How To Think About Your Employer Value Proposition

How to think about your EVP

Precision isn’t the answer. Alignment over time is.

In the next few weeks, 88 tons of concrete will be dumped into the ocean just offshore from West Palm Beach, Florida.

This isn’t a potential green disaster or example of illegal dumping. This is how Florida is encouraging the development and growth of local coral reefs that will attract and support more of the wildlife that makes its beaches more healthy (from an ecological point of view). The cement goes down in blocks and gives microscopic plants and animals a safe place to hunker down and build their homes. These microorganisms attract ever bigger fish to the food chain, leading to a better ecosystem that can eventually support complex life.

No, this isn’t an accidental copy/paste from a scuba article I’m writing. It’s a way of thinking about your employer brand process differently. Specifically, it is an amazing model for building and maintaining your company’s Employer Value Proposition (EVP).

Let’s start by clearing a few things up.

There’s long been a misconception about what an EVP actually is. Agencies, consultants, authors, and so-called thought leaders (like me!) have tried to push a narrative that an EVP was like a secret handshake, a handful of magic words and ideas that would make a company appear as a unique employer. It was a medieval idea that being to name a thing gave you control over a thing. A lot of money has been spent on processes and projects to reveal, distill and even seemingly conjure the magic words out of reams of data, interviews, word clouds, workshops, and surveys that would give that company an edge in hiring.

This kind of idea is why many (smart and capable) talent leaders put their hands over their wallets and purses whenever someone starts to pontificate about an employer value proposition. It’s a natural defensive position that comes from hearing how a few specifically-selected words will turn cultures around without ever seeing one change. It’s the same move one takes when approached about buying some magic beans.

Now, before I tell you it’s all a bunch of bunk, it isn’t. Well actually, if you think your EVP is a kind of linguistic divination, then yeah. That’s bunk. Enjoy your beanstalk whenever it shows up. 

EVPs can be incredibly powerful, but only if you actually understand what they are.

At its heart, a company’s EVP is an idea of how a company does what it does. Is it chaotic or structured? Is it flat or hierarchical? Are people encouraged to make mistakes or punished for deviation from the norm? 8 hours a day or 12? Collaboration or back-stabbing? Is it transactional or purpose-driven? Does it feel like seven angry cats in a bag or a dance troupe about to take the stage? Is it all about the journey or are you only there for the destination?

And that’s usually where such conversations around EVPs end. But there’s one more chapter to the book most of us fail to mention. That chapter might be entitled, “It’s not that simple.” 

Isn’t every company a little chaotic and structured depending on the context? Haven’t you seen back-stabbing and collaboration together in a single meeting? Haven’t there been times when you’ve worked 12 hours days because of a particular deadline? Isn’t your company different on a Monday morning before earnings from the one on Friday afternoon after earnings?

The truth is, no company is one thing. People are inherently fractally messy. Putting a bunch of them together begets an exponential kind of messiness. So we’re not talking about building an EVP on sand so much as we are staging a production of “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller” on the rim of an active volcano. The process of building the EVP is as much an act of selective ignorance as anything else. We are choosing to skip past the myriad of very true things about our company because they don’t distinguish us from others. Or those truths are transactional, or a function of the industry we work in. Banks don’t say “we are highly regulated” in their EVP because they all are. 

In a way, an EVP is a kind of mantra. They are the words we say to ourselves to help remind us who we are. It’s not spell-casting, but more future-manifesting. If you tell yourself you are a positive person every morning, you will find yourself feeling more positive and even being more positive in your daily interactions. It wasn’t a code or some sort of self-hypnotism. It was a way to tell yourself how you wish to see yourself, so it should make decisions towards that idea. Over time, the idea is just who you are. The idea manifested itself inside you because you focused on that idea. The best part: there is no wrong idea. You become something more intentional: you chose what you wanted to be and the various parts of your mind took micro-actions to make it happen.

This is why you need to think about those EVP statements like those underwater concrete blocks. They attract and encourage tiny actions across all business units. By saying they are all about opportunity or equality or support, they are reminding each person, team, division, and leader what everyone agrees on. Stating such an idea means you start to see when that idea is real when a choice is made to align more closely with the brand. Seeing that happen encourages others to align in small ways and large, until months and years later, that idea is as natural as breathing.

You aren’t building a house to exacting plan, you’re building a coral reef. There is no architect or general contractor. There are a million little bits of… life, all looking for a way to work together, to create something bigger than themselves while satisfying their own individual needs, which sounds like a great way to describe any company of more than three people.

When biologists drop those blocks, they don’t fret about exactly where they land. One foot one way or another doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’ve identified an area ripe for growth, a place with a good foundation on which things can grow. They are looking for places far away from runoff and away from overly-brisk currents. They are looking for areas of opportunity and don’t sweat the details. As one might say, if you pick your spot correctly, and give things a little structure to build on, life finds a way.

The end result is that you need to see your EVP as selective concepts around which you want your company to aggregate. This means, yes, your EVP is somewhat aspirational. Therein lies a danger: too aspirational and it isn’t an EVP so much as it is a kind of fiction. The trick is knowing where to drop those concrete blocks to stimulate growth instead of just wishing this is where it might want to live.

Used in this way, your EVP will become everything you heard on that webinar. It can stimulate change and alignment internally. It can attract a better grade of talent at a lower cost. It can support your consumer brand by providing more of the human faces and stories that are your company. But you’ve got to stop treating your EVP like a fairy tale and instead see it as the beginning of a larger living breathing ecosystem.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse and has been republished here with permission.

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