When recruiting gets tough

I’ve mentioned before that I started my career in a recession and how the process of getting my first job was utterly soul destroying. To this day, I still have the rejection letters that I received from the hundreds of companies that bothered to reply as a reminder of how it feel to be on the receiving end. The letters are almost uniform in their nature, with banalities mentioning the number of candidates, the fit to the role, but with little specificity or anything of any help.

A quick scan through Linkedin will show you that many are in that current position. And with headlines in the news about the thousands of applicants for roles it can all feel bleak and difficult for candidates. At the same time, hard pressed resourcing teams are finding themselves faced with increasing numbers of applicants and in many cases, simply do not have the time or resources to handle the new volumes in their existing processes.

It is a tricky mix. But one that those of us in the industry need to work through.

We need to automate but not depersonalise – automation can be a big help, many organisations will have a system of some sort for recruitment. But at the same time, we need to understand the impact that a cold automated email has on the morale of those seeking work. The wording that may have been acceptable six months ago, may seem clumsy and uncaring now.

We need to balance the effort of the applicant with that of the resourcer – there is a temptation to introduce a whole load of exercises or tests to reduce the number of applicants. That’s fine, but if you’re going to ask an applicant to spend an hour of their time to do these, you better provide them with something more than a simple email. The more you’re asking candidates to put in, the more you need to give back.

We need to be open to all – I’ve seen a lot of well meaning people say that they are going to prioritise those who have been made redundant. Others copying and pasting statements about being willing to help “anyone they’ve worked with in the past”. Whilst I understand the sentiment behind these, they’re both discriminatory and unfair. We cannot know the background of all our candidates, so we need to treat them all the same.

We need to ask for what we need – The qualifications shambles that has taken place over the last few weeks should act as a blunt reminder that qualifications are not a good means of selection. Nor is asking for prior experience beyond the needs of the role. Now more than ever, we need to specify only those things that we need, it may increase the number of applicants, but it is also more likely to get you the best hire.

We need to be humble and care – Every applicant is a person, a human being, with a unique story. They’re not a candidate number or a CV. Our focus on candidate experience should increase during this time, even if our approach to it needs to change. We may not be able to handle things in exactly the same way as before, but we should care about candidates equally, if not even more.

It’s more than bums on seats

I’ve always enjoyed resourcing. Well, with the exception of interviewing which I to this day find the most terribly dull activity to spend a whole day on – one or two is my limit. Which makes it more surprising to me when few leaders seem to spend as much time on it as I think they should.

When I was studying HR back in the days of steam engines and the printing press, recruitment was seen as a bit of a transactional process. Our efforts were mostly focused on the how and not the why. Bizarrely, much of the recruitment chatter at conferences these days still focusses on the same, with technology platforms taking the place of strategic discussions.

If we believe that people are a defining competitive advantage for organisations, if we believe that having talented, committed, passionate people in the right jobs is critical, then we have to spend more time focussing on recruitment and resourcing than simply talking about the latest platform to help improve speed/reduce headcount/take out cost. Because ultimately, our job isn’t about any of those things.

Hiring good people should be hard, whether internally or externally. It should make us think, we should put time, effort and investment into it. Our obsession to make it easy absolutely misses the point of why we are doing it. An employee that is paid £25,000 probably has an annual cost to the business closer to double that when you take on costs, occupancy and other factors, if they stay for five years, that’s £250,000. How many other decisions like that would you enter into with such little due diligence?

That’s before I get into the cultural factors, issues of inclusivity,  future needs, team dynamics etc.

If, as leaders, we believe that human capability is one of our key responsibilities, then we need to take resourcing a lot more seriously than we do. And those that work in HR and recruiting teams need to get much better at explaining why. This isn’t a process that can be outsourced or systemised in the relentless pursuit of cost savings, it is a strategic imperative that needs to be understood.

Recruiting stupidity

Sometimes we get an unexpected lens on the profession. Too often we look from our own position of knowledge and insight and not often enough do we put ourselves in the shoes of a user, whether as an employee or candidate. We talk about “candidate experience” and the role of technology in providing this and  we applaud ourselves on the implementation of systems that improve our speed to hire.

And then we have the chance to look at it from the position of the candidate.

I had this opportunity to do this recently as my daughter applied for Christmas temporary roles with some of the biggest brands on the high street. And I’m here to tell you that your approach well and truly sucks.

Hold in your mind that we are talking about temporary roles here. Maybe four or five weeks. We are talking part time, low paid, customer service roles. We are generally talking about roles that get little training or direction and that are insecure and  disposable.

Which of course is why you need to have an application process that takes on average an hour per role, that includes psychometric testing and situational judgment tests and that results in a standard email telling you that someone will contact you. Which they never do.

Could it be that she just has bad luck? Maybe. But when I talk to her friends they all have experienced the same treatment. And two years ago I had the same experience with my son, resulting in this brilliant message exchange (it was January).


So of course, your brand just looks a bit stupid and a bit out of touch. When you’re 16, 17, 18 you don’t understand why companies use such laborious and clunky approaches and particularly not as part of an exchange that doesn’t feel fair. You want me to complete all these hoops and hurdles for a minimum wage job with a life expectancy of weeks? No thank you very much.

So yes, it might make life easier for your resourcing teams, but frankly it makes you look stupid. Many years ago I was responsible for recruiting 20,000 Christmas temps for a UK wide high street brand. We put posters up in store asking candidates to speak to the manager inside – ridiculously old school, but funnily, that always seemed to work. And the candidate ALWAYS got to speak to a human being.

Now that’s candidate experience.





The myth of the external candidate

I’m always slightly nervous when it comes to comparing internal and external candidates. In many ways it is like moving house. On one hand you have you have the wonderful description of a potential property and beautifully taken photos and on the other, you have your current abode, lived in and known.  You can take a few visits, have a look around, you can even get a surveyor’s report, but it will never amount to the knowledge and experience you have from years lived within, learning the good the bad and the indifferent.

Of course there are ways you can be more objective about the comparison, you can run aptitude tests, profiling and be as structured in the assessment as possible. But I’m not sure you can ever completely counterbalance the opportunity of being unknown. Let’s take something like stakeholder management. An external candidate will give you examples of where they’ve been successful, how they’ve managed competing demands and ultimately you can only assume this to be true. The internal candidate may tell you the same, but you’ll also have the feedback from the stakeholders themselves.

The only way I’ve found to approach this situation is to add in the equivalent of a balancing number. On one hand assume that the external candidate will be 15-20% less good than you assess them to be. On the other add a factor for growth to the internal candidate, based on your knowledge of their current performance.  Then look at the two adjusted performances and try to make a comparison based on this revised approach.

Ultimately, if an internal candidate can get within distance of the external candidate based on this assessment it feels like the right thing to do to allow them to develop and grow. It’s not the most scientific approach, I grant you, but in the absence of anything genuinely more objective, I’ll be sticking to my old school ways.