“We’ve always been very good at talking about technology, innovation and progress,” says Chris Dinwiddy, Merck Group’s Global Head of Employer Branding and Social Media Recruitment. “Now, we want to take this to a new level by encouraging our employees to tell their stories about what brought them to Merck, what inspires them, and what it feels like to work here. In other words, we want to talk about who we are, not just what we do.” How does Merck seek to convey the personalities behind the corporate image in a compelling and authentic way?

While the interview was carried out before the full global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, Merck’s commitment to engaging with talent on a human level has never been more important. 

Standing Out: Tell us about Merck, and what makes the company so distinctive? 

Chris Dinwiddy: We see ourselves as a vibrant science and technology company, bringing together specialists in healthcare, life sciences, and performance materials. 

Science is clearly at the heart of everything we do. But what really makes us the company we are is the importance we attach to curiosity. We believe that curiosity is the key to making a real impact on the world. 

science is clearly at the heart of everything we do, but what really makes us the company we are is the importance we attach to curiosity.

Curiosity is a very human emotion, driven by creativity, openness and readiness to embrace new ideas, as much as technical know-how. We’ve carried out quite a lot of research into what makes some people more curious than others, and what can help to inspire curiosity within our workforce. What comes through strongly from this research is the vital importance of emotional intelligence – EQ – in helping us to work together as a team, make new discoveries, and apply them to everyday life. 

One of the challenges we face in projecting the ‘real Merck’ to the outside world is that people sometimes look at our long history, and assume that we’re a little bit traditional or an old-fashioned business. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The other common misconception is that we’re primarily a German company, because that’s how we started out in 1668. However, our group has been built up through multiple acquisitions, and organic expansion across the world. We now have 57,000 employees right across the world, with operations in 66 countries. What I should also add is that for historical reasons, we operate in North America as EMD Serono in healthcare, EMD Performance Materials in performance materials and MilliporeSigma in life science, which adds significant complexity to employer branding. So, while we have operations there, they are branded differently.

Standing Out: How is your recruitment strategy evolving to keep pace with changing skills demands?

Chris Dinwiddy: The skills sets we’re looking to attract, and develop are evolving fast. This includes growing demand for people with proficiency in areas such as digital technology and data science. There are clearly a lot of companies chasing people with these skills. So, we realized that we had to become more proactive. Key steps in the last couple of years have included setting up a global sourcing team, which not only focuses on recruitment, but also long-term engagement with people with the capabilities we need to acquire. These sourcing efforts are supported by significant investments in HR Tech in areas such as talent profiling and engagement. We are also looking to change the culture within the talent acquisition function to be more recruitment marketing focused. 

In line with the importance we attach to curiosity, we now focus closely on attracting and retaining people with ‘soft’ skills, such as creativity and empathy. The big challenge is how do you identify people with these softer skills. This is more difficult than screening, and selecting people with ‘hard’ technical capabilities. Therefore, we have introduced new psychometric tools to better assess these soft skills, as well as identifying particular traits that could mark out potential leaders. We developed this strategy in 2018, and have already seen its value, particularly when assessing leadership capabilities. However, you have to be careful about how you use these techniques as you don't want to narrow selection down to one particular profile, worse still create ‘clones’ within the workforce, and its leadership. 

We see diversity as critical in helping to create a more curious, and emotionally intelligent workforce. Our initial target is to ensure that at least 30% of our global leadership are women. There’s obviously more to diversity than gender balance alone, but we believe that the 30% target is a useful first step. Perceptions of diversity differ from region to region, so bringing more women into senior positions provides a common goal around which we can all mobilize. We also want to go further by broadening the range of life experience, and personal perspectives new employees bring to the organization. We call this ‘culture add’. Rather than new employees having to ‘fit’ into the existing culture, they ‘add’ to the culture. This embracing of diversity is how our company will continue to grow and evolve. The focus on culture add includes looking far beyond ‘visible diversity’ at how to attract people from a broader range of backgrounds.

there’s obviously more to diversity than gender balance alone, but we believe that the 30% target is a useful first step…bringing more women into senior positions provides a common goal around which we can all mobilize.

Standing Out: What is the balance between hiring from outside, and developing from within?  

Chris Dinwiddy: This depends on the market. If you’re looking to add significant headcount in a growth market, then external hiring is clearly the key focus alongside internal development. It’s a different dynamic in a market such as Germany,  where we’re already very well-established. There, our primary focus will always be internal development, and progression. 

Merck has always had a good record of supporting progression and internal mobility. This includes helping people to find new opportunities beyond their immediate sphere. For example, one of our HR leadership team members, who is global head of talent, was previously the general manager for the Healthcare business in the UK. I’ve seen many of these types of moves being made. 

to help support movement within the organization, we recently set up a pilot scheme using advanced data analytics techniques to look at statistical similarities between job descriptions in different parts of the business.

To help support movement within the organization, we recently set up a pilot scheme using advanced data analytics techniques to look at statistical similarities between job descriptions in different parts of the business. One of the things we wanted to find out is whether there is a hidden overlap between the job descriptions for people in different functions, divisions and other seemingly unrelated roles. From this, we discovered a statistically clear link between a position in our Life Science organization and a position in our Healthcare organization that even a well-trained human eye would not have picked up. It’s hoped that when we upscale pilots like this, it will transform internal talent movement. 

Standing Out: How does your employer branding strategy support talent recruitment?

Chris Dinwiddy: We have a strong and compelling message. At the heart of this is the opportunity to embark on a personal and professional adventure, with curiosity as the driving force.  

In the past, we’ve talked a lot about the innovations we’ve developed, and other achievements. This is still really important. But we also want to convey the personal stories of our people, to show who we are as a company. For example, our careers website features short films where employees talk about their personal journeys. One of these is Lekha, a senior scientist working on developments in liquid crystal technology. Lekha recounts the voyage of discovery that took her from a childhood fascination with airplanes to a career at Merck. These are what I call ‘authentic employee narratives’. This kind of employee advocacy is not just more relatable, but also far more powerful and authentic than many of your traditional corporate videos. 

One of the challenges to overcome is that employees are often reluctant to tell their stories in this way. Part of this is technical. So, we partnered with a smartphone app company, who have provided an easy, structured way for people to make their own films, or work with corporate communications on the production, whichever they prefer. Others are worried about how they might come across. So, we work with them to help build up their confidence. In my experience, the key to this is encouraging people to concentrate on the content, rather than worrying about how they might be perceived. When it comes to filming, we encourage authenticity by saying “just be yourself”. 

the key to employees telling their story is to concentrate on the content, rather than worrying about how they might be perceived.

Standing Out: How do you adapt your overall employer brand to local markets and specific talent groups? 

Chris Dinwiddy: Our employer brand is developed and managed centrally by me and my two colleagues. This is supported by employer branding ambassadors within the recruitment group, who in turn connect closely with other recruiters and HR colleagues.  

The message and how it is conveyed need to be relevant within the target market. In China, for example, which is major growth market for us, we are in the process of tailoring our employer brand assets and messaging to raise awareness of who we are, and our development plans in the market.  

We’ve also looked at where and how we communicate. In China, this includes focusing on WeChat, which allows us to engage with far more potential employees than channels like LinkedIn. Using programmatic advertising, we’ve developed direct engagement and targeted digital content in much the same way as consumer companies. This enables us to target the messaging straight to the audience. While our strategy is still being developed, the key takeaway is that there's no point shouting to a crowded room when only one person wants to hear your message. Using a programmatic approach, we can talk far more effectively to a room of ten genuinely interested people. 

This understanding of social media channels, engagement and target messaging is becoming an increasingly important element of both recruitment and employer branding. It’s important to learn about what works and what doesn’t, not just in employer branding communications, but also from related areas such as consumer marketing, and social media influencing. 

Knowledge base: What we can learn about employer branding from Merck Group

  • Social media messaging, and channel strategies are increasingly critical within employer branding.
  • Make sure people know who you are, and what you stand for, rather than just what you do.
  • Encouraging your people to tell their stories helps project your business in a relatable and authentic way.
  • Encourage the people telling their personal stories to forget about how they might come across. Ask them to focus first and foremost on the content, while being themselves.
  • Talk quietly to people who want to listen, rather than trying to shout at people who probably don’t.
  • Programmatic marketing techniques can help you to find people who want to listen, and direct the right content to them.

Chris Dinwiddy, Global Head of Employer Branding and Social Media Recruitment 

Chris Dinwiddy is a multi-sector recruiter, who has worked across recruitment process outsourcing, search and corporate roles. Chris is an expert in functional improvement projects and leading multi-country talent acquisition teams. His special interests include talent development, recruitment marketing, social media and the impact of artificial intelligence.  

Chris has been lucky enough to have lived and worked in several countries, gaining experience in a range of sectors from fast-moving consumer goods to oil and gas. He’s also an occasional Influencer, with a blue tick on Instagram.

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