Is it time to re-think the recruitment process?

It’s been a stressful time for HR. Since the announcement of lockdown back in March, the profession has had to switch its workforce to remote working practically overnight, place employees on furlough, keep the rest of the workforce enthused while battling burnout and finally develop a robust health and safety procedure to ensure staff can social distance when returning to the office.

Cynics among us may never have thought that we would shake off our love affair with the office, a structured 9-5 or an over-priced annual rail ticket into the city.

But coronavirus has rejigged the world of work in numerous ways. And this has often meant HR having to adapt its processes to make way for the much-discussed new normal, adding pressure to an already intense job.

Throughout the summer, the media published countless stories of organisations overwhelmed by the volume of applications for each job vacancy posted. This has been brought on by a mixture of furloughed workers looking for new positions, career changes and large-scale redundancies, and given we are now in the midst of a recession, there’s little sign that it’ll ease up any time soon.

The availability of graduate jobs has dropped by 60% since last year, according to CV-Library, with a paralegal role on the site receiving 4,228 applications, 3,333 applying for a HR assistant role and 3,272 for a trainee accountancy job. Job website Indeed has also seen its vacancies drop by 56% compared with the same point last year.

This could be a dream-come-true for HR looking for a wider pool of applicants in order to find the perfect person for the job. But it can also create a series of organisational and ethical challenges. How do you tell someone who has enough experience, dedication and effectively the ‘right fit for the job’ that there’s another 30 people just like them? How do you find the time to wade through 1,000 applicants when there’s a full workforce still needing your day-to-day assistance?

With the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) wrapping up at the end of October, it seems somewhat inevitable that many vacancies advertised over the coming months will receive a large number of applications, potentially higher than any recession has seen before.

Sign of the times

Sophie Lennon, HR manager at Leeds-based Northern Monk Brewery, has first-hand experience of just how challenging the recruitment process has been during the pandemic. She advertised one vacancy as a packaging operative working in the canning line team and was shocked when she had over 1,000 people apply for the role.

She says: “It was the first role we’ve advertised since COVID-19 so we had some questions around what the response was going to be like, but we definitely didn’t expect this. I think it is a sign of the times – both in terms of a lot of people being out of work but I’ve also spoken to a lot of people who have taken the time over past couple of months, whether on furlough or not, to think about their careers and where they want to work and then making a decision to change career.”

Despite being the only person in HR at the company, Lennon said she didn’t feel too overwhelmed by the response and instead committed herself to reviewing all candidates as they came in. Those with the right experience got through to a telephone interview, which Lennon tried to make as inclusive as possible.

She adds: “The telephone interviews were the most time-consuming part; we did a couple of different versions as we had a candidate with a stammer who struggled with the phone interview, so we just did that one by WhatsApp. We wanted to make sure we do everything we can to be as accessible throughout this
as possible.

“We then sent a task, which is earlier in the process than we usually would, and I paired the task response with the CV and cover letters, all identifying information removed, and reviewed them with the manager and their manager. We had 26 at this point and selected 11 for interview.

Lennon was sure to respond to every unsuccessful candidate and prioritised using their name in the email so they knew it wasn’t a generic auto response. She said: “We always see a lot of candidates who want to get into the craft beer industry, so when they ask for specific feedback to help with this, we always make sure to respond with appropriate advice.”

The quantity of applications makes the sifting process much more difficult and time consuming. It can also impact the candidate experience with many having no feedback or even an acknowledgment. This could damage the employer-brand long-term and may impact future hires. Some HR teams have even stopped advertising open positions, instead preferring to use search and targeted headhunting.

Yet Craig McCoy, interim HRD and chair of London HR Connection says this could lead to HR missing out on new talent. “Advertising can be a way to unearth talent which you may otherwise miss, hence there is an increasing trend to be highly specific and up-front in advertisements about the experience and skill requirements needed for the role, and especially sector experience. This can dissuade candidates who do not meet the criteria from applying and may ease the recruiter’s task in sifting.”

Lennon agrees, arguing how you respond to a candidate reflects the wider ethics of the company. She adds: “It is so worth responding to every single applicant, even if it’s a template or auto response. It reflects the values of a company and hopefully means people will continue to want to apply for jobs. I committed to a couple of longer days in the office, but if you can, get someone to help, especially if it’s a templated response. If you make it non-negotiable, you’ll make it work.”

Speculative applications

An increase in hiring and firing post-furlough could mean more candidates applying on a whim or without the experience required. Lennon adds: “There were definitely those who applied on a whim – particularly through Indeed. I was surprised when calling a number of the telephone candidates that they didn’t know which job I was calling about or what they had applied for.”

Over the course of lockdown, social media was inundated with posts detailing how the pandemic had made people focus on the important things in life and reprioritise accordingly.

According to Protectivity Insurance, more than one in five (23%) of UK workers are now seeking a new career path post-lockdown, with 35% worried about the security of their current role. Many workers have reconsidered what they want their career to look like, but given the large talent pool out there, would HR consider someone with less experience?

Lis Allen, HR director at Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust, said she has always actively encouraged these types of applications. “We’ve always been open to candidates without lots of experience. I’m passionate about having a great mix and want to bring new people into healthcare and that’s a big thing for me. There’s never been a better time to attract people into healthcare and for people to understand they’re working in an industry that brings a different value.

“I don’t always recruit people who are good to go on day one. I also like to recruit people for the future and show them how to develop into a role, so we do offer opportunities for those wanting a career change.”

Soft skills count

Career coach Kris Thorne recommends HR should always hire for attitude over skill. She says: “Technical skills and qualifications are just one piece of the puzzle; soft skills such as the ability to collaborate, creativity, persuasion, adaptability and emotional intelligence will play a much larger part in personal performance.

“You want to hire candidates whose values align with your organisation and who demonstrate an eagerness to learn, develop and contribute.”

Allen’s HR department has witnessed an increase in the number of applications while recruiting during lockdown, but given that the NHS trust she heads up is a specialist in heart and respiratory cases experiencing large numbers of applications per vacancy is nothing new. The department had already automated its application process, which Allen argues made the pressures of the pandemic easier.

She says: “We already had a lot of people doing everything online and onboarding was already being done online prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. We spent a long time doing this beforehand, so once the pandemic came, we were ready.

“The HR department and recruitment team went from just recruiting to onboarding volunteers, and this changed from onboarding over a period of three weeks to onboarding in a day.

“It meant changing some of the things we asked people for; so rather than asking them to bring in a passport, we’d ask them to send in a photograph. Some of it came down to validation in a different way.”

Yet Allen is keen to highlight the limitations of automation in recruitment and acknowledges that the human element is just as important than ever.

She adds: “It’s certainly challenging – how to get the proper fit. The methodology of interviewing needs to be looked at as there’s a lot to be said for how to make sure people are an emotional fit for you.”

Lennon is less willing to use automation in Northern Monk’s recruitment process. She says: “It’s not something I’d rule out, but I would want the software to be a little further along than it is at the moment. Also, one of our values is offering opportunities to those in our immediate community and those who are underrepresented in the beer industry – until AI is developed enough to do that, I wouldn’t use it. We might go back through the applicants if another similar role comes up, but we’d also post it again.”

Automation could reduce the workload of recruiters while the HR profession is undergoing huge change, yet this could risk the employee-centric approach many businesses are hoping to encourage and grow.

General attitudes suggest that there currently isn’t the level of trust in automation and machine learning to deliver the same results as organisational human processes. But, as the country wakes up to the reality of the recession and HR processes become more focused on strategic decision-making, it’s possible that there will be no choice but to rely on machines to find the best candidates.

Recruitment has often been a sticking point for businesses, and there is no magic formula to make it work well for everyone involved. As HR continues to face its most challenging of periods, the human element will be critical for both recruitment and onboarding.

From an organisational perspective, this means making sure all candidates receive a positive experience. In the context of a global pandemic and consequential recession, this is much easier said than done.

The full article of the above is published in the September/October 2020 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.