How to use open questions effectively with your staff

“So…what is your culture like?”

“Well, we like to go for drinks on Friday nights once a month. Um, we also went bowling last quarter, that was great fun. In the office we like to have a bit of banter, but we all get the job done in the end.”


 Yes.  All those things are great fun and who doesn’t like going for drinks, bowling and banter? The trouble with this answer is that:

  1. It is not really an accurate answer about the company culture and doesn’t give much information.
  2. Given this is a similar response to a lot of other companies, it doesn’t differentiate you and therefore is not a source of competitive advantage where it comes to attracting and retaining talent.
  3.  It doesn’t cover the important components of what actually attracts and retains people.

There are a few reasons why most businesses have a similarly vague, non-distinctive and surface-level response to this question.  The reason for this is that most businesses:

  • Don’t properly think through their Employee Value Proposition (EVP)
  • Are not hearing what other managers are saying, because they are not sitting in on their interviews
  • Are not looking objectively at their company in the context of their target market for talent

To this last point, it is sometimes the case that business owners and leaders overstate the attractiveness of their company.  They are viewing it subjectively having grown it with their own blood, sweat and tears.  It’s like their baby and so how could they not think others should love it?  

Conversely, some business leaders don’t think they can compete for top talent, believing that only the big players who pay the large salaries and bonuses can attract the best. 

If you’re going to build a high performing team on purpose, you need to have an approach to attracting and retaining talent.  This requires you to have a clear and compelling Employee Value Proposition (EVP).

What is an EVP?

An Employee Value Proposition is the communication and delivery of the total rewards for employees in return for joining, staying and performing at an organisation.  This is the value that the employee gets from the company.  A good employee value proposition cuts through the rhetoric and clichés and instead, provides a clear message to a distinct group of people. 

Be clear on your target audience

It’s important to be clear on your target market of who you want to attract and what they value.  What is perhaps even more important is who you don’t want to attract.  Does this sound familiar?  If you said “yes”, then you might be thinking about your Customer Value Proposition (CVP) that has similar aspects to it.  

Knowing who you best serve and who you don’t from a customer perspective helps you to deliver differentiated value to your target market.  The same goes for employees.

Think through the below questions:

Is your company more attractive to people who:

  1. Like parties and social functions or to those who love learning?                                                                                                                           
  2. Like earning big bonuses or achieving work/life balance?                                                                                                                   
  3. Prefer a formalised environment or a casual informal environment?                                                                                                                   
  4. Value diversity or are more homogenous in the type of people in the business?                                                                                                                   
  5. Live in and around the city or prefer the suburbs?                                                                                                                   
  6. Love your products and services, or are your products and services agnostic to the enjoyment of people’s jobs (e.g. Widgets R US)?                                                                                                                   
  7. Values speed and fast delivery, versus those who prefer premium and more involved?                                                                                                                   
  8. Embraces technology versus old school approaches?

These contrasts are not always diametrically opposed (e.g. even if you have great social functions, you will of course need people to value learning) and some may not be relevant (e.g. you may have both branches in the city and in the outer suburbs). The point of this list is not to be exhaustive, but a thought starter.  The important factor here is that, much like with your strategic position with your customers, if you try and please everyone, you will please no one. 

It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean you have a one-size-fits-all approach on everything, as having a diverse population of employees with different interests and perspectives is valuable to avoid groupthink.  

Those of you who know me and have discussed the topic may have had the discussion about how paying for gym memberships is usually a big waste of money.  People who want to go to the gym are happy to pay for it and have their preferred club that they choose to go to.  Those who take a free membership tend to be people who think they want to go to the gym, but don’t really. 

What I’m talking about is at the core of your business.  What is the inimitable offering you give your employees that they simply cannot find anywhere else and who are the people who will value this above any other offering or reward?

Place yourself in their shoes

The ability to properly empathise, by placing ourselves in the shoes of others is one of the most important life skills we need.  Business owners and founders in particular often feel misunderstood.  

In fact, the very nature of why they got into business in the first place is often because when they worked in a job, their manager was not forward-thinking enough to take onboard their ideas – so they started their own company. 

The biggest misconceptions about an overall offer to employees are that:

  • It’s mostly about the money;
  • It’s better to have a lower base salary and higher bonus component (because that is what business owners have for their remuneration);
  • People will leave you if they get a “better” offer elsewhere;
  • Millennials have no loyalty; and,
  • You can pay someone lower to begin with, then if they prove themselves, you can give them a pay increase.

I have had people argue until they are blue in the face that paying bonuses drives results.  It’s not that they are lying, they are actually seeing results – but what results are we talking about? 

I won’t cover the correct design of incentive programs here, as it is a detailed topic however, bonuses are used a lot more than they should.  The people implementing them only focus on the outcomes they believe they achieved, rather than what they didn’t achieve and what they adversely affected.  

Turn up what’s important, turn down what isn’t

Are you a learning organisation?   Is that core to your strategy to beat the competition and provide innovation?  Is everything about delivering a premium tailored service?  Knowing who you are as a business and who you are not helps to attract people who value the same thing.  

If you then work hard to offer an employment experience that is better than others in a smaller number of areas and at least ok in all the other important areas, then for those who value what you are best at it’s harder for people to leave and go elsewhere.   More so, they will stay not because they feel they have to, but because they are having a fulfilling experience. 

People often use the example of Steve Jobs, who by many accounts was not a good people leader.  As a thought leader though, he was exceptional.  People who justify why you can get away with not being a good people leader do so in order to support an existing incorrect perspective.  Unless you are Steve Jobs or an equivalent genius, you can’t be as bad of a people leader as he apparently was.  

Also, what we don’t hear about are all the people who probably left due to his behaviour towards him.  Most of us are not the equivalent of Steve Jobs in the forward-thinking genius category, so we need to be at least an ok leader.  Then we need to offer a small number of areas that are better than companies who compete for our talent.

How does what you have to offer compare to other offers your target market is considering?  If you are a small-medium business, it is difficult to compete with larger businesses on their strengths.  If your target market of employee is weighing up working for you versus a larger player, it’s best to focus on strengths they don’t have.  

For example, in a smaller business an employee can have greater opportunities to work on a range of activities faster than in a large business that has much more specialised roles.

Most importantly and what is critical to your Customer Value Proposition, is: what is the problem you are solving for your target market?  What is the pain you are alleviating?  For example, if you are a high potential graduate looking to further your career, typical problems can include:

  • Companies want you to have two years’ industry experience
  • You are concerned about locking in a career without knowing what the work is actually like
  • You won’t receive proper training, mentoring and guidance to learn
  • There is a lack of career development and opportunities

Ensuring that you address these pain points properly and communicate what you do in a compelling way will help you to attract and retain this type of employee.  Compare this to a person of a similar age who is not yet ready to go fully into their career and is more focused on travelling and gaining life experiences.  If this were your target market, your proposition would be different if you wanted to address their pain points.

What should be included in an EVP?

So now that you are getting an idea that you need to be clear on who you are and the type of people you are targeting, who need to have similar values to the core of who your business is, it’s time to get specific on what you are offering as your value proposition.

The company purpose

This is the “why” of your company, as Simon Sinek would say.  People are looking for inspiration and want to be part of something bigger than just making profit, being the “industry leader” or being the best.  What is key to your company purpose?  You need to have a human impact.  

We feel good when we have made a difference to other people, so long as we can have a level of appreciation and affinity with those people.  This doesn’t mean you have to be a charitable organisation, in fact, your purpose shouldn’t relate to your charitable foundations unless you are a not-for-profit.  Your charities and social causes can form part of your overall proposition, but it’s not your purpose in most cases.

The work

The work itself is so important to the enjoyment of work from a day-to-day perspective.   What steps have you taken to make the job enjoyable?  Have you taken out all the unpleasant or boring bits through your processes, technology, outsourcing and/or support structure?  Are you clear and disciplined on your customer strategy so you only deal with customers in your target market who love what you do?  Have you taken what is seemingly an unpleasant job and made it fun?  

Think about the famous Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle where they throw the fish around and yell out at each other.  What sort of person would love working there?  Do you think they need to be paid big bonuses, or do they attract people because of the fun environment, opportunity to entertain, famous name and the chance to be yourself (if you are highly extroverted and energetic)?

Let me put it straight to you: Enjoyable, fun and fulfilling jobs in a great environment are more attractive than crappy, boring, frustrating jobs in an annoying environment.

Career development

A lot of people in job interviews talk about wanting to “grow”.  Often I wonder whether they know what that really means to them and the work required to truly “grow”.   Growth can be challenging and true growth is often not very enjoyable at all.  Nonetheless, many people want to feel like they are getting better and improving their knowledge and capability.  Whether or not they are up for the task of doing so is another story.  

What is important is that you have the opportunity for people to learn and develop in their own way.   Not everyone is capable and willing to climb the ladder.   Knowing this and applying an approach to help people feel they are progressing, without everyone having to reach CEO level is important for most EVPs.  

Leadership and culture

This is a more difficult one to convince anyone of.  Leaders of businesses will often describe what they are doing to create a great culture, but in reality it is often not what takes place.  Think less about the gimmicks that you have in your company. Avoid headlining your culture with your social events unless that is what you want to be known for above most other things.  

What’s more important is the day-to-day.  What are the indicators in your business that demonstrate what people are like and how they work with each other?  What is your approach to giving feedback and performance?  What is your approach to leadership?  How is feedback gained and acted upon?   

All of these things can of course be espoused without actually taking place effectively in real life.  So what’s the difference?  Sometimes it’s the smell test.  Some of you may use observations of candidates when you are hiring as part of your criteria, so observe their behaviour during the process (which is a good thing to do if done properly).  

Many top candidates are also doing the same thing with you.  What is important is that your leadership and culture is authentic to how you describe it.  You will be surprised how much can be revealed by you during your own hiring process.

Financial rewards and benefits

There are important questions here: 

  • What are you rewarding?
  • How are you rewarding?
  • When are you rewarding?
  • Who are you rewarding?

The answers to these questions will communicate to your employees and prospective employees what you value.

Just as a side note, you should avoid Employee of the Month programs.  They are fraught with danger and essentially it is exciting for one person, a non-event for some and demotivating for others.  You are highlighting one person’s efforts for the month and may not be acknowledging what anyone else did for that month. 

In terms of monetary benefits, in most cases I don’t think they should be a primary part of your EVP.  That is unless they form part of your core proposition that is valuable to your target market.  For example, if you are a travel agent and are wanting to attract people who love travel and can talk passionately about travelling adventures, then clearly having benefits related to travel such as significant discounts and extra annual leave is going to align perfectly.  

However, that same set of benefits in another business that doesn’t have the same target market will not be as valuable overall to the employees or company.  It will still be enjoyed, but anything you spend time and money on is in place of something else you could have directed your resources towards. You need to be deliberate and discerning. 

As a general practice these days, lifestyle benefits, such as flexible working, are more important in most cases than financial perks.  Financial perks can be valuable, but again they need to be relevant to the target market.

Articulating your EVP

Much like your Customer Value Proposition, your Employee Value Proposition needs to identify the target market of employees.  You may even have sub-categories of employees based on the different divisions and teams within your business.  To take a simple and commonly used structure, see below:

 For [target market] who are looking to [goal] but [pain point], we provide [value to target employees] because [what makes it true].  Best of all [special sauce]. (“Special sauce” is something extra, that makes the main part of your offering even better).

For example…

For HR and psychology graduates who are looking to develop their careers and spend their days analysing human performance at work, IPX Group provides a learning environment designed to rapidly develop your skills, knowledge and capability.  Here’s what makes this true:

We don’t hire people from the industry, because we invest a lot of time and energy into teaching our team our unique methods.  We therefore hire people who have strong learning agility, a thirst for learning and who are highly interested in human behaviour. 

  • We provide services to small-medium businesses across a large range of HR disciplines, so there is opportunity to learn across a diverse range of topics and find out what you really love. 
  • We work across a range of industries and our model is only successful when we work in strong collaboration with our clients, getting to know their businesses in detail.  This means that you will learn about how the world works through other people’s businesses.  
  • We have a documented and structured competency framework that forms the basis of your development plan, so you will always know your development path and be rewarded for learning. 
  • Because our services to our clients include training and development on high performance behaviours, you get to participate in the same training and development we provide externally, whilst being paid for your time.
  • You are encouraged to be yourself, but the best version of yourself.  This is because part of our offering to our clients is that we are transparent and honest, so there is no need to pretend you are something you are not nor to ever be untruthful to clients.
  • Best of all, because our hiring process is based on the same rigorous methods we use with our clients, you will join a team of like-minded individuals who have all met the same standard.

Key Takeaways

  • Be unique and specific to your target audience of employees. What is it that they truly value and appreciate in a workplace? Also, remember to think about who aren’t your target audience of employees.
  • Empathise. Don’t think that your employees are going to like what you like. It’s about having more than a surface level assumption and to know that even within your target audience of employees there are going to be differences as well. 
  • Whilst you can include multiple rewards, don’t include so many benefits that your EVP becomes diluted. Be clear on what you offer employees that’s valuable to them, that’s unique to your business and play to your strengths rather than trying to compete with other companies who play on their own strengths.


  • Think about your best employees past and present. Why do you think they enjoy working at your company? Why do you think they’ve stayed? Better yet, ask them. You might be surprised at their answers. 
  • Think through and possibly discuss with others, what is unique about your business and what value can you provide to that group of employees. 
  • What are the alternative options for these employees within or outside of your industry?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of what others potentially offer? Looking through the categories in the section ‘What should be included in your EVP’, what can you offer both present and in the future that can add value to your employees? If you don’t have much in place now, that’s okay. Think about what you want to have in place and make a plan.
  • Draft how you communicate it and speak to someone who has very little understanding of your business and has no reason to tell you it’s good when it’s not and explain it to them.

You can read Chapter 6: Learning and Development by clicking here.

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