The HR Director Named Me The Devil’s Advocate

A while ago I met an HR director who assigned me an interesting task.

A while ago I met an HR director who assigned me an interesting task. She wanted me to become the devil’s advocate for their employer branding. What I didn’t know was that it would radically change the way I saw myself and my role. 

The HR director felt that they were stuck in a rut. Year after year they were communicating similar content to attract new employees. Conveyor belt content – basically. She said that they weren’t alone – other companies were saying almost the same thing, within the same arena. She thought it was odd because they were looking for different people. How could they appear so similar as companies? And why did they speak in the same manor with software developers as with architects? The HR Director asked me to scrutinize their strategy. After a while I couldn’t do anything more than to agree with her; their content seemed a lot like many others. I kept thinking “I think I’ve read this before”. How did this happen?

 We are gregarious animals, after all

I am of a philosophic nature and do admit that I sometimes tend to drift away metaphorically. A parallel that came to mind while I was analyzing the company was the work of the late Irving Janis, a psychologist and professor at Yale. In 1972 he coined the term “groupthink”. It can occur when a group makes faulty decisions because of group pressure. Subconsciously the opinion of the group becomes the opinion of the individual. According to Mr. Janis, groups of people are extra eager to groupthink when their members come from a similar background.

The more I thought about this phenomenon, the more I understood why my customer wanted me to act as the devil’s advocate. Actually – Irving Janis himself, before his passing – raised that role as one of the antidotes. A group should continuously be visited by someone from the outside, invited to challenge the internal approach and to question plans and assumptions. This is needed because we are gregarious animals – we tend to subconsciously follow the concepts and processes of others that they successfully used. Maybe this is what happened to my customer.

 To become the rebel

I though a bit more about the subject of group belonging; it took me back to the school yard. When most of us put most effort into fitting into the group, some clearly stood out. The rebels. They looked different, did not speak in the same manor. In comparison to the rest – the grey, amorphous mass – they were (sometimes literally) shining in neon. Together with our strategists I put together a proposal for my customer. A radical proposal. Because just like at the school yard my customer’s company could easily take the role as the rebel in order to stand out from the competing companies.

The HR director loved the idea. We started talking to her future candidates in a completely different way. The sort of texts that was written before, the one-size-fits-all-texts, were brutally deleted from the strategy. Nothing we communicated was generic, every word was tailor made and fitted for each professional group. Everything we created, and continue to create, is spot on for the specific group of people we want to attract. To take the school yard metaphor even further – if you want to hire the ones that stand out, in neon, you cannot communicate with them in the same way that you speak to the grey mass. You need to show them why you are special too.

 Everybody wants to be a rare bird in technicolor

I have come to identify myself with the role she gave me – the devil’s advocate. It doesn’t have anything to do with my need to question; it has to do entirely with the insight that we all want to be a “rare bird”. We want to be seen, to stand out from the group. Just go to yourself – would you rather be a part of some kind of featureless mass of employees or would you rather be an employee in technicolor? To succeed with employer branding we need to underline that we are not colorblind. We see the people that we want to attract – the colorful and special birds. I guarantee that there is something you can tell them, that nobody else says, in their language. And that’s exactly what you should say.


Lisa Målbäck, Freya News

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