How can an employee hope to feel engaged with a brand that has only the most tenuous of commitments to their relationship and potentially leaves the employee at the beck and call of the employer? The recent political debate over zero hour employment contracts has drawn comment from across the political divide. Exact statistics as to how many people are affected appear to be spurious and the definition of the contract itself can be vague. The Office of National Statistics states “In general terms, a zero-hours contract is an employment contract in which an employer does not guarantee the individual any work and the individual is not obliged to accept any work offered”. The zero hours contract appears to require zero commitment from both parties and here rests the crux of the matter concerning the employer brand because brands are built on trust.
As the political debate has ensued, household brand names and familiar icons of the high street have been identified and vilified for their use of such flexible employment contracts. There is no doubt that zero hours contracts can work both ways to the advantage of employer and employee in certain circumstances. Students and people approaching retirement age may find the flexible nature of these contracts is suited to their lifestyle, but for individuals who depend on these jobs for their living, such terms may prove insecure and unsatisfactory. If a brand relies on an elastic work force it is essential that the employees are happy with their working arrangement and find that it benefits their lifestyle. Unhappy or compromised employees are more likely to become disaffected and have a negative impact on the morale of their colleagues. Strong brands are consistent but if the employer brand experience is sporadic it continuity will suffer and engagement levels will be compromised.
When a familiar brand name is associated with unfair conduct it will influence the public’s perception and affect their reputation. Strong brands have values that drive the behaviour of the employees and build a culture of performance. If you build a brand on a peripatetic workforce there will be reduced opportunity to create a cohesive and engaged culture. Any attempt to build a values based culture will be significantly harder when the workforce ebbs and flows according to demand. It stands to reason that a transient workforce will be less inclined to feel like a brand ambassador. Strong brands acquire meaning because they stand for something in the collective consciousness. A brands reputation is built on the consistent delivery of the brands promise and any question mark over its ability to deliver on that promise can erode confidence in the organisation and the integrity of the brand.
Since the global credit crunch the world’s brandscape has changed dramatically and this has been very visible on the UK’s high street. The disappearance from the highstreet of household retail names including; Comet, JJB Sports, Phones 4U, Habitat, Focus DIY, Principles, MFI, and Zavvi/Virgin Megastore stand testament to the challenging times. Levels of trust in the banks and institutions are at an all time low and the media spotlight on corruption and unfair practice demands a new era of transparency and openness. The latest political debacle about zero hours contracts is another example of how brands may potentially be guilty of contradicting the ethics and values they espouse in the treatment of their employees and suppliers.
Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, has introduced legislation that will free workers bound by strict zero hours contracts that have previously prevented them from working for other employers. This move has been criticised by some pressure groups who accuse the government of not going far enough to protect people on the outside edge of the mainstream workforce who depend on these types of jobs. It’s part of a change in the jobs market that was identified in 2000 by the author and social activist Naomi Klein in her seminal book ‘No Logo’. She described ‘a sense of impermanence blowing through the labour force’. This change has affected everyone from office temps, retail, restaurant and technology contractors. Fourteen years ago Klein stated that every labour battle of the decade had focused on enforced casualisation. Today critics cry that a part-time, zero-hours workforce that receives minimal training and investment, contributes little tax and won’t help to pay off the nations deficit.
The challenge for the employer brand, if it is to continue attracting, retaining and engaging the best talent, is to demonstrate commitment and a degree of certainty within the flexible terms of the zero hours contract. If this is not achievable it will be a case of zero hours and zero commitment, which will impact on the brand experience and hit the bottom line. The fundamental building block of any brand is trust.
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