December 7, 2016 | Kelly

Communism failed, so does Fascism (eventually) and so will Populism but there’s an Employer Brand message staring us in the face right now

I’m trying to make a serious point here and this has come from doing an Employer Brand Management talk last month in Sofia with 160 business people. It was my first visit to Bulgaria, a country under Soviet rule for 45 years. Just being face to face with history can provide a new perspective.

Here’s the audience, and here’s another during questions:

It was a lively up to date and engaged audience. Go back 27 years and conferences were not like that. Bulgarian communist leaders felt they should always look angry. Curious how manic people never seem to smile. Dinner with him might have been hard work.

One of my themes in Sofia was the challenge of involving and engagement of people outside the established world of full time employment. If you’re outside that then your loyalty is likely to be more focused on yourself, your family, your neighbourhood and maybe your nation.

There are millions of people out there in the blue beyond the emotional reach of an employer whether they have one or not. Some are doing fine but many have real difficulty as the BBC Inside Out programme 11th Nov on the conditions for AHC Services drivers for Amazon demonstrated. There are so many like these who feel excluded and for whom the concept of the Employer Brand is a bad joke. Or worse, the phrase may prompt memories of belonging to an organisation they once felt a part of.

And millions too who do have jobs but they too are beyond reach. They feel excluded too. Do their employers know this is how they feel?

Are these not the thoughts of many of those who voted Brexit in the UK or Trump in the USA? The challenge is how to give these fellow citizens the engagement with a global liberal capitalist system whether or not they are on a payroll.

We have been here before. I visited the Museum for Socialist Art in Sofia which has gathered the artefacts of Bulgaria’s time as a communist state 1944-1989. It’s where I got that earlier shot of the Communist leader. It’s a drab place. Outside are statues of workers, manfully straining and leaders 9 metres high like Lenin and Bulgaria’s Georgi Dimitrov. These used to dominate the streets of downtown Sofia. Not anymore.



Inside were vast oil paintings of adoring crowds on great occasions. It brought home to me how powerful the original pitch for communism was when leaders thought workers did not need to be listened to or treated as fellow citizens. To quote Arthur Koestler it was of course ‘The God that failed’ but communism was certainly a God in its time. I don’t think Fascism ever was – always racial nationalism at its ugliest and that doesn’t export too well in the way communism did.

2016 voters may think they are miles away from communism and fascism yet what prompted the unrest and anger that formed them both is back. People want to be listened to, be understood and feel they matter but clearly, millions feel excluded. They do not feel they belong and they’re angry. Small wonder Populism and Nationalism have flourished.

What a great cover. Note Le Pen at the back.

In that issue, the Economist wrote – Like Mr Trump, leaders of countries such as Russia, China and Turkey embrace a pessimistic view that foreign affairs are often a zero sum game in which global interests compete with national ones. It is a big change that makes for a more dangerous world
It goes on to define ethnic nationalism as aggressive and nostalgic and drawing on race or history to set the nation apart. That can leave it vulnerable to turmoil and strife. Mr Trump risks being trapped in a vicious cycle of reprisals and hostility

Let’s look at the UK because there are significant elements of that here which surfaced in the June referendum. When millions of people feel disengaged and excluded it’s small wonder they’re angry.

You will all be familiar with the June UK referendum demographics on the differences between Remain and Leave on age, education and attitudes to matters like capital punishment, diversity and ‘being English’

Only 34% of poor students in Northern England achieved 5 or more GCSEs including English and Maths compared to 48% in London. Only 3% of working age population moves to another region in any year and most of those who leave to go to University do not return.

Charles O’Reilly Stanford on Senior Mgt pay failing to trickle down:

In the UK 23m are full time and 8.5m work some other way. 11m are retired.

In the US a third of Americans work independently and that is forecast to rise to 50%.

Somehow we need all of them in a very big and broad tent and so many don’t think they are under it anymore. Did anyone see the Last Miners documentary about the closure of the UK’s last deep coal mine?

Last Miners (Killinglee Colliery slides from documentary). How many people like this – a bit older, not much in the way of transferable skills and not much education. Yet do they not deserve that sense of belonging which everyone needs? delivered often via employment. So who will help them gain the sense of self worth to find it? Most people in this room know what it is like to have a clear role, a way ahead, recognition, worthwhile work, colleagues you rate and leaders you respect and trust. That is the heart of any Employer Brand.

So what can we do to extend that feeling to the excluded?

What’s the relevance of Employer Brand thinking? It is aimed at helping employers bring the best of brand management to people at work to better attract, retain and motivate their teams and change whatever is necessary to create a great working experience. When I say the best of brand management I mean Listening, understanding, planning, a clear and worthwhile purpose, respected and trusted leadership, innovation, coherence and rigorous measurement.

Most of the organisations you are working for will have much of that and the private business people among you will feel they are creating it themselves, Fine.

BUT, so far, EB mgt thinking has not worried about reaching outside immediate targets. Too few employers give any thought to the many who are unlikely to ever be valued as full time employees. It’s someone else’s problem.

Furthermore, many of the companies here today will employ free lancers, part timers and some unskilled or semi skilled employees. How do they feel? Are your corporate arms around them too? And neither can they be by employers.

The risk is that we are so close to a two-nations divide which will damage life for all of us. Who wants to stand out on either side of them and us? None of us want to be pigeon holed as a member of the metropolitan elite, the privileged few or as the excluded, the unqualified, the huddled masses yearning to be free.

History is peppered with the dangers of ignoring widespread concerns. Those who feel excluded, like so many Leave voters, cannot be ignored by a democratic government which is why Teresa May is so intent on implementing Brexit.

And neither can they be by employers. Furthermore, those concerns are going to get worse as and when technology takes out the need for more great tranches of employment – think of drivers or call centre workers. But Populism is not a comprehensive enough approach to current complexities and if it fails guess who it will hurt most? We need both capitalism, government intervention, a sense of fairness and a respected leadership who are valued for what they do for society overall. Some indicated action:

  1. It’s surely worth exploring how Employer Brand thinking in individual organisations can reach out the hand of human interest to those they may not employ but whose worlds are close to theirs. There are parallels to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, in which he shows great concern for fellow citizens.
  2. For starters, they should reach out beyond their FTEs
  3. Employers should play a more active role in national agendas and political thinking. I argued this during the Brexit referendum. Claiming not to have a view when you can at least inform people. Hiding behind ‘it’s political’ is a cop out.
  4. Employers can be great campaigners for the public good. Think about Unilever’s focus on sustainability. But other issues are just as immediate, e.g. ‘employability’ and ‘education’. Think what McDonalds have done.

Business needs society to be in good shape and that needs action by them as well as Government. Employer Brand thinking inside business is not enough. Employers and the state must both worry about ignoring the excluded who will always emerge when we fail to listen, care and act. They have been emerging in recent years and we knew it – wilful blindness once again.

If we don’t act it won’t be much fun for any of us given millions of troubled, angry people on either side of the drawbridge.

Simon Barrow