An integrative review of employer branding and OB theory

Article (PDF Available)inPersonnel Review 39(1):5-23 · February 2010with2,853 Reads
DOI: 10.1108/00483481011012809
Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to review the existing literature linked to the emerging field of employer branding, with a view to adding insight from the perspective of the management of human resources. Design/methodology/approach - The approach taken entails reviewing books and academic journals from the area of marketing, organisational behaviour (OB) and business management. The review shows that research and theory from a range of fields can help add to one's knowledge of employer branding; these include areas of research that investigate organisational attractiveness to potential new recruits, research and writing linked to the psychological contract literature as well as work that examines organisational identity, organisational identification and organisational personality characteristics. Research limitations/implications - The main limitation of the review is that, while different areas and fields of research are being drawn on to help identify useful knowledge that can improve one's understanding of what effective employer branding might involve, the literature and research in each area will be (necessarily) selective. Practical implications - The review has a number of general practical implications; many of these are highlighted in the propositions set out within each section. Originality/value - The originality of the review is that it is unique in showing how different areas of literature can be linked to employer branding. The review helps to integrate the existing literature in a way which can help personnel practitioners to immediately see the relevance of theories and research from a range of key academic fields.
An integrative review of
employer branding and OB theory
Martin R. Edwards
Department of Management, King’s College London, London, UK
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to review the existing literature linked to the emerging field
of employer branding, with a view to adding insight from the perspective of the management of
human resources.
Design/methodology/approach The approach taken entails reviewing books and academic
journals from the area of marketing, organisational behaviour (OB) and business management. The
review shows that research and theory from a range of fields can help add to one’s knowledge of employer
branding; these include areas of research that investigate organisational attractiveness to potential new
recruits, research and writing linked to the psychological contract literature as well as work that examines
organisational identity, organisational identification and organisational personality characteristics.
Research limitations/implications The main limitation of the review is that, while different
areas and fields of research are being drawn on to help identify useful knowledge that can improve
one’s understanding of what effective employer branding might involve, the literature and research in
each area will be (necessarily) selective.
Practical implications The review has a number of general practical implications; many of these
are highlighted in the propositions set out within each section.
Originality/value The originality of the review is that it is unique in showing how different areas
of literature can be linked to employer branding. The review helps to integrate the existing literature in
a way which can help personnel practitioners to immediately see the relevance of theories and research
from a range of key academic fields.
Keywords Employers, Corporate identity, Psychological contracts
Paper type Literature review
From relative obscurity a decade or so ago, employer branding is argued to have
become an important addition to an HR practitioner’s toolkit (Barrow, 2007; CIPD,
2007; Martin, 2008). In its full scope, employer branding cuts across many traditional
HR specialisms and becomes an umbrella programme that provides structure to
previously separate policies and practices. When reviewing the literature associated
with employer branding, it is apparent that the concept involves a very obvious mix
or coming together of the fields of marketing and HR. According to Martin et al.
(2005) the concept was discussed first by marketing academics and after some delay,
by a lagging interest from HR academics. Any such lag in the interest of those from
the HR field could well be explained by the fact that writers from the marketing and
HR arena may often have different assumptions about what areas validly lie within
their areas of expertise. As “branding is traditionally found within the marketing
sphere it is not therefore, an obvious field of study from an HR perspective. Despite
this, given its growth (especially in the practitioner literature), the concept of
employer branding seems to be becoming too big an issue for HR academics to
ignore, what with employer branding guides, annual employer branding conferences
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
branding and
OB theory
Personnel Review
Vol. 39 No. 1, 2010
pp. 5-23
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/00483481011012809
and awards being the norm (CIPD, 2007, 2009) and a number of employer branding
practitioner books being published (Barrow and Mosley, 2005; Sartain and Schumann,
2006). The main aim of the current review is to consider the degree to which knowledge
from existing literature in the management and OB field can add to and compliment our
understanding of what employer branding entails. Linked to this aim, where different
literature is examined, various propositions will be presented which highlight how
research and knowledge from these areas contribute to an understanding of employer
branding. Ultimately, the review, aims to bring further clarity to our understanding of
employer branding from the perspective of the management of human resources.
What is employer branding?
Employer branding is an activity where principles of marketing, in particular the
“science of branding”, are applied to HR activities in relation to current and potential
employees. Whereas product branding considers how a product is represented to
customers and corporate branding considers how an organisation is represented to a
variety of external audiences, employer branding considers current and potential
employees as branding targets. In order to help clarify what employer branding is, we
can draw on a number of specific definitions, many of which emphasise different
features and characteristics. Before considering these in turn it is worth reflecting on a
definition of the notion of branding itself (not specifically linked to any employment or
HR reference). A useful definition that describes the idea of a brand is that presented by
Swystun (2007) who argues “a brand is a mixture of attributes, tangible and intangible,
symbolized in a trademark, which if managed properly, creates value and influence” (p.
14). With employer branding this concept is applied to an HR setting, where the
branded product is a unique and particular employment experience. The assumption is
that when organisations clarify and carefully manage their “employment experience”
this would help create value and influence. Importantly, the employment experience
will be organisational specific, as Backhaus and Tikoo (2004) argue, employer
branding “suggests differentiation of a firm’s characteristics as an employer from
those of its competitors, the employment brand highlights the unique aspects of the
firm’s employment offerings or environment” (p. 502). As this definition demonstrates,
authors often refer to the employment experience as the “employment offering”, the
words used here clearly imply that the employment experience is explicitly offered to
current and potential employees by organisations in that they make claims to provide a
particular experience (especially to potential recruits).
As there are many aspects that make up a person’s experience at work, establishing
an organisation’s employment experience in the first instance, may not be straight
forward. One aspect of an organisation’s differentiated offering will be its package of
economic or financial rewards (Ambler and Barrow, 1996) which will obviously vary
between organisations. Additional to economic or financial rewards, companies will
differ in the provision of intrinsic rewards and the degree to which socio-emotional
needs (for example) are fulfilled. The employment experience will therefore be made up
of a complex array of features. In their 1996 definition, Ambler and Barrow capture
some of the complexities of the employment offering and argue that an employer brand
consists of “The package of functional, economic and psychological benefits provided
by employment, and identified with the employing company” (p. 187). Additional to
this however, organisations will also differ in the degree to which intangible
experiences are provided to and valued by employees. For example, working for a
charity may provide the fulfilment of ideological concerns that people may have of
“doing good (Thompson and Bunderson, 2003).
Employer Branding, therefore, will involve identifying the unique “employment
experience” by considering the totality of tangible and intangible reward features that
a particular organisation offers to its employees. Over and above this however, a
central element to employer branding involves the identification of elements of the
character of the organisation itself; features such as the organisation’s key values and
the guiding principles underlying how it operates as a collective entity. As Martin and
Beaumont (2003) state, employer branding involves managing a “company’s image as
seen through the eyes of its associates and potential hires (p. 15). This definition,
rather than focussing on what rewards and experiences an organisation provides for
employees, emphasises managing aspects of the company’s image (for example
communicating corporate values and guiding principles) to help give the employment
brand some additional substance (by reinforcing an identity and fostering a particular
brand image). As Dell and Ainspan (2001) explicitly argue “The employer brand
establishes the identity of the firm as an employer. It encompasses the firm’s values,
systems, policies, and behaviours toward the objectives of attracting, motivating, and
retaining the firm’s current and potential employees” (p. 10).
As the organisation needs to differentiate its employment offering from those
“enjoyed” by employees at other organisations, it is suggested that clarifying unique
aspects of the organisation’s identity or image can help to do this. Some authors argue
that an employer branding programme will involve clarifying what is referred to as the
“unique organisational value proposition” (Knox et al., 2000). This is sometimes simply
referred to as the “value proposition” (Martin, 2008) or the “employer”/“employee value
proposition” (Barrow and Mosley, 2005). The presentation of the “package of reward
features or employment advantages and benefits offered to employees will go some
way to presenting this and the presentation of organisational values, characteristics
and attributes will also help clarify the employer brand value proposition.
Clearly people will differ in what they experience and enjoy when working at a
particular organisation and in reality there will be a variation of values that employees
hold, but the central idea behind employer branding is that it is possible to summarise
the totality of a common or shared employment experience. Importantly, once the
“offering” is identified, this will then be communicated, as such employer branding
tends to involve extensive communication campaigns. As Lloyd (2002) argues
employer branding is “sum of a company’s efforts to communicate to existing and
prospective staff that it is a desirable place to work” (cited in Berthon et al., 2005).
In summary, employer branding campaigns will tend to involve the clarification
and management of an organisation’s tangible and intangible employment offering, it
will also tend to involve managing aspects of the organisation’s image and identity and
these will be presented through sophisticated communication campaigns.
Key literature from the OB field that contributes to our understanding of employer
Although various definitions presented previously can help us understand what is
meant by the term employer branding, very little theoretical and empirical work focuses
branding and
OB theory
on the concept in the academic HR and organisational behaviour (OB) literature; much
of the existing literature is prescriptive and aimed largely at practitioners. One of the
aims of the current review is to highlight a range of work from the OB and management
field that is being referred to by some employer branding authors which helps add some
additional theoretical substance to the area. In highlighting this existing work, the
assumption here is that knowledge from other areas of study can significantly add to
and contribute to our practical and theoretical understanding of employer branding.
Despite the argument presented by Martin et al. (2005) that the HR literature has been
almost silent on the link between HR and branding, within the OB and management
literature authors do discuss phenomena that are already centrally linked to activities
associated with employer branding. In the following, these key areas of literature are
discussed along with propositions suggesting how these ideas and knowledge from
associated research might add to arguments and discussions central to employer
branding, and ultimately our understanding of this emerging field.
Research from the personnel psychology field that investigates factors
influencing organizational attractiveness to potential recruits
A significant body of research exists in the field of personnel psychology that
investigates factors that influence how attractive an organisation is to potential
recruits. This has particular relevance to the employer-branding field as one of its
central aims is to ensure that an organisation is identifiable and attractive to potential
recruits. A key finding from research work in the area is that potential recruits are
more likely to apply for a job at a particular organisation that has an existing positive
company reputation. The greater a company’s reputation, the more attractive it tends
to be seen by potential recruits. An example of such research is a study by Cable and
Graham (2000), which investigated factors predicting job seekers perceptions of an
organisations’ reputation. Although they found evidence of a range of predictors that
explained a positive evaluation of reputation, profitability was of central importance
a finding that has been identified in a number of different studies (McGuire et al., 1988;
Preston and O’Bannon, 1997; Turban and Greening, 1996).
Although profitability has been found to be important in predicting positive
perceptions of a corporate reputation, this would only be applicable to profit making
organisations; one would assume however that perceptions of successful organisations
that perform well generally (regardless of profit) would also have a positive impact on
how attractive an organisation is seen as an organisation. As employer branding
programmes tend to include external communication drives and attempts to increase
recruits’ awareness of the organisation and reputation, any information that
demonstrates company successes would expect to have a positive impact. However,
one would not expect profitability and success to be the only important message to
include when designing reputation building advertising campaigns for employer
branding purposes, research indicates that other features should also be included. An
interesting feature of a study carried out by Turban and Greening (1996) that has
considerable relevance to employer branding programmes is the finding that when
organisations were rated higher on a full range of socially responsible features
(community and employee relations, environmental policies, product quality and
treatment of minority groups) they tended to be seen as more attractive as a potential
employer. Therefore, messages included as part of an employer branding
communication drive aiming to increase how attractive an organisation is seen as a
potential employer will need to provide information over and above that linked to
organisational success.
Some particularly interesting research that has considerable relevance to employer
branding programmes is a study carried out by Cable and Turban (2003) who again
showed the importance of company reputation in increasing the likelihood of potential
applicants applying for a job at the organisation. This study helps show why it might
be important with employer branding programmes to carefully plan an extensive
campaign in order to increase the chances of potential recruits wanting to apply. Cable
and Turban found two key factors that predict positive job seeker reputation
perceptions; these were the degree of familiarity with the organisation and external
ratings of the corporate reputation. Cable and Turban also investigated whether the
degree to which organisations advertised aspects of its reputation and HR philosophies
on job postings predicted employee reputation perceptions, perhaps surprisingly they
found no significant link. This is a particularly interesting finding in relation to
employer branding campaigns as it suggests that any concerted effort to communicate
information about the organisation to potential recruits would need to be a long term
project in order to influence external perceptions of the organisation’s reputation and to
increase how familiar it is to potential applicants. Furthermore, the study shows that
promotional material immediately associated with a job application may not, by itself,
have a huge impact on reputation perceptions. The study also demonstrated that the
more positive job seekers perceived the reputation of the organisation to be then the
more positive their evaluations of the job attributes associated with the organisation
and the more they expected to feel a sense of pride from working in the organisation.
Subsequently, these factors predicted the degree to which participants intended to
pursue a job at the organisation. The authors posit a “brand equity” perspective,
whereby perceptions of reputation of an organisation act as a form of employment
“brand” which will “add value to a job beyond a job itself” (p. 2244).
What Cable and Turban’s study reinforces, which one would need to consider if
trying to establish what leads to successful employer branding, is that advertising and
promotional material associated with particular job vacancies alone are unlikely to
influence perceptions of the company reputation. Although this suggests that
recruitment material may not necessarily increase perceptions of an organisation’s
reputation, evidence does exist which suggests that some early recruitment practices
can have a positive impact on how favourable potential recruits may view an
organisation and the likelihood of applying for a job there. Collins and Stevens (2002)
assessed students’ ratings of how favourable they were toward particular
organisations and their intentions to apply for a job at these organisations.
Favourable attitudes toward organisations were found to be a factor that was highly
significant in predicting intentions to apply for a job at these organisations. They
showed that students tended to have more favourable attitudes toward organisations
that were seen to sponsor events at their university and organisations that had a
generally higher perceived corporate profile. This suggests that if, as part of a specific
recruitment campaign, an organisation invested in sponsorship that was visible to
potential recruits, such recruitment activities may have a positive effect. This research
branding and
OB theory
however again confirms the importance of an organisation having a high profile in
order to attract potential recruits, as such general corporate advertising (not just job
specific advertising) would play an important role in increasing an organisation’s
reputation and attractiveness as an employer. Other research by Collins and Han (2004)
further reinforces this point. They show that the size of a company’s applicant pool (the
number of applicants applying for jobs) is positively predicted by levels of corporate
advertising, an effect which is particularly strong when coupled with a high level of
recruitment advertising. Generally, for employer branding to succeed in its aim of
making the organisation more attractive to potential recruits, any specific information
that presents the organisation’s employment offering to potential recruits associated
with particular jobs is likely to require a close coupling with a general increase in
corporate advertising.
P1. Employer branding activities will be most effective when accompanied by
general advertising campaigns that aim to increase the general exposure of
and general knowledge about an organisation as an employer.
In relation to organisations presenting promotional company information as part of an
employer branding activity linked to a particular vacancy, alone it may not necessarily
make the organisation more attractive to new recruits. However, some research does
exist which demonstrates that such activities do at least have some impact on the
attitudes and perceptions of potential recruits. Cable et al. (2000) showed that potential
applicants who were exposed to official promotional company information did take on
board perceptions relating to that organisation’s culture. Importantly, however, this
information did not always lead to an accurate picture of the organisation’s culture,
just that the messages presented influenced applicants’ perceptions of the culture. This
study raises some interesting issues related to employer branding activities linked to
the importance of presenting an accurate picture as part of an organisation’s
employment offering. As Cable et al. (2000) argue, companies might have a tendency to
emphasise positive and desirable value based information in official information
material (such as recruitment packs) that might set applicants’ expectations of the
company culture. They suggest that this could lead to organisations running the risk of
creating unrealistic expectations; expectations which might disappoint later. As a body
of research shows (Cotton and Tuttle, 1986; Griffeth et al., 2000) creating unrealistic
expectations at the time of recruitment may lead to problems later on as there is a
reliable positive relationship between unmet expectations and intentions to leave.
P2. Organisations that present an overly positive picture of their employment
experience are likely to be encouraging unrealistic expectations in new joiners
and subsequently high levels of intentions to leave.
Links with the organizational identity literature
Another area of literature that has considerable relevance to the idea of employer
branding is research that discusses the idea of organisational identity (Albert and
Whetten, 1985). Many aspects of this established area of OB map neatly onto the idea
of employer branding (Faurholt Csaba and Bengtsson, 2006). Where authors write
about the notion of organisational identity, they usually refer to a definition presented
by Albert and Whetten (1985) who suggested that organisational identity is the central,
enduring and distinctive character of an organisation, something, which has particular
relevance to the idea of employer branding.
Fundamental to the notion of organisational identity is the idea that the
organisation can have some kind of identifiable character, which can be recognised by
a collective, in particular its employees. Some definitions of employer branding
specifically include the notion of identity (Dell and Ainspan, 2001) or include some
element of characteristics or attributes (Backhaus and Tikoo, 2004). The crossovers
with organisational identity literature and employer branding are therefore fairly clear.
The notion of organisational identity has received much interest (see Hatch and Schulz,
2004; and Whetten and Godfrey, 1998) and researchers show the importance of
organisations having a strong identity in order to encourage employees to identify with
their employing organisation (Ashforth and Mael, 1989; Dutton et al., 1994).
Furthermore, authors have argued that organisational identity “motivates members by
imparting value” (Ashforth and Mael, 1996) and it is suggested that employees can
identify with the values and characteristics associated with a strong organisational
identity helping to give their actions meaning in the work place. In addition, it is
argued that organisational identity can help guide employee behaviour and, through
their enactment of the values of the organisation, they help to form and sure-up the
organisation’s identity itself (Ashforth and Mael, 1996).
From the perspective of employer branding, theoretical discussions linked to
organisational identity can therefore add and contribute to our understanding of
employer branding. Where organisations clarify and present their employment brand,
they would expect to be presenting their central, enduring and distinctive
characteristics. Presenting the organisation’s identity will help summarise the
company’s image from an employer branding perspective. Presenting the
organisation’s shared values as part of an employer brand value proposition for
example, will effectively be presenting information about the organisation’s key
characteristics and its organisational identity. Given research which indicates a
positive relationship between levels of employee perceptions of the strength of an
organisation’s identity and the degree of employee commitment and identification with
that organisation and other positive employee outcomes (Mael and Ashforth, 1992), the
following proposition can be presented:
P3. Where employer branding activities include image or identity relevant
information linked to employee perceptions of the organisation’s central
enduring and distinctive characteristics, higher levels of employee
commitment and identification should result.
Links with literature focusing on organisational identification
Fundamental to the idea of employer branding is that some aspect of the organisation’s
employment brand is presented which potential and current employees are attracted to.
This attraction is argued as leading to an affinity, which motivates both current and
potential employees to link themselves (or aspects of their own identity) to that
organisation. This linking, it is argued, comes in the form of organisational
identification. One of the key aims of an employer-branding programme is to
encourage existing employees to identify with the organisation (Edwards, 2005a;
Martin, 2008). Although there are a number of definitions of the notion of
branding and
OB theory
organisational identification, it is seen to involve the “the perception of oneness with or
belongingness to the organisation” (Ashforth and Mael, 1989, p. 22).
There is a well-established body of research that investigates organisational
identification, which is particularly useful in understanding processes involved in the
development of organisational identification expected as part of an employer-branding
programme. The literature that investigates processes of identification has a long
tradition (Ashforth et al., 2008; Ashforth and Mael, 1989; Hogg and Abrams, 1988; Tajfel
and Turner, 1979) and includes specific theoretical frameworks, for example presented
as part of Social Identity Theory (Tajfel and Turner, 1979). Tenets of social identity
theory include the idea that people have a natural desire to want to link themselves to
social groups and that these groups can become part of a person’s identity. The
phenomenon of employing organisations as a social group becoming part of a person’s
social identity has been discussed by many researchers (Ashforth and Mael, 1989;
Dutton et al., 1994; Van Dick, 2001). Literature and research investigating identification
can help explain the circumstances under which people are more likely to identify with
an organisation; for example key arguments include the idea that people have a need to
ensure a positive self regard in connection with their identity, research showing this
helps explain why an organisation that has a good reputation or image and a positive
employer brand might attract more identification from employees (employees can
presumably bask in the reflected glory of the organisation’s positive reputation).
The organisational identification literature suggests that an important part of the
identification process involves value congruence (Ashforth and Mael, 1989; Edwards,
2005b; Hall, 1971). For those authors arguing that it is important for employers to act in
accordance with the organisation’s brand values, the phenomenon of organisational
identification encapsulates and helps explain the processes involved to reach this
outcome. Importantly however, particular identity based symbolic aspects of the
organisation’s image are of particular importance in the process of employees
identifying with the organisation. The organisation’s identity, its central enduring and
distinctive characteristics will help guide whether the employee bonds with the
organisation. Communicating central characteristics would facilitate organisational
identification or “the person-organisation merger” (Ashforth and Mael, 1996, p. 44)
where the “I becomes the we” (Brewer, 1991, p. 476). Some authors actually define
organisational identification as the employee linking themselves to the characteristics of
the organisation or “the degree to which a member defines him or herself by the same
attributes that he or she believes define the organisation” (Dutton et al., 1994, p. 239).
A considerable amount of research shows that organisations with an attractive
external image and an attractive perceived organisational identity tend to be
associated with higher levels of organisational identification (Dukerich et al., 2002).
Similar results are found with organisations that have greater perceived prestige (Mael
and Ashforth, 1992) and more of a positive status (Van Dick et al., 2007). Also Cole and
Bruch (2006) showed that the stronger the organisation’s identity the less likely
employees were to express intentions to leave. This rich vein of literature helps support
the argument for the management of the image of the employer brand, and for the
importance of ensuring that the positive attractive elements of the image are
communicated as it will help encourage employees to identify and share the
employment brand values.
P4. Employer brands of organisations considered to be highly recognisable and
prestigious are likely to attract higher levels of organisational identification.
As well as research indicating the importance of an organisation having a positive
image and positive reputation, identification researchers have shown that aspects of
people management activities are also important in encouraging organisational
identification. Tyler and Blader (2003) and Olkkonen and Lipponen (2006) showed that
fair organisational procedures help encourage employees to identify with the
organisation; the later study also showed a positive relationship between a fair
distribution of rewards and identification. Also, Cheung and Law (2008), Sluss et al.
(2008) and Edwards (2009) present research demonstrating that employees are more
likely to identify with the organisation when they perceive that the organisation is
supportive of its employees. Additionally, Bartels et al. (2007) demonstrate that higher
levels of employee identification are found where an open communication environment
is perceived. In considering this area of the literature, it is clear from research that
people management aspects of the broad employment experience will be important if
the employer is to encourage current employees to identify with the employer brand;
over and above that is image related features. Existing research and writing in the area
of organisational identification therefore, point to a number of factors that might help
provide theoretical insights and substance to our understanding of what might lead to
effective employment brands.
P5. Organisations that demonstrate support for employees, open communications
and those which demonstrate evidence of fairness as part of their branded
employment experience are more likely to attract high levels of identification
from employees.
Links with the psychological contract literature
As discussed, employer branding activities will involve presenting a range of
distinctive and unique employment experiences enjoyed by employees at a particular
organisation, this will tend to include a wide array of different features and benefits. In
an effort to put some structure on this array of experiences, branding authors
(Backhaus and Tikoo, 2004; Martin, 2008; Miles and Mangold, 2004) have turned to the
psychological contract literature. Although the explicit contractual terms and
conditions offered to employees within organisations will help contribute to what
makes up a distinctive employment offering, the employment experience and nature of
the employment relationship in any organisation involves much more than explicit
aspects of a written contract. Such unwritten features are discussed by Rousseau (1989)
who defines the psychological contract as “an individual’s beliefs regarding the terms
and conditions of a reciprocal exchange agreement between that focal person and
another party” (p. 123). Rousseau argues that organisations will differ in what is
provided as part of this exchange agreement and they will differ in what is offered or
promised to employees. Getting some kind of assessment of the content of the
psychological contract, at least general patterns of perceptions of expectations within
the organisation as to what the organisation owes, what it has promised and what it
actually provides for employees seems a sensible way of accessing some of Ambler and
Barrow’s functional, economic and psychological benefits. As such, the psychological
branding and
OB theory
contract is a useful framework to draw on when considering what makes up an
organisation’s employment brand, and furthermore what processes are involved in
developing a successful employer brand.
In considering how the psychological contract can add to our understanding of
employer branding, one can draw on arguments presented by Rousseau in explaining
variations in the psychological contract content. Rousseau (1990) makes the distinction
between relational and transactional psychological contracts. Transactional content
involves more directly quid-pro-quo exchange features. These exchange aspects are
more based around economic exchanges and they differ from socio-emotional oriented
relational psychological contract content where the provision of subjective perceptions
of trust and fairness are central. Some authors in the field (e.g. Martin and Hetrick, 2006)
have referred to both transactional and relational aspects of the psychological contract
in connection with employer branding. They explicitly refer to this distinction made by
Rousseau which separates explicit tangible exchange based aspect of the psychological
contract from more trust or socio-emotional based aspects of the psychological contract
and apply this framework to the notion of employer branding. In understanding the
complexities of an employment offering or employment experience associated with a
particular employment brand, there will be features that can be considered key
transactional; quid pro quo exchange based features such as pay for performance as
well as important socio-emotional/cultural features that help make up a particular
distinctive employment brand. Martin and Hetrick (2006) also discuss a third type of
psychological contract that can be applied to the idea of employer branding; that being
content, which involves ideological currency. Derived from Thompson and Bunderson
(2003) arguments, ideological currency involves “credible commitments to pursue a
valued cause or principle” (p. 574) and can be considered an important aspect of what
some employers would be expected to provide for employees. Martin and Hetrick (2006)
argue that aside from the economic and socio-emotional aspects of the psychological
contract, its content can involve expectations that the organisation is acting for some
ideological purpose in accordance with a particular set of values and principles. Their
arguments are also linked to Blau’s (1964) work, who suggested that the fulfilment
employees may get from working toward a particular ideological goal can act as a
reward. This is particularly useful in the context of employer branding as people may
wish to work for a distinctive company that has particular values or principles if they
share these principles. Presumably the more that being associated with principles or an
ideological position linked to a particular employment experience is salient to
employees; the less important other possible aspects of the employment experience (e.g.
pay) may be as part of the employment experience. The psychological contract
literature therefore provides a helpful framework for understanding the complexity of
an employment offering in terms of economic transactional content, relational
socio-emotional content, and ideological content.
P6. Organisations that provide unique and attractive psychological contract
content (transactional, relational or ideological) will have a distinctive
employment brand.
Although the application of the psychological contract to the idea of employer
branding seems relatively straight forward, there are alternative perspectives in the
literature as to whether the employment brand sets the psychological contract or
whether the psychological contract makes up an organisation’s employer brand.
Although specifically focusing on the employee branding process rather that the
employer branding process (the distinction between these forms of branding is
discussed by Edwards, 2005a), Miles and Mangold (2004) argue that the psychological
contract forms the basis of an employment offering which is partly made up of
employee perceptions of promises that the organisation has made and whether
particular promises are being fulfilled. Conversely Backhaus and Tikoo (2004) argue an
alternative position, that the employer brand contributes to the formation of a
psychological contract and the accuracy of the information portrayed in employer
branding will therefore influence perceptions of psychological contract fulfilment (or
breach). Although these positions are different, to some degree they are compatible (see
Figure 1). Backhaus and Tikoo’s position makes sense in that advertising the
employment offering is likely to drive expectations of what the organisation is obliged
to provide for employees; however what employees get in employment and the
particular content of the psychological contract will also help form the content of the
employment experiences of an organisation’s employment brand.
To complicate matters however, one does need to make the distinction between
what the employer brand might mean to potential employees and what the employer
brand might mean to current employees. One could argue that presenting the
employment brand to potential employees may be a different activity to presenting the
employment brand to current employees. The current employees will have a lived
experience of promises made and delivered (or not); potential employees however will
only see the promises made in the employment offering communicated as part of the
employer branding activity.
P7. Aspects of the organisation’s employment offering presented to potential
employers will help form employee expectations of what the organisation is
obliged to provide for employees.
Also, accordingly:
P8. Employee expectations of what the organisation is obliged to provide for
employees and the degree to which it actually satisfies these expectations will
form the central basis of an organisation’s employment experience.
Figure 1.
The relationship between
psychological contracts
and employer branding
branding and
OB theory
Linked to this proposition, the psychological contract content referred to here only
refers to the obligations that the organisation is expected to provide for employees.
Importantly, as Conway and Briner (2005) mention, often when discussing and
researching the psychological contract, authors tend to ignore the fact that the
psychological contract is actually an exchange and there are also obligations that the
organisation expects the employee to fulfil. For example, the organisation may expect
employees to regularly work long hours in return for a high salary, this would
therefore form the employees’ obligations linked to the psychological contract, it would
also make up features of the distinctive employment experience at that organisation.
Given this:
P9. The organisation’s expectations of what employees are obliged to do in their
jobs will help contribute to the unique aspects of an organisation’s
employment experience.
Symbolic and instrumental personality characteristics
As well as the contribution that literature on organisational identity, organisational
identification and the psychological contract make to the area of employer branding,
also of relevance is work in the field of management, which examines the personality
characteristics of an organisation. For some years researchers (such as Aaker, 1997)
have discussed the idea of organisations having personality characteristics, in
particular distinguishing between symbolic and instrumental personality
characteristics. A link between this specific area of the literature, and employer
branding, has recently been made by authors, such as Lievens et al. (2007). According
to Lievens and Highhouse (2003) and Lievens et al. (2007), symbolic aspects of the
organisations employer brand would help describe the organisation in terms of its
“subjective, abstract and intangible attributes” linked to the organisation’s image
(Lievens et al., 2007 p. S48) and the more instrumental aspects of the employment
brand would describe the “objective, physical and tangible attributes” of the
employment offering.
In applying the notion of organisational personality to employer branding, these
two papers can be seen to be crucial research that helps to address elements of the
organisation’s image related characteristics while also considering economic factors as
part of the offering. Martin (2008) has argued that the distinction made by Lievens et al.
(2007) between instrumental and symbolic aspects of an employer brand has
crossovers with discussions found within the psychological contract literature. Martin
(2008), who presents a ‘theory of employer branding’, maps arguments around the
transactional, relational and ideological psychological contract literature onto the
notion of instrumental and symbolic aspects of an organisation’s brand. If one
considers the instrumental aspects of a company’s employer brand, these look very
similar to different aspects of what might make up the transactional features of the
psychological contract (Lievens et al., 2007). However, the transactional versus
relational aspects of the psychological contract content do not map perfectly onto the
idea of instrumental versus symbolic aspects of an organisation’s personality
characteristics. Although relational aspects of the psychological contract content
might look more similar to symbolic aspects of personality characteristics than
instrumental personality characteristics, symbolic aspects also map on to other forms
of the psychological contract such as the ideological content and symbolic aspects can
also be compared to discussions associated with organisational characteristics and
attributes linked to ideas associated with organisational identity. Although there do
seem to be crossovers with parts of the two literatures, further work is needed here to
neatly incorporate the different concepts. However, one can feasibly present a number
of propositions linked to employer branding that help link ideas associated with
organisational personality, organisational identity and the psychological contract
P10. Organisations with instrumental personality characteristics are likely to have
a strong transactional element to their psychological contract content and will
have an emphasis on pay and benefits and other reward based features of the
employment experience.
Furthermore, given what we know from literature that examines organisational
identity and organisational identification, the following propositions can also be
P11. Organisations with a high degree of symbolic personality characteristics will
have a stronger emphasis on relational and ideological psychological contract
content that make up features of the employment experience with their
employment brand.
P12. Organisations with a high degree of symbolic personality characteristics will
have a strong value based employment brand offering presented to current
and potential employees.
P13. Organisations with strong symbolic personality characteristics will have
employees that identify strongly with the organisation.
One of the benefits of a model that incorporates symbolic aspects to the organisation’s
character when discussing employer branding, is that it enables one to understand an
additional range of reasons why people may want to work at an organisation. For
example, a person may work for a charity, and the transactional or relational aspect of
the employment relationship might not be why they stay there, it may be that the
ideological currency an employee gains from “doing good” may be an attraction
(Thompson and Bunderson, 2003). Also, being associated with particular symbolic
characteristics linked with an organisation’s brand might give the employee some form
of reward (symbolic in nature), or the employee may gain symbolic capital from being
associated with a particular organisational brand characteristic. An example of this
might be where organisations have a particularly good environmentally sustainable
reputation; employees who value this principle may enjoy and appreciate being
associated with such an organisation.
P14. Organisations with strong symbolic personality characteristics will have
employees who are less focussed on economic and financial based rewards.
branding and
OB theory
Integrating fields
While in the previous review a number of separate propositions are presented
associated with each area of literature, many of these ideas can be integrated (see
Figure 2). Employer branding and its central component of an employment experience
is a broad concept, in practice it will involve many different ideas and many features
will make up employee experiences in the work place. The employee experience offered
to current and potential employees would include a shared understanding of employee
obligations toward the employer and obligations expected from the organisation in
return. From the perspective of the employee, the unique aspects what the organisation
provides as part of its psychological contract content will drive the “offering”
communicated to potential recruits and the offering is likely to help set current
employee expectations (Backhaus and Tikoo, 2004).
The fulfilment (or not) of these expectations will make up the lived employment
experience of current employees (Miles and Mangold, 2004). Importantly, one can argue
(as Martin and Hetrick, 2006, do) that the employment experience is made up of
transactional, relational, and ideological content. Organisations will vary in the
particular make-up of transactional, relational and ideological psychological contract
content, which will help distinguish each organisation’s unique employment brand.
Furthermore, as Lievens et al., 2007 argue, organisations will vary in the degree to
which they have symbolic or instrumental personality characteristics. The variation in
this for each organisation will help contribute to an organisational image associated
with the employment brand and this will have a relationship with the organisation’s
particular psychological contract content profile. Additionally, employees’ shared
perceptions of an organisation’s central, enduring and distinctive characteristics
(Albert and Whetten, 1985) will help to contribute to the image related aspects of the
employer brand and employment experience. Each organisation should have specific
values and beliefs associated with its organisational identity and these can help
contribute to an organisation’s value proposition. Where organisational values form a
particularly strong part of these central, enduring and distinctive identity based
characteristics, one would expect ideological aspects of the psychological contract
content to form a greater part of the content profile that makes up the organisation’s
distinctive employment experience.
Organisations that already have an existing high profile are likely to have the most
successful employment brands that attract new recruits (Collins and Han, 2004; Collins
and Stevens, 2002). Furthermore, the same follows linked to organisations with
existing positive reputations (Cable and Turban, 2003). However, where organisations
try to increase awareness of the employment brand, general advertising campaigns
should emphasise where the organisation has been successful (Cable and Graham,
2000; Turban and Greening, 1996) and importantly should demonstrate the
organisation’s CSR credentials (Turban and Greening, 1996) and when there is a
particular ideological orientation to what the organisation does as a business, these
should be emphasised. Additionally, care must be taken to ensure that its people
management practices encourage a supportive employment experience (Sluss et al.,
2008) and one where employees are treated in a procedurally fair way (Tyler and
Blader, 2003) and that rewards are distributed fairly (Olkkonen and Lipponen, 2006).
Importantly, when presenting aspects of the organisations employment experience and
image in advertising campaigns, the organisation should ensure that the messages are
an accurate representation of the organisation (Cable et al., 2000) and an authentic
representation of the employment offering (Martin, 2008). Finally, if an organisation
wants current employees to have a high degree of identification with its brand or its
values and principles, it should ensure that it communicates an authentic picture of its
central, enduring and distinctive characteristics to employees (Ashforth and Mael,
In conclusion, although the literature on employment branding is in its relative
infancy within the HR academic field, there are a number of key areas of research from
the OB arena which can not only help to add some theoretical foundation to the
concept, but existing literature and research can be drawn on that will help us establish
a clear idea of what conditions might lead to the most successful employer brands.
Figure 2.
Employer branding
branding and
OB theory
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About the author
Martin R. Edwards, PhD is a Senior Lecturer in HRM and Organisational Psychology with the
Department of Management, King’s College London. His research interests are in the areas of
organisational identification, employer and employee branding, post-merger integration, HRM
and wellbeing in the workplace. Martin R. Edwards can be contacted at: Martin.R.Edwards@
branding and
OB theory
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    • "A third argument in favour of revitalizing QWL research is the growing evidence that mutual benefits to both organizations and their employees can be achieved without compromising the normative impetus of the original QWL movement. Large corporations are increasingly keen to brand themselves as good employers (Edwards, 2010). This is reflected in the willingness to engage in activities such as 'the 100 best companies to work for' (Dineen and Allen, 2016; Fulmer et al., 2003), which take into account a range of criteria that address QWL. "
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