn’t agree more. The reality has always been that a company’s employer brand will exist whether or not they invest in it. So it’s in your best interest to shape that narrative yourself—because to say nothing is to open the door to someone else speaking on your behalf, and to your company narrative ultimately being commandeered. But this becomes an imperative when the market’s in a downturn: the last thing any company wants right now is to go silent, because silence will suggest to the talent market that economic conditions have broken you, and that you’re neither growing nor innovating. ‍‍

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Gem invested in this function early on, and it was remarkably forward-thinking of them—it’s really never too early to do so. Because if you’re not communicating company culture, or what it’s like to be an employee at your organization, through vignettes and spotlights and daily celebrations, you’ll be trying to hire talent who can’t imagine what it means to work for you. And people are generally wary of stepping into unknowns.

Employer brand is a relatively new phenomenon in recruiting. It’s been around since the nineties; and even five years ago, people were saying: I don’t really understand what that is. But by necessity, we’re having our moment. And I say “by necessity” because talent is demanding it. I’ve actually been the first hire for this role a few times. The employer brand space is small; we all know each other, and we’re typically the first at a company. It’s rare that an employer brand person is backfilling for a role.

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Like talent operations, a first employer brand role typically opens because too many people have stretched themselves beyond their job descriptions to piecemeal a “brand strategy” together. Maybe it’s been supported by ten different people in the recruiting and marketing orgs for the past two years, and the company has begun to understand the importance of it—enough to open a role, but not enough to know what they’re looking for. I often see employer brand job descriptions looking for someone who’s a writer, an editor, a videographer, a social media professional, a marketer, a sourcer, a recruiter, and an events person. And the brand professional has to be like, Okay, slow down. We’re only going to accomplish two of these things right away. And even that will require leveraging various teams.

One of the great debates in employer brand is: do you sit in marketing or in recruiting? I’ve done both, and the difference matters. In one sense it makes sense to sit in marketing because everything I do through storytelling is creative. I’m working with the Design team all the time; they’re my biggest partners and co-creators. But I’d say brand should sit with whatever team understands their role, values them enough to give them a voice and a seat, and allocates budget to them. At Gem, I sit on the recruiting team. Cho not only supports my work but he advocates for me, giving me creative freedom to bring the brand to life. And there’s something to be said for sitting close to recruiting when priorities and open roles can change by the day. When I’m close to the business, I’m among the first to know when headcount changes. That proximity allows me to be proactive rather than reactive in terms of projects or initiatives that might need to change.

Prioritizing employer brand projects 

When I first come into an organization, I do a sweeping audit that I call “bandaids and vitamins.” First it’s a matter of learning who’s been doing what, because inevitably 10 or 20 people have been attending to “employer brand” in a way that isn’t unified. What’s already in motion; and what can I pause, or fix, or build upon? Bandaids are for things that are bleeding out and need immediate attention. At a previous employer, I walked in on my first day and learned there were hundreds of unused Linkedin dollars that would expire within a few short months. So what was I going to do with them? That necessarily became my focus in my first month there—meetings with our account rep to determine our strategy, backwards-planning the content, and so on. We were bleeding out on LinkedIn, and it would’ve been a huge cost to the business. 

Maybe it’s your Glassdoor page, which can’t be sub-par—95% of candidates will go there before they take a job offer with you. What are the things that will hurt you—that are hurting you now—if they’re not taken care of? When you’ve stopped the bleeding with those bandaids, then you can talk about redefining your narrative. Then you can think about training people in how to talk to candidates. Then you might consider those vitamins—those nice-to-haves—and get proactive with storytelling through different creative mediums.‍

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The other thing I’ve found is critical when stepping into an employer brand role is expectation-setting. We’ll hopefully have some immediate wins, but a meaningful employer brand happens in stages and takes time. Myself and others in the space have had to do a lot of expectation-setting. For example, most folks in this role own the careers page. And while everyone wants a new careers page, it's not something that’s done in 30 days with new colors and font. We first need a vibrant, compelling, and authentic company story. We need to create an archive of content out of a series of moments, and in collaboration with our teams. That takes time to build. It requires extensive research into what the organization is really doing to support its employees so we can create our employee value proposition (EVP). It means highlighting our teams and our amazing community of employee resource groups (ERGs). It means meaningful thought leadership about DEIB. Maybe it means refreshing our benefits. Once the EVP is created, it will support and amplify our other messaging—and then we can think about a refresh of the careers page.‍‍

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One of my big initiatives at Gem now is the EVP, which is in its earliest thought-stages. I’m beginning to imagine what it will entail. We have some terrific return-to-work policies for parents; that’s a story worth telling. We’re winning a lot of awards. Will these go on our careers page? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that these are all building blocks that we assemble until the moment we have something distinct and meaningful to say.

The steps to EVP-creation

I’ve created EVPs at two companies prior to Gem: one at Coursera, and one at Robinhood. It’s a long journey, and I’ll detail it below for those of you taking on such an initiative. First, it’s important to distinguish between a company’s mission and its EVP. Google’s mission, for example, is “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But it's EVP is “Build for everyone.” I tend to think of the mission as an organization’s “Why” and the EVP as its “What”: What does it look like inside our organization? What’s in it for our candidates and employees? What lights our team up every day? 

Among the first questions I ask in the process of building an EVP are: Why do people join this company? Can I get new hire survey data and comments? What about employee engagement surveys? Exit surveys? Why do people leave? Then I conduct focus groups, which are possibly the most time-intensive part of the process. I’ll want to sit down with Gems of varying tenures and consider diversity of thought, of location, of roles. I’ll want maybe five groups of five, 25 different voices. Then I’ll have one-on-ones with key leaders. I’ll have one with Heather Dunn, our Chief People Officer. I’ll have one with Nick Bushak (Gem’s CTO) and one with Steve Bartel (Gem’s CEO). I’ll ask things like: What are you not willing to compromise in Gem’s future? What do you want to hold onto? What would make you leave? And critically, I’ll want to make sure I’m providing a safe space for people to answer honestly and authentically. From there I’ll be synthesizing: What are the patterns and the pillars I’m seeing? 

In parallel, I’ll be looking at our product competitors and our talent competitors. Every strong EVP needs to take into account its competition. I’ll look at their EVPs and audit their messaging. Because Gem isn’t like every other company; and when I’m ready to showcase a few recommendations, I don’t want it to sound like we are. At a previous employer, everyone loved the word “build.” And I was like: I do too. I love Legos; I get it. But seven of our competitors use it, so that’s a constraint. You want to be ahead of that. Depending on the industry, you might also have compliance and legal constraints. At Robinhood I learned pretty quickly that there are certain words in a heavily-regulated environment that you stay away from.‍‍

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With the competitive analysis helping me jettison some possibilities, I’ll pare the options down to maybe 10 key pillars and themes. I’ll start bouncing those ideas around with my key stakeholders—with Cho, with Heather—drafting some and seeing what resonates in real-time. Together, we’ll distill those options down from 10 to maybe five; I’ll then hold some more focus groups to test and iterate, and get that five down to three. That’s when I’ll really need to take a stand on what my recommendation is, and develop and clear-and-compelling “why.”

Ultimately, when I come to our leadership team with a buttoned-up deck, I should be able to say: Here’s what our competitors are saying. As a reminder, here’s our mission; here’s some of our product marketing language. Here’s what I think our EVP should be. Here’s how it supports and doesn’t cannibalize. Here’s the rollout plan for that EVP. This is why we think it’ll be impactful. Here’s the laundry list of people we checked, so we’re good from a regulatory perspective. And oh, here’s a list of words we didn’t use… and here’s why. 

Showing up with all your data and research is critical, because you’ll be in that meeting and an exec will pull up a thesaurus and say, I like the word pioneer; my gut tells me that’s a good word. And you’ll have to be able to say, Well yes; we considered that. And here’s why we decided not to move forward with it. So let's try to figure out which one of the three I presented here works. If not, that's okay; you have veto power. But here's why I feel really strongly about this. It’s why you need a strong partnership with marketing all along. You want them in your corner. So when you come to that meeting, you can say: This is what we’ve all agreed upon. 

The employer brand role is interesting in that you’re typically managing up to the highest levels in the company because the EVP is one of the organization’s most important messages. The process of creating one (depending on stakeholders and approvals) can sometimes take as long as a year. And what you ultimately want is this: a story that everyone—regardless of location, age, tenure, etc.—can see themselves in, and that gets them excited and motivated about the work they’d be doing at the company. That message doesn’t change whether we’re in a recession or in hypergrowth. So there are elements of breadth and of timelessness that are important to an EVP. I’ve seen companies redo their EVP after a year or two, and that’s always been a sign to me that they didn’t have a strong one to begin with. They had a consumer tagline. ‍‍

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That said, it would be naive to say that an EVP is a one-and-done project. We should be looking at our messaging all the time and asking, Okay, is this still true? Have we pivoted? For as long as I’m at Gem I’ll have one ear to the ground for how things might shift as we iterate and grow. In one sense, we’ll want to stay true to our EVP; but in another, we’ll also want our EVP to be authentic to who we are, and what we’re up to, now.

Publicly celebrating Gem’s Gems

When our EVP is decided—and it’ll be a bit down the road—there’s a lot of general education that will come with it: educating our Gems on what we landed on; educating our recruiters on how to meaningfully speak to it with both passive and active candidates. But as that project unfolds, I'll be working on additional storytelling and finding creative ways to highlight our special Gem culture.

I also look forward to capturing and publicly celebrating the range of remarkable voices, opinions, and experiences at Gem: what does the day-to-day look like for each employee here? Companies should be celebrating all employees of all backgrounds throughout the year—not just changing their logo for a cultural moment. To do so is a miss; it looks performative. One of the biggest reasons I came to Gem is the company’s unwavering dedication to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). I’m vocal about the fact that our employer brand should actively celebrate the team we’ve built, and the communities that sustain us. 

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I look forward to sharing these efforts with the talent market as they unfold, and sharing my learnings with other recruiting teams to support their employer branding efforts.


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