Uncertainty continues to be a stressor for businesses, where the retention of our teammates has felt especially precarious in recent times. We’re seeing massive shifts in people to new companies and new positions, to the point that I’ve been desensitized to these announcements from my LinkedIn network.
While The Great Resignation and the recent layoffs tearing through the tech sector continue to be hot topics across professional content hubs, many of us are struggling to find the path forward.
The weight of this instability is heavy, but it doesn’t have to be. The answer comes down to human-centered insights and employer brand strategy.
If you can prioritize research to understand your people, you’ll inform your company’s unique value proposition—and the picture for how you can attract top talent becomes clear.
Even as a founder and CEO, I get weekly outreach from overzealous recruiters. They implore, “Lacey, are you satisfied in your role today?”
If I’m being solicited, you can bet my team is, too. Aggressive outreach and jaw-dropping offers are the talk of the town. If your team is spending any time online, chances are they’re privy to the feeding frenzy of opportunities and all that could be afforded by them.
Change is inevitable and most of us will experience some team churn this year. The question is, how do you react when it happens?
When someone leaves, the worst you can do is fall prey to fear and reactivity. I see this sense of anxiety driving competition to new levels, with leaders feeling forced to up the ante—from increasing compensation to adding pet insurance. This is one strategy, to be sure. But as the primary tactic it’s shortsighted.
Hiring based on dollars and benefits alone doesn’t enable retention. If anything, it leads to volatility—both in overextending budgets, therefore risking the sustainability of businesses—but also volatility in the retention of your team. Talented people are very desirable. So if this is the only factor, what would stop them from jumping for more money later?
If compensation is your only strategy, you might win the hire—but lose the employee.
This moment in time can feel a bit paralyzing, but the good news is that it isn’t out of your control. The answer to finding and keeping the team you want already exists if you know where to look.
Here’s what I’ve seen in the market today: most hiring and recruiting practices are not human centered, and are not targeting candidates based on psychographics.
People are complex. We all have unique personalities and interests, as well as differing needs, beliefs, and motivations. These vary from person to person. Similarly, companies tend to have their own culture, values, and priorities.
What we are looking for is alignment between the two. If you understand both your people and what your business has to offer—and can connect and communicate the relationship between the two—you may already have the recipe for finding and keeping your people.
At this point, you might have more questions than answers. For instance:
To begin, you have to start treating your recruiting like a product.
Related People Nerds article: When Your Product is Your People
Our team at ZoCo works with many software clients. Those who are earlier-stage are seeking product market fit, and this concept is very applicable to recruiting.
To achieve product market fit, you identify the specific target customer who would most value what you have to offer, and serve them a product that they value. You’ve identified a demand, and are serving that need. In this case, what you have to offer as a product is the experience of working for your company.
If you’re thinking about a role at your company as if it were a product, you first must define what you’re selling. How do you define your unique employer value proposition? What is special about where you work?
The answer to this question can be identified through a UX approach, uncovering the perspectives of the team who already works for your company.
I’m personally a champion for human-centered design and the power it wields for problem solving. As the CEO of a UX and product design studio for customer-centric software, I’ve found that its applications go well beyond designing interfaces for digital products. Putting people at the center of your strategy and involving their perspectives provides solutions targeted to individual needs.
So how do you apply human-centered design to recruiting? The method is always similar. Start by empathizing so that you can build knowledge. Talk to the people on your team today to identify the stories they tell. Ask them for anecdotes of what’s special, looking to understand why they are working here, what is unique, and why they believe someone else should join them.
These are hard questions to answer. Not everyone will be aware of why they do the things they do. Practice asking why, and why again. Ask how they’ve seen a certain idea come to life through a specific event. And if you really get stuck, pull in a pro. An excellent researcher can dig deep to identify those nuggets, even when the person they are interviewing doesn’t yet know how to articulate the answers to their questions.
Once you can get into the weeds and unravel the authentic stories that bind people together, now you’re onto something. There are always underlying themes, even if there are differences between teams across the business.
I’ve done similar research for my company. I’ve felt for years that there is rare magic here which makes being a teammate special—but identifying those themes and putting them into narrative is the next step.
After spending intentional time with my team, we identified inclinations towards ownership, mastery, and impact. These are the special cultural values that we provide our team in spades, running as an underlying theme for how we operate and what we prioritize.
Ownership means you are trusted and empowered to make big decisions, as well as to shape your role in the direction that best suits your journey. This is not just a word, but a driver in all the places we grant our team autonomy to make their own decisions—from where they work, to the time they need for vacation, to how they challenge and improve our processes.
Mastery as a practice means we are driven to always be improving. We have a highly experimental culture, with room to test and learn, and comfort with failure. We value our teammate’s development—both in their core role skills, as well as investing in interpersonal and emotional development.
Impact means we care deeply about the work we do serving a purpose. We want to work with partners who are doing good in the world, and we want that work to matter. Purpose gives us pride.
These key values also align with the research of Daniel Pink, author of Drive.
The values we offer to our team shape the product we promote in our employer brand. But remember: these values are a two-way street. We must prioritize the values in our prospective teammates as well. When we don’t hear indicators of how these qualities motivate someone, it becomes easier to weed them out.
Once you’ve identified why your people stay and where your company is uniquely special, you have the foundation of your story.
The next step is to package it up into messaging that solidifies your positioning, so you can market what you’re offering to potential recruits (and your own existing team).
What were the stories they shared, and the words they used? Be sure that the basis of it all came from your team, gleaned from research insights. Once you have your first story draft, it’s time to run it through an editor.
The first indicator that something might be amiss? Squishy and ambiguous language.
If your statements are something anyone could say, chances are, this isn’t the right story. For example, how many times have you seen the claim, “We have a great culture”? This gives me an instant reaction to call BS.
My questions back would be, “What does that mean? A great culture for whom? And for people who value what?” There is no universal great culture, so get specific and work harder to dig into the true drivers behind what you have to offer.
The things you promise should not attract everyone, so having a polarizing point of view can be a good thing.
For example, my team really values flexibility and constant reinvention. Every day is different, and documented processes are subject to change as soon as we have evidence there’s a better way. This may sound great to some, but to another who craves stability and consistency, we’d drive them mad.
Test your language with your team. What gets them excited and nodding their heads?
Next, ensure your promises are authentic. Do you live them not just in your marketing, but in how you make decisions, shape policies, and operate the business? You cannot preach flexibility, then lament when folks want to shift where they work each day.
Lastly, are these the things that are really keeping your people? Would they trade on them for something else? Continue to ask questions to hone your understanding and priorities. You may find over time you need to make refinements—whether based on authenticity, evolution, or sustainability as you scale.
This is ok, as it’s better to continuously learn and to improve rather than never make a decision and sit paralyzed. Just remember to identify qualities that are true, and that your team will value enough to prioritize and protect.
Determining how to get your powerful new messaging in front of your potential candidates goes beyond marketing messages. Here again, UX principles provide guidance.
Map the candidate journey and all of the interactions you’re expecting them to have with you. Think through where, when, and how you can share and reinforce what’s special about your company. When might they need to know? And where might you find out if these values are mutual?
Once you map everything out as a system of steps and milestones, it may become more obvious where a nudge could be appropriate.
Use these same principles once you’ve successfully made a hire! Keeping your team is even more important, so take time to plan for how you can apply your new learnings to build a culture of retention.
This starts with the new hire’s onboarding and early experience, but ideally you are able to embed these values into your processes and systems more universally. We find a lot of success creating rituals around these topics.
If you build this into your practice, it becomes easier to retain your existing team and more clearly reinforces what they love about your company in the first place.
Connecting research to actionable insights is a hard business, so don’t feel discouraged if this process is a struggle.
Most teams are challenged to go through these exercises to the level of depth that is needed to really be worthwhile, and some may need to hire professional expertise to cross the finish line. Whether this feels like a breeze or not, I challenge you to prioritize the effort. It is worth the time.
Consider those scaling companies who may be hiring 100 teammates this year, and the annual expenses of all those new salaries. Can they really afford not to invest here? If these are all engineering and product roles, that could be adding $10-20 million a year in overhead, so let’s get this right.
Even if you are only hiring one person, finding that unicorn individual who will love your company, evangelize your values, and stick around will have an outsized impact.
At the end of the day, recruiting and retention is all about people. Finding the right ones and serving them through aligned values will take us much further than the alternative.
Let’s advocate for a human-centered strategy, improving the effectiveness of our recruiting and retention practices in a more lasting and evergreen way.