What’s an employer brand—and how can you strengthen yours?

It matters how current and former employees think and feel about your schools. Luckily, you can shape that narrative.

By Tyler Vawser, Brittany Edwardes Keil Last Updated: January 31, 2023

This article is even better when paired with the companion discussion guide.

If you’re a longtime reader of SchoolCEO, you already know that your district’s brand is a vital part of its success. Since your brand is the way people think and feel about your schools, maintaining it means maintaining a positive image of your district as a whole. But your brand isn’t just how external stakeholders feel about your schools—it also encompasses the conversations that happen among your employees. This is your employer brand—the way current and former employees think and feel about working at your district.

Whether you’ve thought about it or not, your district already has an employer brand. Everything your employees experience impacts that brand—from specific, controllable factors like salaries and professional development opportunities to more intangible aspects like school culture and your staff’s sense of belonging. The big question is whether the employer brand you currently have is the one you want. Are you shaping the story your employees tell about working for your district, or are you leaving it up to chance? Does the experience you’re promising prospective hires match up with your staff’s day-to-day lives? Are you even marketing your employee experience at all?

The benefit of having a strong employer brand strategy is twofold: Current employees are more likely to experience a positive work culture, and prospective employees are much more likely to head your way if they hear great stories from friends working in your district. After all, as we found in our 2023 teacher satisfaction survey, a quarter of teachers hear about their jobs via word-of-mouth.

In order to build a strong employer brand, you have to assess where that brand stands now and clearly define what you want it to become. Then, you can work to make sure that your employee experience fits that narrative—and that potential recruits are hearing about it.

Discover where your employer brand currently stands.

Before you can begin creating the employer brand you want, you need to understand the one you already have. To do that, you’ll want to systematically collect and analyze perspectives from people throughout your district—no matter what position they hold or how long they’ve been there.

Of course, this is easier said than done—and you can’t do it alone. During this stage, it’s important to involve the right people. In the Harvard Business Review article “Building Your Company’s Vision,” researchers James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras recommend that leaders build what they call a “Mars Team.”

“Imagine that you’ve been asked to recreate the very best attributes of your organization on another planet, but you have seats on the rocket ship for only five to seven people,” they write. “Most likely, you’ll choose the people who have a gut level understanding of your core values, the highest level of credibility with their peers, and the highest level of competence.” As you build your own Mars Team, look for folks on your staff who live your values and do their jobs well—but also make sure you’re selecting people who care deeply about the future of your district. People with strong feelings about the success of their schools will help you get an honest understanding of where your employer brand currently stands.

Your Mars Team can pull from the experiences and discussions they’ve had with others in the district. Start with open and honest conversations with your staff, focusing on understanding specific, defined components of your employer brand. While this list is not exhaustive, you should ask your employees how they think and feel about the following topics:

  • School culture
  • How district resources are allocated
  • Community support
  • Whether employees feel supported by administration
  • Family engagement
  • Flexibility and support
  • Leadership
  • Career advancement opportunities
  • Salary and benefits

It’s important that you gain perspective from teachers as well as classified staff. These building-level stakeholders may have a totally different experience of your district’s employer brand than the leaders who are accountable for building that brand. Honest, unbiased answers from those on the ground will give you the most accurate picture of where your employer brand stands and how far you have to go, making it easier to build the kind of credibility any strong brand needs.

Of course, not everyone will be willing to voice honest—and potentially critical—opinions about their employee experience in person. That’s why you’ll want to provide a safe space for people to give authentic feedback without fear of judgment or retaliation. While they do have their drawbacks, anonymous surveys can be great tools for this purpose.

Define what you want your employer brand to be.

Now that you have a realistic idea of your district’s current employer brand, you’re ready to define the one you want to have. To do this, you’ll need to decide what values and priorities you want your schools to be known for. In the words of Steve Jobs, “Marketing is about values. It’s a complicated and noisy world, and we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us … So we have to be really clear about what we want them to know.”

While Jobs is referring to selling computers, the idea also applies to selling your district to potential applicants. Schools all over the country are looking to hire, and the number of unemployed teachers is low—meaning more districts are competing for fewer educators. In the complicated, noisy world of teacher recruitment, you want job seekers to remember you.

It would be a huge win to find something truly unique about your employer brand during this stage, but most likely, you won’t—and that’s okay. It doesn’t matter if your school district isn’t different from any other; most companies and schools share the same attributes and characteristics as their competitors. What’s important is that your district does what it brands itself on, and it does it well.

Take online shoe retailer Zappos, for example. “Great culture leads to employee happiness,” reads the company’s website. “Happy employees means higher engagement, profitability, and low turnover.” Zappos has taken consistent steps to ensure that all of their actions reinforce this value. Toward the start of the pandemic, Zappos launched the Happiness Collective—an initiative that measures employee well-being over time—to support happiness as an integral part of their employer brand. The company takes this value so seriously that it will literally pay unhappy new hires to leave. After a few weeks of training, new recruits are offered $2,000 to quit—making sure every employee wants to be there and keeping the Zappos work environment positive and productive.

Plenty of companies care about the well-being of their staff members, but few make it a core aspect of their employer brands. By taking this fairly common priority and emphasizing it, Zappos stands out from the crowd, developing a reputation for being a great place to work.

If you’re struggling to find something about your employee experience to highlight, try looking over what you do know about your employer brand to find the threads that tie it all together. Do teachers and staff talk more about the community or about their peers? What words do they use? Are any repeated? Is there something that people say more frequently or with more passion?

For example, when asked about working at your district, maybe teachers and staff talk primarily about their peers. Dig into that. If you keep hearing words like “passionate,” “fun,” or “collaborative,” why not make those qualities cornerstones of your brand? This will take time to get right. But defining your employer brand will empower everything that follows.

Make your employer brand visible.

Once you’ve landed on the central qualities you want to emphasize in your employer brand, you have to make those qualities visible to the outside world. This means intentionally sharing stories about your employees’ experiences that reinforce the tenets of your brand.

Jonah Berger, bestselling author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, shared his advice on this topic on a recent episode of our podcast, SchoolCEO Conversations. “Don’t start with the story—start with the takeaway,” he says. “You’re not just looking for great stories. You’re looking for a great story that has the exact takeaway you want people to know. Start by figuring out what you want people to learn, then find the stories that do a good job of showing that.”

Keep those words in mind as you take action in the following steps. What do you want prospective employees to know about your district? If you want to emphasize your focus on collaboration, share stories of teachers teaming up on a project across subjects or grade levels. Highlighting your staff’s family atmosphere? Share photos from holiday get-togethers or birthday celebrations. Behind every visual, webpage, flyer, story, and even in-person conversation should be a takeaway that is true to your employer brand. That way, potential candidates will have a clear picture of who you are and what you stand for before they even apply.

Nail your careers page.

For many candidates, your website will be the first touch point with your district. If your site doesn’t include a careers page exploring your recruitment opportunities, culture, and values, that should be your first priority in making your employer brand visible.

A careers page is the place to display your employer brand prominently and share your mission, values, and culture—all important information for a prospective job seeker. This shouldn’t be too heavy a lift; it’s as simple as taking what’s already true of your district and making it easy to see. With that in mind, here are a few crucial elements of a solid careers page.

Culture and core values. Your values should be listed prominently on your page. This could take the form of a mission statement, rallying cry, or a few core values. However you choose to share your values, make them accessible, identifiable, and tangible. In other words, potential applicants should be able to quickly get a feel for what your district stands for—and whether their values align with yours.

Location. One of the most basic questions candidates will have is about the location of your district. Is it rural, urban, or suburban? What is the commute like? How is the quality of life? These are important considerations for prospective hires—especially those who are thinking of moving to your area from elsewhere. (For more tips on marketing your location to prospective hires, click here.)

Employment video. An employment video is an excellent way to show what it’s like to work at your district. We most commonly see them on the careers page of an employer’s website, but they can and should be shared on social media, emailed to prospective hires, and shown at job fairs or during interviews.

Ground your interviews in your employer brand strategy.

Interviews are an ideal space to reinforce your employer brand. It’s a best practice across human resources to align your values to the interview questions in order to provide a structured, consistent experience and remove as much bias as possible. Most importantly, this builds authenticity in the candidate’s eyes. Interviewees will see that your marketing is not just talk—it’s part of how you hire.

Arizona superintendent Dr. Lupita Hightower has done just that by having leaders in Tolleson Elementary School District ask the following question in interviews: On a scale from one to 10, do you believe that every student can be successful—no exceptions? A candidate’s answer can make or break their chances of being hired. “Our students need 10’s,” Hightower explains. “They don’t need 9’s or 9.5’s.” The result? A district full of teachers who share a common belief and foundation for educating their students—and who reflect the district’s core values. (To learn more about this, click here. )

Close the authenticity gap.

A well-defined employer brand that is highly visible to prospective hires is the start of something great, but it’s only a start. Your ultimate goal is to close the gap between the employer brand you’re promoting and what your employees actually experience every day.

No matter what you’re saying about your schools, your employer brand is going to be made (or broken) by how you treat your current and former employees, as well as the people you interview. Their experiences—and what they say about them—matter more than what you print on a flyer or write on your careers page.

As we point out in our 2022 study “Who Speaks for Your Brand?,” while there are about 13,800 public school superintendents in the U.S., there are about 3.2 million public school teachers. For every superintendent, more than 200 teachers are interacting with students and community members every day. Your voice as a school leader may carry the most weight, but the voices of your employees have the greatest volume.

So how do you use employee voice to your advantage? The answer is simple, but not easy—you “walk the talk.” You make your employer brand a reality. In his book The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, author Ron Friedman explains this idea. “The more a company’s message is reinforced in a workplace environment, the easier it is for employees to integrate that vision and relay it to the people they meet,” he writes.

If your employee experience doesn’t match up with your employer brand, your staff certainly won’t be singing your praises to their friends and family. They may even publicly criticize you. But if you really do walk the talk, your current teachers and staff are going to talk about it. They’ll continue the marketing for you.

On our SchoolCEO Conversations podcast, Tennessee superintendent Jeff Mayo describes how word-of-mouth marketing is helping Arlington Community Schools recruit new hires. “Current employees are incredibly helpful in our marketing,” he says. “A lot of our employees will share a job opening on Facebook when they see it. Because of that, we’re getting exposure to the 1,200 friends one teacher might have.”

And these employees aren’t just sharing information; they’re talking up the district. Some are even tagging their friends. “They’ll put little messages when they share—like, Come teach next door to me, or, ACS is the best,” Mayo says. Best of all, none of this is incentivized—employees are doing this just because they want to. “It speaks to the climate and culture of our district,” he explains.

Of course, nobody’s perfect, and your district might not reflect your purported values as much as you wish it did. One way or another, though, it’s crucial to close that gap. But how?

On the one hand, you can change what you emphasize. You can be less aspirational and focus only on what your employees truly experience right now. This approach fosters credibility, but it will lack inspiration and appeal. On the other hand, you can work to change your district. You can keep the values you aspire to as part of your brand—while still admitting that they’re aspirational. To borrow from “Building Your Company’s Vision,” “Authentic core values that have weakened over time can be considered a legitimate part of [your] core ideology—as long as you acknowledge to the organization that you must work hard to revive them.”

Closing this gap between the brand that you want your employees to experience and the one that you actually have is notoriously difficult in any organization. But by closing that gap, you build authenticity—which will help you attract, recruit, and retain staff.

A strong employer brand can be a powerful tool in the competitive world of recruiting. It can be what sets your district apart. But having an employer brand to be proud of won’t just help you hire new employees; it will also help you retain the ones you have. Having a truly strong employer brand means ensuring that your current employees are having the best experience possible. That kind of dedication and consistent effort will keep teachers and staff in your district for years to come.

Originally published as "Building a Strong Employer Brand" in the Winter 2023 edition of SchoolCEO Magazine.

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