Vulnerability in Employer Branding: Why to Avoid Bragging on Your Career Site

Whether you're recruiting new talent for a company, or you work in marketing looking for a strategy to differentiate your products from competitors' - being different and standing out with your communication pays off! For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, some companies, such as Airbnb, decided to take a specific approach by showcasing their vulnerability towards employees, which resonated with future candidates personally and increased their brand reputation. 

In an era in which employer branding is gaining increasing attention and brands are learning to think in marketing terms to build attractive brands around their companies, finding the strategy that will stand out is becoming increasingly complex and important at the same time! 


More specifically, 86% of HR professionals say that recruitment is becoming increasingly like marketing, indicating a considerable shift in recruiters' mindset and strategic approach. While most companies realize the importance of employer branding, we often still see a lack of originality in this area. Somehow, most companies have the same approach to employer branding by pointing out the amazing culture they have and the benefits they offer. 

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Even though it seems intuitive and logical to try to portray your company in the best possible light to gather as many applications as possible, it can become less genuine and have the opposite effect. That is especially due to the increased online visibility of employees since everyone can quickly uncover the truths about the company. Additionally, attracting many candidates that wouldn't be a good fit for the role can easily backfire and overwhelm your recruiters. 

That is why, like in marketing, originality and showcasing vulnerability can go a long way when designing your employer branding strategy for your target audience. 

What could be improved in the traditional approach to employer branding

One of the biggest misconceptions in the current approach to employer branding is that the companies do their best to attract every possible career site visitor to apply for a position in their company. However, by creating communication that will portray the organization as this universally fantastic place to work where everything is excellent, and almost anyone can picture themself working in that environment, companies are often not doing themself a favor. 

Instead, attracting the right talent and even disinteresting others will ultimately serve the true purpose of good employer branding. Having the right talent going through the application process and finally hiring long-term employees for your organization will eventually highlight your employer branding success.

Here are the most prominent risks associated with inaccurate employer branding communication:

  1. Backlash for your company's reputation

  2. Attracting irrelevant talent & higher employee turnover

Backlash for your company's reputation

Reputational damage for companies has proven to be one of the worst things happening to a company in multiple business areas. More specifically, Harvard Business Review reported that reputational damage would cost a company a minimum of 10% pay increase to convince a candidate to join the company. So, to conclude, in case of reputational damage for your company, not only do you lose even the most loyal customers, but the people that used to desire working for you are now more than hesitant about it.  

One recent famous example of significant reputational damage is Bird. Their 2- minute Zoom call was organized to let 406 employees know they are being let go amid the pandemic. By mistreating their loyal employees who were used to putting in long hours into building their product, they attracted negative press and burned bridges with some of the industry's brightest and most engaged professionals. As a result, their shiny career page and perks listed in the benefits section were seen as ungenuine and even fake and were ultimately overshadowed by negative online reviews from former employees. We can only imagine how much of a salary increase the company was forced to offer to their future potential candidates…

Attracting irrelevant talent & higher employee turnover

If you end up with employer branding communication that doesn't set you apart from other companies and a candidate cannot differentiate your work environment from any other, something is off in your strategy. 

More importantly, by lacking elements that will distinguish your brand from any other, you cannot expect to receive a high volume of candidates that will be a good fit for the position. As Brian Adams, the CEO of Employer Branding agency Ph Creative, puts it in an interview for the Deliberate Directions: 

"... the problem I see time and time again, organizations think that they just need to be the most generally attractive to the whole entire talent audience”,...”What you’re looking for is a way to position your proposition that will actually repel more people than it compels.”

As this successful businessman and author mentions, the goal is not to attract everyone but to distinguish what kind of employees you are specifically looking for and communicate accordingly. An example that Adams uses to explain his approach to employer branding was the one from Apple when the company hired his employer branding agency to adapt its employer branding strategy. From the initial conversations with employees, they soon realized that work-life balance isn't something the company should advertise since most interviewees mentioned long hours in the office as an essential element of the culture. 

However, at first, the management was worried that being upfront with their employees about staying long hours would negatively reflect the number of applications they received. Despite the initial hesitation, they decided to point out other elements of the culture, such as the benefits of learning, personal growth, and working on a world-class product, while communicating the importance of dedication and working long hours. 

This move made the company unique and enabled its applicants to decide whether to apply or not entirely to them while being aware of the pros and cons of working for the company. Ultimately, the applicants knew precisely what to expect from the tech giant, and the ones who gravitated towards work-life balance were instantly turned off by their communication. This strategy ultimately helped the company attract more relevant applicants and reduce the possibility of early turnover. 

What is a vulnerability in employer branding

While Apple decided to practice honesty in their employer branding, other companies went so far to practice vulnerability for the same purposes. For example, contrary to what Bird did by letting go of over 400 employees in a brief call, Airbnb decided to be entirely honest, transparent, and compassionate with their employees at the time. 

What does it mean to be vulnerable when strategizing employer branding? 

When the pandemic broke, Airbnb faced major troubles as tourism and hospitality were the industries severely hit by worldwide travel restrictions. The company was facing the reality of firing 25% of its workforce practically overnight. To express their compassion, the company undertook several measures: 

  1. A highly compassionate statement where they express regret and sadness regarding letting go of so much of their staff

  2. Step-by-step guidance and explanations behind their severance checks

  3. Offered a year of paid health insurance to their US-based former employees

  4. Assisted in connecting their now ex-employees with new job opportunities

For more examples of brilliant employer branding practices during covid-19 check out the article: Employer Branding Amidst COVID-19: 3 Brilliant Examples

From this example, we can see that vulnerability is not about highlighting the negatives in your organization but more about recognizing the reality of the situation and showcasing that you are taking steps to make a change. In addition, such vulnerability helps you connect with future candidates while offering a different brand experience and standing out from the competitors. 

Where to start with the vulnerability? 

Even though most of our examples from the article were related to the communication companies established during the COVID-19 pandemic, the good news is that you don't have to find yourself in the middle of a worldwide crisis to kickstart your vulnerability employer branding practices! Moreover, the pandemic opened the door to vulnerability practices way beyond COVID-19 pandemic related communication. 

The first thing you should do is gather valuable insights from your current employees and leadership and pinpoint the goods and the “bads” at your company. Accepting the mindset of not having everything perfect, working towards improvement and communicating transparently about it is what will make you stand out from competition. Ultimately, it will help you connect with your candidates and attract more relevant talent.

Therefore, reshaping your employee value proposition, redefining the values statement, starting up a career blog, or designing a talent alumni program results from a more significant shift in strategy. Ultimately, being genuine, different, and vulnerable toward your candidates will go a long way in attracting the right talent for your organization! 

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