In my experience, there is no single action that has a greater impact on your employer brand image then by winning an external award for excellence in your people management programs. It is the equivalent to winning an Oscar for a movie. This external assessment sends a message to everyone heralding the quality of your work. Winning an award sends a credible and believable message that you have “excellent people management programs.”
That message is judged to be authentic in large part because the message verifying the quality of your work came from a neutral third party conducting a side-by-side external competition between multiple firms. Potential applicants don’t automatically believe what they read on your corporate website, but your believability goes up significantly when your message is supported by this external award. In addition to employer brand building, winning an award also increases your function’s internal credibility and prestige among your organization’s executives. This additional credibility is especially important in areas like HR that rely on “soft metrics,” which executives frequently view with a skeptical eye. If you fear that executives are unsure about their assessment of your performance or level of innovativeness, an external award can quickly dispel any doubts that they might have about the quality of your work.
On top of the company-wide employer branding and the credibility benefits that accrue to your function, individuals can also receive a career boost from their firm winning awards. Once again, just like the Oscars, individuals who were on the team that won an award are likely to receive positive impacts for the remainder of their career. Award winners are likely to be viewed internally as more promotable and externally they will be more visible and in demand at other firms. Even if you are not seeking a new position, your increased visibility and credibility will aid you during your external benchmarking efforts and it will also provide you with both speaking and writing opportunities.
Noted Awards That you Should Apply for
There are numerous national functional awards and several “best place to work” type lists that you should apply for. An excellent example of a prestigious functional award is the ERE Recruiting Excellence Awards (they accept applications up until early January). Workforce magazine also sponsors a prestigious set of HR awards known as the Optimas awards (the deadline has passed for this year). Another important recognition that you must apply for is qualifying and being included as a member of the Fortune 100 “Best Companies to Work for” annual list. This company-wide recognition brings extensive exposure to the firm. In addition to these national awards, there are numerous industry and professional association awards, local SHRM chapter awards, and regional “best place to work” lists to consider.
Additional Benefits Related to Winning External Awards
Some individuals will of course make the argument that applying for and winning awards like the ERE Excellence Awards or the Fortune “Best Place To Work” list requires too much time and too many resources. But I have found that the opposite is true and that the ROI for this activity is extremely high. I know this because of my years of experience as a judge on award panels and through my research with award winners both before and after the award process. I have found a broad array of benefits that make the application worthwhile. Some of those additional benefits include:
- Business impacts — external awards are only given to functions and programs that are well designed and innovative. As a result, the programs that you develop or upgrade in order to win these awards have a high probability of producing extraordinary business results. For example, any recruiting, retention, or diversity program that is strong enough to win awards will obviously also produce direct measurable increases in workforce productivity. Even if you fail to successfully win an award, that fact will not diminish those business impacts. Additional positive business impacts may come from the increased positive media exposure that your firm will get. This increased exposure may indirectly help to support your product brand. And it may directly increase product sales, if your current and potential customers equate a quality product with a quality place to work (as they often do).
- Recruiting — winning awards may result in you getting higher quality recruits and higher offer acceptance rates. You can identify the impact of these awards by asking your new hires to specifically list the factors that affected their decision to apply for your job and to accept your offer. From the survey done during onboarding, you will frequently find external awards and recognition are a major factor influencing their decisions. In addition, because college students are highly brand-conscious, this external recognition will also aid in attracting and hiring the best from college campuses.
- Retention –- your employees will have increased reasons to take pride in their firm when they see that this external recognition further supports their already existing positive view. This recognition and the resulting better understanding of what makes your firm great may make your employees think twice about leaving. In addition, their increased pride may also result in an increased level of employee referrals.
- Increased media exposure — the fact that your firm has won awards is almost always picked up in the national press and it is also spread widely on the Internet. Local media are also especially willing to spread the merits of local employers.
- Increased management cooperation — when your firm’s managers become aware that your program has won awards, they may actually decrease their resistance and become more responsive to its program staff.
- Decreasing the impact of corporate negatives — winning external awards provides you with authentic credibility. This credibility may help your firm to successfully counterbalance any negative comments that can be found about your firm on the Internet.
- A competitive advantage — because winning an award means that you are way ahead of other firms, these award-winning programs are likely to give you a noticeable competitive advantage over your talent competitors.
- A stronger corporate culture — winning awards will reinforce a corporate culture that emphasizes excellence. The example that you set may spur others to improve to the point where they can also win awards.
Action Steps to get You Started
I have completed over 10 years of research on what it takes to win these major awards. And from that experience, I have learned that there are certain critical success factors that dramatically improve your chances of winning the first time out. My top 10 “must-take” actions are listed below:
- Put together a list team of volunteers that includes several members with a strong marketing background.
- Study the available application categories and the application process for several possible awards that you are considering.
- Benchmark several previous winners, read their applications, and make a list of dos and don’ts covering the factors that separate winners from losers.
- Self-assess your own people management programs and processes, in order to identify the ones that have a realistic chance of helping you win an award.
- Put together a “story inventory” that includes a summary of each of the effective stories that could be used to successfully illustrate your best programs.
- When writing up the application for awards, follow their assessment guidelines precisely. Also include key stories, key quotes, highlight your innovations, and include quantified results that prove that your program works. Where possible, provide information on industry averages in order to show how superior your results really were.
- Have a marketing or communications professional polish your application, so that it reads like an integrated compelling story. Also include web links to compelling videos, photos, and support information to supplement your application.
- Have a neutral party pre-assess your application, use your already prepared dos and don’ts checklist.
- After you win, work with PR to maximize your press, social network, and Internet coverage. Be sure to include the award in your own resume and social network profiles. Next year, aim higher and try to also win some more prestigious awards.
- If you lose, do a failure analysis to identify what went wrong and which areas need significant improvement.
If your first reaction to the proposal of applying for awards is negative (“that’s bragging”) or even neutral (“our work should speak for itself”), you need to realize that the world of HR has changed dramatically over the last few years. Almost all firms have become significantly more aggressive and proactive in spreading their employer brand. Boasting and even bragging about a firm’s best people management programs has become commonplace following the lead set by aggressive firms like Google, SAS, and Zappos. The award application process may initially seem daunting but if you approach it scientifically, the learning curve is short. The final thing to remember is that the application process itself forces you to closely examine and compare the effectiveness and rate of innovation in your programs. Moreover, that benefit alone might be enough to justify the award application effort.