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The new rules of recruitment

by laurent schwartz | Dec 09, 2014

Every organisation has a theory about the ‘right’ type of employee – and they’re using social media and innovative testing techniques to hone in on them. Do they offer a better way to find the staff you deserve?

When Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web at the CERN particle physics facility in the late 1980s, it’s a fair bet that he never imagined it would revolutionise staff recruitment – or that one of the main beneficiaries would be the very institution in which he worked.

CERN might be pursuing the world’s most intellectually muscular particle physicists, but there’s nothing stuffy about its approach to recruitment. It’s won numerous awards for the way it deploys the internet, and is perfectly prepared to use Twitter alone to solicit applications from leading scientists.

Even in the mid-noughties, with online job boards well established, few people really understood the disruptive impact that social media would soon have on the way employers sourced staff – or how technology would usher in a new age of psychometric testing, algorithms and deep analysis of skillsets.

The very process of recruitment has been rethought. The days when the HR department called an agency to place a single ad about an opening  and did nothing more, seem as quaint as handwritten covering letters or jobs for life. Today, any employer of any size can let the whole world know they are hiring and invite direct applications without a middleman. You can build strong talent pipelines and hold ongoing conversations with potential candidates before, during and after the recruitment process – or even if they’re not actively looking for a job (which 80 per cent of the market isn’t).

In the latest CIPD/Hays Resourcing and Talent Planning survey, published in June, more than half of all organisations reported using social media for recruitment and the number who said social media, and particularly LinkedIn, was among their most useful tools was up from 22 per cent in 2012 to 31 per cent.

In larger organisations, its use is even more pronounced. The latest annual survey of the Forum for In-House Recruitment Managers (FIRM), whose members tend to be bigger employers, showed 94 per cent using LinkedIn for attracting, engaging and recruiting candidates and the remaining 6 per cent saying they intended to do so. LinkedIn and its ilk have been a boon for in-house recruitment, with a number of major businesses eschewing agencies, particularly for middle management roles, reasoning that technology can help cut their cost-per-hire and take them into new markets. But are they right? And do even recruitment professionals know how to use social media tools effectively?
Given its dominance, you can forgive LinkedIn a bit of hype. At only 10 years old, it has 225 million members worldwide, which it estimates to be a third of all professionals on the planet. Because people upload their details publicly, LinkedIn contends that there’s a strong incentive to stay up to date and accurate. That gives it a database of extraordinary depth about who works where. “Because of our overall reach,” says David Cohen, the company’s director for the UK and northern Europe, “we know that we have statistically significant information on any company in any geography.”

Aside from all the people using LinkedIn ad hoc or informally to publicise vacancies or approach others, 18,000 organisations have purchased LinkedIn recruiter tools, which allow them, among other things, to see how the online population views their employer brand, to search the world by sector, job level, specialism and geography and directly approach complete strangers. Need an oil engineer to work in the Middle East? Don’t just look in Dubai or Qatar. LinkedIn will tell you there are untapped talent pools in South America, says Cohen.

If you work in recruitment, either for an agency or in-house, the chances are you use LinkedIn on a daily basis. You will have seen jobs advertised or been directly approached and cannot fail to have noticed that many of the people in your network with 500+ connections work in some kind of recruitment role. It’s no surprise that LinkedIn’s Talent Solutions business is the largest and fastest growing part of its empire.
But one of the issues thrown up by the CIPD’s survey, says Ksenia Zheltoukhova, a research associate at the institute, is that only a small minority of employers are really giving social media its due. “Few organisations have anyone trained in its use and just 19 per cent are using social media as part of a strategy,” she says.

This could be why the picture is mixed when it comes to the effect that social media is having on key metrics. While 71 per cent of respondents reported a decrease in cost per hire through the medium, only 45 per cent said it increased the speed of hire (22 per cent said it slowed things down). Although nearly half (45 per cent) said it increased the quality of candidates, almost a fifth said that same quality had got worse.

As Kevin Hough, head of resourcing at financial services mutual LV=, puts it: “There’s a lot of hype around social media but not a lot to say it’s effective.” LV=, he says, has been using social media for years, but has only started taking a strategic approach in the past year. This is beginning to make a difference. Facebook and Twitter, in particular, have been helpful tools to build its employer brand, give potential candidates a sense of what it’s like to work at the company and offer insights into the recruitment process. It has helped the business hire 160 people for a call centre in Huddersfield, by (among other initiatives) dispelling the myth that you need to have financial services experience to work for LV=.

It’s a similar tale at CERN, where recruitment manager Anna Cook says Facebook has been invaluable in getting across the message that the facility isn’t just for physicists.

Both organisations, meanwhile, use LinkedIn for more specialist or senior roles, to brand-build and source candidates. “We probably saved £60,000 on one senior operations role recently, where we hired someone directly through networking on LinkedIn,” says Hough, a speaker at the CIPD’s recruitment conference in June.

While social media is great at increasing an organisation’s candidate pool, that also means a bigger selection challenge. The rise of recruitment technology has coincided with a burgeoning interest in new testing tools and methods for analysing and vetting candidates. In some cases, the spur has been Google’s well-publicised algorithms – where the Californian giant trod first with its pronouncement that dog-lovers made good staff members (the result of analysis of its past hiring successes), others have followed with varying degrees of success and credibility, as our run-through of desirable traits on page 19 shows.

Meanwhile, FIRM’s annual membership survey showed a substantial rise in the use of online testing from 51 per cent last year to 72 per cent in 2013, partly driven by the growth in applications. Psychometrics is still the most popular form, used by 55 per cent of respondents, followed by aptitude and personality tests. Situational judgment, which examines the candidate’s behaviour in particular scenarios, was used by 17 per cent.

The vogue for new forms of testing partly explains why “curveball” questions and left-field tasks have taken off – from being asked to calculate the number of green front doors in the whole of the UK to the bizarre “would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?”, reportedly asked by a global mining company looking for marketers. The aim is to test reasoning, or see how the candidate copes with the unexpected.

Like the once-fashionable “stress interview” – where questioners become aggressive or stand-offish to see how interviewees handle pressure – the effectiveness of such tactics is open to debate. But more straightforward situational testing can be useful for self-selection, says Barney Ely, a director at recruitment company Hays. The company has an online test that asks users to pick the best candidates for specific jobs, based on a client brief and short video interviews. The aim is to give people an idea of whether they’d be suited to a career in recruitment. “Seventy five per cent of the people who come to interview with us have done the test,” he says.

Emma Mirrington, director of FIRM and head of talent, UK chocolate, at Mars, says such tests are becoming more popular. “They tend to be used early on to help process-efficiency, rather than for recruitment decisions.”
At CERN, an early stage of selection uses another technological solution – asynchronous interviewing. CERN sends candidates a link inviting them to record a video interview that can then be reviewed by hiring managers. Candidates can practise, but once the recording starts, it can’t be stopped, simulating an interview situation.

Last year, CERN invited almost 2,000 people to complete video interviews, 88 per cent of whom did so. For each post, candidates are whittled down to a shortlist of around four who are invited to an assessment day in Switzerland. “Asynchronous interviewing was the answer to a problem for both candidates and hiring managers,” says Cook.

The new world of recruitment, while universally welcomed, brings its own risks. The sheer scale of opportunities offered by social media puts great pressure on recruitment departments both to communicate with candidates and to deliver great recruitment results.
That is a time-consuming business. Employer brands are not built overnight and it takes commitment not only to formulate a strategy, but also to execute, evaluate and refresh it. “What absolutely doesn’t work is just sending out a job link,” says Hough, whose team aim to update the LV= Facebook page on daily basis and to tweet around 80 times a month. Once you start a conversation, he says, candidates come to expect quick and detailed answers.
Andrew Hyland, resourcing and recruitment manager at Macmillan Cancer Support, agrees: “Organisations should not view social media as an extended job board. You have to engage with people. Putting up a Twitter feed and then not using it is not good enough.”
That’s something recruitment agencies cling to, in their bid to remain relevant in a world where in-house departments can, theoretically, do the job themselves. Good recruitment – and particularly senior hiring – is still time-consuming, and a quick trawl of the web is no substitute for the level of engagement good headhunters can offer.

Doing it yourself takes serious effort. Mirrington spends about a day a week on LinkedIn building up her network and inviting interesting people – who are not necessarily looking for a job but who work in hard-to-recruit sectors – to have “career conversations”.
Hyland too, spends a lot of time communicating campaigning messages for Macmillan, rather than talking recruitment. Although the organisation has always had a strong reputation in the sector and can attract high quality talent, he says, it’s the passive candidates he needs to winkle out. The recruitment team are active on LinkedIn, but still turn to headhunters occasionally to strengthen a shortlist.

While the mechanics have changed – and technology provides a huge array of powerful tools – the principles of sound recruitment have not altered that much. Senior hiring is still about networking, though it’s increasingly likely to start online rather than in real life. As for candidate experience, professional recruiters have always understood it is crucial in building and maintaining an employer brand. What’s changed is that there are great tools to help employers get it right – and the danger of a public dressing-down if they don’t. Not responding to job applicants, meanwhile, is bad etiquette, as it always has been.

Indeed, the overarching message for employers is to be bold, but not to expect miracles. “Don’t just dip a toe in the water – jump in,” says Hyland. “I see too many who just put out a job without any element of engagement, and it doesn’t work.  

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