As the COVID-19 pandemic hit its peak, headlines warned of fuming spouses and rising divorce rates. It seemed as though too much time together under new and unique pressures was taking its toll on the institution of marriage. But a study released this year shows divorce rates actually falling, and surveys conducted from the U.S. National Center for Marriage and Family Research show most couples reporting little change in the amount of conflict in their marriages.
This unexpected data set already has a fair share of critics, but according to sociology professor Brad Wilcox and research fellow Brian Stone, there is one thing we know for sure: “tough and traumatic times can change our priorities, our perspective and our devotion to friends and family for the better.”
Like marriage, our relationship with work has also been tested over the past 18 months. From furloughs and job losses to safety protocols and virtual work, we’re experiencing employment in new and untested ways. The effects of COVID-19 and the social justice movement are driving massive reflection and change in how people think about and take action when it comes to employment.
And now, more than ever, work satisfaction is much more than pay and perks. We've spent our careers studying how to attract and retain talent, and now the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice movement have amplified our findings:
Employment is no longer a simple exchange of pay and benefits for work. When we brand and market employment as a contract, we ignore the importance of the complex relationship employees have with work.
Employment has always been about contracts. The history of this goes back to ancient times, and even today, the modern definition of the employment contract still defines a relationship between two parties.
“Starting in the 1990s, the technology industry in Silicon Valley [had] cultivated a reputation for not only offering employees substantial pay but also lavish perks,” according to Thuy Nguyen in the Hastings Business Law Journal.
“Rationale propelled by Silicon Valley employers is that perks lead to employee satisfaction, and thus retention. Arguably, there is a direct correlation between happy employees and higher company profits, which in turn benefits shareholders.”
We continue to see this time and time again. But the question remains: do perks, benefits, and even salaries motivate employees to perform better, work harder, and stay at the organization? The answer is more complex than we can imagine.
How We Talk About Employment
At exaqueo, we have always been fixated on the answer to the employee motivation question. After all, the practice of employer brand has largely been rooted in the notion of employer value proposition–this idea that the organization is trading a set of offerings in return for what the employee brings. For employers it has always been easiest to sell the tangible benefits, perks, and organizational offerings when branding and marketing employment.
It has also been largely defined in research, and stated in Armstrong’s Handbook of Human Resource Management that “the starting point of the employment relationship is an undertaking by an employee to provide skill and effort to the employer in return for which the employer provides the employee with a salary or a wage.”
This is part of employment, but the starting point happens long before the ‘undertaking.’ The relationship begins when an individual first is made aware the organization exists.
Additional research by Kessler and Undy reference the varying parties, but they see those as one facet of the relationship with substance, structure, and operation rounding out the employment relationship. This is how employment operates. But looking at the way employment has been traditionally defined, puts what the contract is at the center and not the employer.
And when we talk about employment in this way, we treat it as a two-party relationship between the employee and the employer. Again, rooted in this notion of contract.
We have studied this for several years, hypothesizing that when we put that ‘contract’ at the center instead of the employee, we end up branding, marketing, and selling a transaction between the employee and the job instead of considering the broader impact. The global COVID-19 pandemic and social justice movement have only strengthened this hypothesis.
Rethinking the employment relationship requires understanding of what it means to be in any relationship. Each of us has numerous relationships in our lives from romantic partners, family, and friends to professional, community, and purchase relationships. Academic research on relationships breaks these into two types: exchange and communal as defined by social psychologists Margaret Clark and the late Judson Mills.
In exchange relationships, members benefit each other to incur or repay obligation, a quid pro quo. In communal relationships, the basis of benefit is concern for the other's welfare. In other words, trading benefit for benefit versus benefit as a reaction to a need.
For example, consider a cup of coffee. A person goes into a coffee shop and orders a coffee with almond milk. They pay for it and receive the coffee in return. This is an exchange relationship.
Now, let’s consider a friendship. A friend is going through a hard time after losing a parent. The other friend recognizes this, and she visits the friend with a cup of coffee to provide support and comfort during this time. She recognizes a need and ventures to meet that need. This is a communal relationship.
Where the Employer Value Proposition Falls Short
There’s an important opportunity to take this relationship research and apply it to employment, especially how organizations brand and market themselves as employers.
In employer brand and recruitment marketing we have largely relied on this notion of value proposition, borrowed from consumer and brand marketing. While value proposition at its core is complex, in employment we often simplify it down into a summary of attributes for the employer to sell to the employee. In return, the employee completes the job and receives the value derived from these attributes.
However, when we define employment as a transaction, it remains rooted as an exchange between the organization and the employee. A singular relationship based on benefits that when taken away, adversely affect the relationship. Consider the history of Silicon Valley’s perks and compensation competitions—they turn hiring into a battle of who can deliver the best transaction.
It’s almost parental, wooing a child with a bribe or piece of candy, rather than a shared partnership. And that only delivers a short-term gain of table stakes. It’s not that compensation and benefits aren’t important, it’s that alone, they can’t define an employment relationship.
Consider the strongest relationships in your own life. When things get tough, you don’t give up on the relationship, you step in to support the needs of others. Marriage stability has been defined in some research as based on navigating tough times.
For those relationships that aren’t strong, it’s much easier to walk away. If that coffee shop no longer has the almond milk you need, you may simply find a new place to get your coffee.
Another important facet of a relationship is the security of that relationship. According to psychologists Bloom and Bloom, “securely attached adults thrive and generally enjoy partnerships that are characterized by longevity, trust, commitment, and interdependence.”
If we keep looking at the employment relationship based on the give and take of pay and benefits in return for work, we minimize the importance of the emotional element of security.
A New Model for the Employment Relationship
Human resource, talent, and employer brand leaders should no longer sell a value proposition based on a singular relationship between the employee and employer and instead focus on branding and marketing the true employment relationship. As a result, exaqueo has developed the exaqueo Employment Relationship Model (eERM) to fully describe this multifaceted relationship.
The exaqueo Employment Relationship Model lays out four dimensions to the modern employment relationship changing the way we look at employment, and how we brand and market to attract and retain employees. We believe employer brand starts with understanding the employment relationship: the totality of the relationship we have with the organization and brand, our coworkers, our leaders and managers, and our work.
This includes four dimensions:
1) The relationship with my organization: who employs me?
- This relationship is primarily measured in trust including: do I trust my organization to align with my values, reward me, to provide stability, to continue to provide opportunities, to make good decisions, to hire great people, etc.
2) The relationship with my leaders: who governs my work?
- This relationship is primarily measured in respect including do I respect my leaders’ experience, their management of the work and team, their decision-making, their ability to lead, their results, and, do they respect me?
3) The relationship with my co-workers: who do I work with?
- This relationship is primarily measured on value including: do I value my co-workers’ experience, their contributions, their relationship, their support, and, do they value me?
4) The relationship with my work: what I do and how I do it?
- This relationship is primarily measured in care: do I care about my work, my results, my customers/clients/end-users, learning and growing, and, do those on the receiving end of my work care about the impact of my work?
These four dimensions can be viewed as pillars of relationship security. This is not job security, but rather feeling the support and security tin the shared relationships.
An employee’s level of security with each dimension combined with the amount they value the dimension will ultimately drive recruitment and retention. For employer brand, we have to be able articulate the employment experience as rooted in each of these four dimensions.
Moving Beyond EVP
Looking at employment in this way is the first step in evolving our profession beyond value proposition to meet the modern employee where they are in their employment relationship. Attachment theory plays a role here as employees may value certain dimensions over others, but all four play a role in recruitment and retention. Knowing what candidates and employees value in each of these dimensions will change the way we look at finding and keeping talent.
Organizations should no longer be looking for a new hire to fit a need or fit in an organization. Instead, the focus should be on an employer brand to identify and hire individuals who will thrive in your organization where together, you’re working toward a series of common goals based on these four dimensions.
This does not mean existing value proposition work should be discarded, it simply means digging deeper into this more complex relationship and considering the employment relationship as an experience rather than a simple transaction to get someone to accept a job.
As we evolve the employer brand function, there should longer be a single set of attributes sold as a value proposition for a job or employer. We must build a relationship with candidates and employees instead of selling them jobs as a product.
Watch The Launch
Hear our keynote address at Talent Acquisition Week where we share our model for the first time publicly.
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Academic citations in this piece include:
- AU - Abele, Maximilian, Süß, Julian, 2017/08/04, Effects of Employment Models in Entrepreneurial Firms
- Clark, M. S., & Mills, J. (1979). Interpersonal attraction in exchange and communal relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(1), 12–24.
- Kessler, I., and Undy, R. (1996) The New Employment Relationship: Examining the Psychological Contract. London: Institute of Personnel and Development
- Taylor, S., Armstrong, M. (2020). Armstrong's Handbook of Human Resource Management Practice. United Kingdom: Kogan Page.