The skills crisis leads employers to promise much, but are they delivering? Duncan Brown reports

There’s an annoying advertisement on the London Underground at the moment for a paging service. An executive is informed at 7.15am that his first meeting has been postponed, so he is able to stay at home and have another round of toast with the kids.
Hmmm, how sweet. What about the dozens of times he’s had his domestic life disrupted by the blessed thing bleeping? The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Living to Work research paints a depressing picture.
The proportion working over 48 hours a week has risenfrom 10% of the workforce five years ago to one in four today, while 43% say long hours damage their family relationships.
Higher stress levels and absenteeism result, with a quarter suffering related health problems. Whoever thought up the term ‘work life balance’?
It was a constant source of discussion among the thousands of delegates at the CIPD’s annual conference in Harrogate last month. Yet it was drowned out at times by the strident, siren calls of ‘employer branding’ from many exhibitors and speakers.
Work life balance, flexible benefits, total rewards, employer brand… the terminology varies, but the concept is this: with a record 97% of employers reporting skill shortages and recruitment problems, and the economy starting to recover, to win out in the ‘talent war’ organisations need to craft an attractive rewards offering, beyond just the cash, to recruit, retain and motivate the staff their business needs to succeed.
A variety of UK employers have replicated the findings of Sears in the US, which say that happy committed employees produce happy repeat customers, resulting in higher profits and happy shareholders.
So everyone is at it, from
AstraZeneca’s ‘Advantage’ programme, to the Prudential’s ‘You Choose’, to online retailer Ocado’s flex plan, which encompasses a mix of lifestyle, ‘leisure’ and security benefits and choices.
Almost half of the 500 organisations in our Reward Management Survey 2003 are providing or planning flexible benefits. Pet insurance and the company massage seem destined to join the typical UK reward package, as firms compete to top the mushrooming listings of ‘best’ employers.
Two-thirds have acted to improve their ‘brand’ attractiveness, be that offering flexible working, enhanced rewards and/or training.
But how do we reconcile these two contradictory trends of attractive employer brands, yet longer working hours? And does the reality of your employees’ day-to-day work experience match the promise of the recruitment literature, in other words does your employer brand deliver what it says it does on the can?
In our recent report Branding and People Management, we refer to the marketing concept of “the vision gap”, as when the Post Office tried to rebrand itself Consignia. The customer service reality didn’t match the promise. With employer branding, the risk is the dreaded ‘say/do’ gap. As one disillusioned employee told our researchers, “I agree with the values they preach, but they don’t achieve them in practice”.
Correspondingly, an employee in a high performing Tesco store, where 88% of staff share the company’s values, told us that although the company expects a great deal from people, he believes in it and it looks after its staff well.
As these concepts gain in popularity, I believe we are at a critical juncture in UK employment practice.
Down one route lies high performance workplaces comprising responsible, empowered, well-rewarded, trained and motivated people, choosing how they work, and delivering the discretionary commitment which is critical to competitive success.
Down the other is a downwards spiral of target-driven coercion, attempting to produce short-term financial returns through cost-cutting and employee exploitation, trying to trick new customers and recruits with an attractive offering, but inducing a cynical, low performing response from the workforce, and ultimate rejection by the consumer.
Malcolm Hurrell, vice-president of HR at AstraZeneca, explains the success of their total rewards scheme as follows: It’s not the glitzy packaging or fancy technology… “this is not rocket science: the key is to implement the programme better than our competitors (based on) what our employees have told us”.
Does the practice of your employment brand match the promise, and which of the two paths is your organisation heading down?
n Duncan Brown is assistant director general, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development