The New Desire for Truth: Storytelling in HR communication and why the truth always wins out

Storytelling is the perfect way for companies to reach out to young talents and attract their attention. Why it’s better to stick to the truth when storytelling in the digital age, according to Tobias Grewe.

These days, it’s hard to imagine recruitment without storytelling. But why? Because telling stories sells – and not just in sales. Today more than ever. The consumption of information is in a state of permanent flux, especially among young target groups like university graduates. News is being consumed differently by millennials and Generations Y and Z: what we need are authentic stories. And they have to be easy to digest, original and, above all, in a “snackable” format on the right channel. This new desire for stories reflects a basic need to quell our own curiosity with personal and emotional experiences.

It’s true that telling stories is a perfect opportunity for companies to reach out to young people. And it’s also true that storytelling can have an emotional impact on the audience you’re addressing. But let’s look at it from an interpersonal perspective: if we get to know someone interesting, then we tell them the most exciting stories or cool anecdotes from our life. Which means we give them examples of how we have experienced or perceived things, or how we acted in certain situations. And let’s be honest: when we are the ones being told such stories by others, our intuition helps us to expose phoneys and braggers very quickly, with our first reaction being to dismiss them.

So why should that be any different among young people, e.g. university graduates who a company wants to attract? Especially when they don’t yet know the company that wants to communicate with them. And that is precisely when stories become important for reaching these target groups in an original way and telling them what it’s really like to work for the potential employer. Whereby the emphasis here lies on the word “really”. And let’s not forget, young applicant target groups are the most critical clientele out there. They listen very carefully because their new job, project and future are all at stake. Companies need to take this seriously. First impressions count – just like when you’re getting to know a person. And if you tell fairy tales, whether in the form of false promises or empty clichés, you’ll soon be out. The target audience won’t feel like they’re being taken seriously – so they will up and leave and you will have missed your chance.

Beyond this, companies are quickly noticing that we have arrived in the “age of recommendation”. Trust in brands and products doesn’t come automatically, but increasingly through recommendations and testimonials. There’s a good reason why companies are meanwhile using influencers, having their products tested by them at events and consciously laying themselves open to their honest opinion in the social networks – because here too, it’s difficult to imagine anything but the truth. This is making products and services more transparent. So it was only a matter of time until employer brands also became transparent. For a long time now – whether they wanted to or not – employers have had to face direct criticism, both positive and negative, on employer review sites like kununu and Glassdoor. Through feedback from current and former employees or through reports of poorly conducted interviews. All public. All direct.

Today it’s not enough to claim in your job ad or on your careers website that you’re a good employer, offer plenty of development prospects and all treat each other fairly and with respect. Without providing any kind of proof. All of this becomes verifiable in the digital age. In real time. Which is actually a good development in a time when truth has become an integral part of marketing and when we are once again attaching great importance to real experiences. Especially in HR communication. So why not tell the true story from the outset? That is, after all, what university graduates expect, especially in a time of uncertainty about where they are headed professionally.

This makes it all the more important for HR officers to develop a willingness to communicate and an awareness of relationships. An openness to new platforms. An ability to deal with direct criticism. A lot of HR platforms openly admit that they have no process whatsoever should employees or applicants choose to voice their opinions in public. Plus, they are hesitant, or possibly even afraid of seeking direct contact. Up to now, HR officers have been limited to internal affairs, to anonymous surveys, to one-to-one meetings. Regardless of which technology the employer is making transparent in the end, it will be the people and their inner attitudes that determine which companies successfully enter into dialogue about their employer brand and which don’t.

To be able to tell the right stories, you have to know yourself really well

For true stories and credible communication with this young, critical and very perceptive clientele, the right foundations are needed. A lot of companies are still very much at the beginning. Especially those who have never really had to do much for their reputation. Here at Serviceplan we often receive enquiries from incredibly exciting hidden champions – unknown global market leaders in their specific segment, often with products that require explanation or essential technology drivers in well-known end products. The problem is that nobody notices this. If we delve deeper into such companies, we discover people with extraordinary international careers and fantastic testimonials that perfectly reflect the true core of the company as an employer. The companies themselves often don’t recognise their own potential. And as they haven’t communicated it to the outside world, university graduates know nothing about the company or the exciting responsibilities it is offering. Following our own study, we know that this ignorance leads to scepticism and scepticism leads to false assumptions along the lines of: “I bet they don’t pay very well,” “They’re in the middle of nowhere, I’ll be stuck there forever,” or “That would be a dead end for my career”. Even though it is precisely these big players out in the sticks that will often open the door to international careers with meaningful, well-paid positions. And for them in particular, it is important to tell this story well – and, most importantly, to tell the truth.

But in order to do this, companies have to get to know themselves first. This will help them recognise their potential and find out which stories they can tell and how so that they can be applied to a potential new employee. Just like in real life where getting to know someone will also backfire if you come across as contrived or fake. But if you can just be yourself and convey a picture of the real you, it will be positively reflected. Both by applicants as well as existing employees. After all, HR communication is also internal communication – the employees are the ones who are living and breathing what is being conveyed to the outside world.

I can still remember my first interview, in which I wanted to give the perfect answers to all possible questions. Here’s a classic one: “I’m totally impatient…” Of course I wasn’t chosen for the job. It’s exactly the same when companies enter into contact with applicants. Every company has their own character, which has a massive influence on its success: how the culture is practiced within the company, how the staff deal with each other, how they manage and communicate, how the product is made that everyone is working for. In a nutshell: WHAT it’s like to work there.

The first step: lie down on the couch!

Highlighting the truthful, unique core that makes your employees enjoy working for you is always the first step. The good news: everyone has it! The bad news, as I mentioned: not every company has found it yet. But that is the central strategic starting point for every aspect of communication.

Just as it’s difficult for us to describe and sell ourselves as a person, it’s also difficult for companies. The “getting to know yourself” process is therefore an imperative first step towards targeted employer branding. So for this, every company has to first “lie down on the couch”, so to speak! Partners from Serviceplan and the HR experts from Promerit regularly carry out this “therapy” using a qualitative analysis on the basis of internal and external surveys, as well as individual focus groups and interviews. The result is something like a medical history that gives the company an undistorted view of itself: what makes working in my company appealing, authentic and different? Together with the client, we condense these findings into one central term or sentence as an employer promise, the so-called Employer Value Proposition (EVP), and identify features, qualities and facts that the company can really use to fulfil it.

Only once you have recognised your own strengths will you have a foundation for successful employer branding and a credible employer story. At Serviceplan we then develop cross-channel communication based on this. Our cooperation with long-standing partners like Promerit and, for the past year also YeaHR! ensures that the communication is relevant and can be transferred to the candidate and employee life cycle. After all, one thing is certain: at the end of the day, it all comes down to substance!

Tobias Grewe

Managing Partner of Serviceplan Cologne

After many years of experience in consulting major brands, including in the FMCG and financial services sectors, since 2007 the international business management graduate has focused on HR and B2B communication in particular. As the Managing Partner at Serviceplan Cologne, he is very much au fait with employer branding/ communication and is responsible for international clients including Bayer Material Science, Lanxess, Claas and Diehl. After communications, photography is Tobias’ second passion. Since 2008 his works, which are praised both by audiences and the press, have regularly been shown in exhibitions. “With my photography I try to give the viewer a new visual experience or perception, opening up new avenues of understanding through the element of surprise,” he says. He finds inspiration for his photo art on trips to Asia, the USA and also right on his doorstep, in his adopted hometown of Cologne.

HR – The Hidden Champion in Digitalisation

How digital transformation processes are changing the work of HR officers: Andreas and Kristen Herde from YeaHR! in an interview with Tobias Grewe.

Tobias Grewe: Andreas, what role do you think HR plays in transformation processes?

Andreas Herde: Human resources preserve the employer brand, the corporate culture and the internal processes, while at the same time also having the most direct connection to employees and managers. This is why, in our opinion, HR is taking on a leading role.

How are the changes driven by digitalisation having an effect on the work of an HR officer?

Andreas Herde: The challenges facing HR aren’t getting any smaller: on the one hand, we are finding ourselves, certainly in the field of qualified employees, on the path to full employment. And on the other, a lot of classic employers are looking for new profiles during the digitalisation process – from the cloud architects down to the agile coach – which they didn’t have any experience with before. And the loyalty to employers is also waning. The times when employees stayed at a company for five or more years are over. This is making the HR service portfolio increasingly unattractive in the form of long-term personnel development measures or investment models. And last but not least: HR work is becoming easier to quantify because of its relocation to digital channels. More contributions to value creation and efficiency are required. These new ways of thinking and dealing with numbers are new to many HR teams and are skills that, if not already in place, quickly need to be developed.

Kristen, as the former HR director at E.ON, how did you experience this development? How do you describe the war for talents and the digital transformation from the point of view of an HR officer?

Kristen Herde: Companies are undergoing the biggest organisational upheavals in the here and now – an issue that HR can’t fail to address. Overall expectations have increased: those of the applicants and in particular those the digital generation has of companies, as well as the companies’ expectations on HR as far as innovativeness is concerned. And finally, the expectations of the employees in terms of the individualisation of working conditions and career paths. So in conclusion: the war for talents is over, the candidates have won!

That sounds like a new indicator, especially in recruiting.

Kristen Herde: Exactly. The fewer talents there are on the market, the more competition there will be among the companies. Recruiting is therefore nothing more than sales or marketing. Employer stories are becoming content marketing, the job offer is becoming the pitch, Glassdoor and kununu the product ratings and the applicants the customers. And just like in sales, the idea is to identify the right customers with clever, coordinated measures and to convince them of your offer. For that you need a good offer that stands out from the crowd. Working out these differentiating features and presenting them in an appealing way with the right stories is increasingly becoming the primary task of the HR department. The right marketing has therefore become indispensable in HR.

HR often seems to play a subordinate role…

Andreas Herde: And unjustly so! HR will always be needed, whether in the case of organisational changes, growth, internationalisation or management matters.

What expertise does an HR officer have to develop if they want to survive in the digital age?

Andreas Herde: You don’t achieve sustainable changes to your company and its employees or make them ready for the digital age with a sprint, a campaign, a flyer, a poster in the lift or a tray liner in the canteen. Making the change towards becoming a digital company is about getting to the core of the culture, in-depth processes of cooperation and by breaking up silos. And a test-and-learn mentality on the part of the HR department. This is why we are speaking not so much of change, but rather of a transformation. And if you’re prepared to accept and tackle this process, you’ll know that it’s ongoing and not a self-contained project. It’s a marathon. For this reason, it’s important that HR officers explore the possibilities of digital communication – whether new social media channels, platforms for social collaboration or feedback instruments. A feel for numbers and the constant observation and optimisation of KPIs are also necessary.

Kristen, how can we support this target group in your opinion?

Kristen Herde: The combination of Serviceplan with YeaHR! results in a very exciting offer for companies. After all, HR officers are frequently faced with the dilemma that they are working with communication agencies that are coming up with concepts for HR communication, but don’t understand very much about the more far-reaching HR processes behind a candidate and employee experience, despite having to fulfil the differentiated employer promise. We cover both sides of the coin, always viewed through HR goggles, along defined KPIs that are relevant for the customer and accompanied by HR specialists.

Thank you for talking to us.

Who is YeaHR!?

YeaHR! is a start-up from Düsseldorf specialised in the digitalisation of the entire HR value chain – whether recruiting or employer branding, internal communication, cultural and leadership change or KPIs and processes. For one year now, Serviceplan has been cooperating with YeaHR! in the development and implementation of HR communication concepts to utilise the perspective of an HR officer in terms of relevance and KPIs.

Transformation is people management is communication…

How can business strategies be successfully implemented in this highly dynamic digital age – and what are the biggest obstacles? An analysis by Kai Anderson, CEO of HR consultancy Promerit.

In the past, everything used to be a lot… slower. The challenges for companies are not only getting bigger today, but also affecting organisations in an even quicker succession. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the time horizon of a company strategy has halved from six to ten years to three to five. Digitalisation, M&A, restructuring – the dynamics are increasing and, as a result, strategy implementation is becoming more important than strategy development.

Executives usually have a good idea of the challenges that their company has to deal with and where the journey is headed. If we ask them what obstacles are preventing them from successfully implementing their strategy, we usually receive similar responses:

Firstly, they often lack a common understanding of the new orientation. Why do we even need to change in the first place? What does the strategy actually mean for us? What kind of a company will we be in a few years? Questions that are relevant for every employee because the answers provide them with a sense of purpose for their own work. Questions that can only be clarified through intensive communication and genuine dialogue. Until recently, that was still inconceivable. Strategies were supposed to be kept a secret, so secret that not even your own team was allowed to know about them. I’m sure you can all remember those days.

The next central obstacle to a successful strategy implementation, which companies often complain about, is the lack of willingness to change. Which isn’t difficult to believe, if, for example, we see the extent of reservations about digitalisation, even in high-tech companies. We are often asked whether companies have to be like Google: The answer, of course, is: “No. No, you don’t have to. Nor would you be able to.” But we should loosen up a bit and move from a culture of reservations and mistrust to an attitude that regards change as an opportunity. No easy feat – and here too, communication and dialogue are essential in order to achieve a real change in culture.

The prerequisite for such a cultural shift is mostly also a new understanding of management that has outgrown the command and control mechanisms of the last century. The fact that managers often don’t have the ability to change is often stated as another obstacle in the implementation of a corporate strategy. If we ask those affected directly, the majority would say they are agile. In our latest “Agility Barometer” study, 86% of the surveyed management and 74% of the employees said that they wanted to support upcoming changes in their company. Which obstacles do they see in this? First the organisation itself, and then the human factor.

So if we want to drive change, we need to create framework conditions within the organisation and prepare people in the organisation for the changes – qualify them – and accompany the transformation. Organisation development and change management – or rather transformation management – which at the end of the day means good people management and is based on communication and dialogue.

The example of KION shows how this can succeed: here Promerit and Serviceplan have helped raise the MDAX company to a new level. The KION Group is a leading global supplier of forklift trucks as well as the associated services and supply chain solutions. It

is represented in more than 100 countries with approximately 31,000 employees. Under the umbrella of the KION Group, there are eight brands – including Still and Linde. With the “Lift-Up” initiative in joint responsibility with the HR and corporate communications departments, the challenge was to get the employees on board for the new change in direction and to create a joint culture under the umbrella of the KION Group.

We succeeded by putting their employees at the centre of the change. With a lot of communication and storytelling. With authentic values and a new understanding of management. To get closer to the customers and improve the cooperation. With quantifiable improvements. In just two years. Everything used to be a lot slower? Yes, but we don’t have time for that these days. But what we do have are effective levers to ensure change really does happen in companies.

Who is Promerit?

Promerit is a multi-award-winning consultancy for transformation processes and HR management. With 100 consultants, Promerit makes organisations and people more agile, enabling their development and boosting their potential. It focuses on people management and digitalisation as a core competency for modern HR management and an engine for company transformation. In the fields of strategic employer branding and transformation, Promerit and Serviceplan have been cooperating successfully for a number of years now.

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