Streamlining global recruitment at Serco

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Serco simplified and improved the mammoth task of hiring up to 20,000 people a year globally

The company

Serco Group is an outsourcing company operating in continental Europe, the Middle East, the Asia Pacific region and North America. It works in public and private transport and traffic control, aviation, military weapons, detention centres, call centres, prisons and schools.

It employs more than 50,000 people across more than 20 countries, with roles as diverse as netball teachers and nuclear experts, and operating in locations as remote as Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.

The problem

Each year Serco hires between 15,000 and 20,000 people to work for its many customers. But until earlier this year it was relying on 15-year-old HR technology, created when the business was a third of its current size, operating solely from the UK. The turnaround began in 2011, back when Serco had little in the way of recruitment infrastructure. Global recruitment director Phil Clarke tells HR magazine that the scale of the business meant change was needed. “We soon realised we couldn’t run the resourcing locally,” he says. “There could be huge efficiencies gained by doing this differently, with a standardised and more consistent approach.”

In 2014 the need for change became even more apparent. A string of negative news stories about the firm led to four profit warnings within 12 months, the resignation of chairman Alastair Lyons, and losses totalling nearly £1 billion. “A crisis like this means you have to review everything,” Clarke says.

“We had to look at how many people we were hiring and consider recruitment freezes. That period was significant for the business, and it hit resourcing the same way it hit all of our functions.”

The firm’s employer brand also took a hit, with many candidates mentioning the negative coverage when discussing potential roles. “That was a huge challenge for the recruitment team,” Clarke says.

He adds that the nature of recruitment itself is changing. “Anyone can build a recruitment function where you just pass a CV on to a hiring manager,” he says. “A system like that is not going to last very long as it is too inefficient. You need recruiters who are involved in the planning of the business, and they need to be brilliant researchers.”

It was clear Serco needed to achieve two goals: bring its recruitment function into the 21st century, and work towards updating its damaged image.

The method

Any new recruitment plan needed to be extremely cost-effective, and it had to be up and running very quickly.“It’s no good us spending a lot of money if it doesn’t help the recruiters to become more efficient at their jobs,” Clarke explains. “We wanted to find a way to take the administration out of their jobs; to allow them to become really good resourcers, researchers and acquisition specialists. After all, that’s what they want to do with their careers.”

The business needed to find something that would allow it to properly manage the huge number of vacancies, appointments and candidates constantly flowing into the firm.

At the time Excel spreadsheets were being used, but these had become unwieldy as Serco continued to expand. SAP SuccessFactors, a cloud-based platform, was selected to take over this mammoth task.

“Now I can switch on my screen and have a dashboard that shows me how many vacancies we have got, the different regions and sectors we are working in, how many vacancies within those, and how many people we have hired,” says Clarke. “I wouldn’t have even been able to guess at those figures before we implemented SuccessFactors.”

This platform allowed Serco to streamline its hiring processes into a centrally-managed global hiring process. Candidates can be sourced from more than 4,000 job boards, social networks, and schools and universities in many different countries, which is ideal for this massive global company with large recruitment needs.

Clarke describes the implementation plan as “aggressive”, with some staff staying at work into the early hours to conduct global meetings concerning the project. “I was lucky enough to be working in Australia at the time,” Clarke said. “There were people in the process mapping team, people validating the implementation plan, and we were having to have conference calls at silly o’clock in the morning or evening for people to co-ordinate it.”

Thanks to their hard work the programme was up and running within 20 weeks. “We delivered on time and under budget,” Clarke says. “There were some real heroes in this project, especially in Australia.”

Charles Carr, director of communications, UK and European local and regional government at Serco, tells HR magazine that the transformation of the resourcing department coincided with a revamp of the business as a whole. “The entire business is on a kind of five-year journey,” he says. “We’re probably about three years into it but we’ve changed so much; such as the way we bid and our management. It’s a challenge.”

Clarke agrees, adding that the new software is helping to change candidates’ perceptions of Serco. “Our recruiters can now use SuccessFactors to build communication directly to targeted talent pools of candidates – be that people who have expressed an interest in working for Serco, or who have been researched and identified by the recruiters,” he said. “This communication can be broad company information explaining how Serco is building excellence in its delivery of public services, or more targeted to our specific sector updates. This helps build the brand of us being able to develop and grow people’s careers in Serco.”

The result

The new system needed a test to push it to the limit and see if it could withstand the pressure. When the Fiona Stanley Hospital in western Australia required 1,000 new people within 90 days the recruitment team jumped into action, embracing the new technology. It was a great success. Financially the upgrade paid off quickly; the team hoped to achieve seven-figure savings within a year but managed it in six months.

SuccessFactors has had a huge impact on the recruitment team, freeing up their time to be more strategic rather than transactional. “I had a recruiter tell me about how they had a requirement for 25 cleaners,” Clarke says. “Previously they would have needed to construct a campaign, go through all the CVs, and run an assessment centre a few weeks later.

“Under the new system and using the new platform they had people already registered in the database. They only had to send one email out, and the next week they were running the assessment centre and had cleaners ready to go. We’d cut weeks off their work.”

The improved system has also helped boost the company’s image. “Although our brand isn’t directly improved by having a new recruitment system, our ability to attract excellent candidates and give them clear and accurate information on what it means to work at Serco does benefit us,” says Clarke. “Candidates can now access the information they need faster, and when applying for our jobs they are quickly directed to our website to gather information on the company, its history, its vision and our latest news.”

Senior leaders were also impressed. A chief executive, who Clarke describes as “not the easiest customer to impress”, was asked for his thoughts on the SuccessFactors implementation. “I asked him to rate it green, amber or red on a traffic light system,” Clarke laughs. “And he chose blue. I asked him why and he said: ‘blue is better than green’. And when you get someone like him saying that you know you’ve achieved something pretty special.”

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