To win the war for talent, we must reframe how we think about recruitment, evaluate our processes, understand our biases and prioritise candidate experience at all times.
In 2017, to source candidates with a flair for problem-solving, Apple created a hidden job advert for a tech engineer in its website source code. Although it was actually discovered by a cybersecurity journalist (who wasn’t looking for a job), it gives us an insight into the unusual ways some organisations are sourcing top talent in a competitive market.
IKEA, for example, inserted a set of ‘career instructions’ into its flat-pack furniture, written in the style of its assembly instructions – attracting 4,200 applicants (of whom it hired 280). In a more targeted approach, gaming company Red 5 Studios drew up a ‘dream team’ of 100 people it longed to hire, contacting them directly with customised messaging (and considerable success).
The moral of these stories is that when competition for talent is fierce, even household names have to think creatively about how to win the seemingly never-ending ‘war for talent’.
Warring for talent
It’s more than two decades since McKinsey and Company first introduced this phrase to describe an increasingly competitive recruitment landscape – and it has since been much over-used, causing eye-rolls in HR circles. Yet the trend prevails.
Reasons for talent shortages cited at the time included the shrinking candidate pool (high employment; an ageing population), an ever-more complex business world, and increased job mobility. These drivers remain, while today’s marketplace is characterised by a desire for flexibility, remote working and a better work-life balance, with an emphasis on wellbeing.
Younger workers in particular, continue to seek out work that provides meaning and purpose, to apply to brands that are ethical, sustainable and authentic, and to demand ample opportunities for learning and development. And, of course, tech skills are at a particular premium, in addition to soft skills such as creativity and agility. Today, the war is not only for full-time, permanent talent, but also for an army of contingent workers – those masterly freelancers, gig workers and consultants who now comprise up to 40% of the workforce.
In this competitive environment, we must stop looking at recruitment as a chore, and start seeing it as a strategic opportunity to acquire traits and skills, to develop organisational culture and to showcase our brand and values.
Our role in recruitment
While many of us might work in organisations where HR teams lay out a process and protocols for recruitment, it’s important that, as leaders, we don’t leave it entirely to our HR colleagues. To hire the right people to balance and grow our teams, we need to engage with the hiring process ourselves. This means understanding what it looks like and how to use it effectively to hire the people we need.
Recruitment comprises three stages:
Attraction: Sourcing and attracting candidates to fill a particular vacancy within our organisation.
Selection: Using a variety of methods to assess and compare candidates, in order to find the person with the most relevant traits, skills, and experience for the role.
Induction: Onboarding our new team member, supporting them to settle in quickly, and equipping them with the practical knowledge to perform their new role to a high standard.
Getting all three right enables us to bring vital skills into our organisations, helping us to meet strategic goals, round our teams, retain staff and enhance the perception of our brand by giving candidates a positive experience.
Conversely, making a hash of it can lead to poor experiences for applicants and a mismatch between the successful candidate’s skills and the reality of the job. Recruitment can be an expensive and time-consuming process when the wrong person is hired, disrupting projects and team dynamics, and leading to higher staff turnover. In the worst cases, contravention of employment legislation can result in tribunals and bad feeling – causing long-term damage to our reputation. It is therefore well worth putting in some thought and effort at the outset and managing the whole process with care.
Attraction: who are we looking for (and why)?
To bring the right people into our teams, it’s insightful first to explore the general characteristics, skills and experience that make up our ideal candidates and the selection criteria we intend to use. Asking ourselves why a new employee is needed; the duties and responsibilities they will have; the skills and abilities they will need to succeed, and where this role fits into the wider business, is a good starting point.
We should look at this in the context of what will best serve our team in the short and long term. If we need an immediate shot of specific expertise, might it be better to bring in a gig worker or consultant on a temporary contract? Where we’re looking for someone able to adapt to an evolving role, we are probably looking for potential over immediate proficiency.
Hiring for foundational traits – such as integrity, curiosity, courage and self-awareness – that will always be of value and determine new skill and knowledge acquisition, can help us to round out our teams and future-proof our organisations. Learnability (LQ) and adaptability are arguably more important than previous technical experience expertise in a world in which 65% of today’s jobs may not be around in 15 years.
Ideally, as experts suggest, leaders should be focusing their efforts on hiring people with the skills, abilities and expertise they will need to move forward within their teams and organisations.
In a world in which creativity and innovation are key to organisational success, hiring for ‘culture add’ rather than ‘culture fit’ is another important consideration. When seeking culture fit, we’re looking for people who will blend into our team straight away because they share our company values and ways of working. While this can boost happiness and team cohesion, it can also lead to groupthink and bias against difference, stifling new ideas and creating ‘personality silos’.
Recruiting for ‘culture add’ doesn’t mean bringing in people likely to cause discord or conflict; it means introducing individuals who share our values but have something new to offer in terms of their skills, perspective or experience. It may be harder to integrate these people into our teams but the diversity of thought that they bring can be particularly valuable.
In marketing, executives draw up ‘audience personas’ to profile typical customer groups, so that they can target them more effectively. These personas help them to understand their customers’ drivers and motivators, and how best to reach them. In a similar vein, developing candidate personas for particular roles (in the form of semi-fictional representations of our perfect hire) can help us to gain a clear idea of who we are looking for and inform our sourcing and recruitment strategy.
Simultaneously, we must understand our unique offer as an organisation. A firm’s employee value proposition (EVP) represents the total value to the employee of working for the company, encompassing five key components: financial rewards, benefits, career development, work environment and company culture. While we may not have direct influence over some of these aspects, comprehending our EVP (in the context of current talent trends) will help us to design compelling job descriptions and to tailor messaging.
For example, a parent or caregiver might value flexible working as highly as generous compensation, while a young graduate may be looking for professional development opportunities, or a sociable workplace, above a competitive pension scheme. A small business could win out over a better-known competitor by promising a less corporate environment, personalised training and a chance to help work towards B-Corp status. An international company might emphasise opportunities to work in its offices around the world, and a famous name might reference high-profile projects or products.
Highlighting the aspects of the role and organisation that are likely to appeal to our target demographic will help us to stand out from the crowd.
The artful, equitable job description
Drawing on these insights to write a coherent and attractive job description is the first stage in the recruitment process and can underpin overall success. Not only do job descriptions advertise vacancies and attract candidates, they also set out what we expect from people and help us to manage their performance once they take up the job. They enable us to align roles with team goals and our organisation’s vision – and to attract people with similar values.
A job description generally comprises:
- The position identifier, including job title, department, location and level of seniority.
- An outline of the purpose of the role and how it fits within the organisation.
- Details of the duties and hours, describing essential activities and responsibilities.
- Details of essential and preferred qualifications, skills and experience.
- A ‘person specification’, describing the type of person the role would suit, covering broad personality traits, values and professional background. (Sometimes this sits outside of the job description as a separate entity)
- The salary range, benefits and any other unique selling points.
Rather than simply recycling an old description when a staff member leaves (or automatically listing the credentials of the previous incumbent) we should seize the opportunity to analyse current and future needs. Acquiring this data may involve conducting an exit interview with the outgoing staff member, talking to their colleagues and re-evaluating the purpose of the role.
Take care not to narrow the field unnecessarily with irrelevant or unrealistic requirements. The more conditions we specify, the fewer applications we will receive, so it’s advisable to leave out the ‘nice-to haves’ and stick with the essentials.
For example, ‘Tech company seeks exceptional IT admin fluent in Mandarin and Python. Minimum of five years’ experience. PhDs preferred. Salary: £26K per annum’ demands skills and experience that are completely unnecessary at this level and would deter many good candidates from applying – particularly women. Research shows that women are unlikely to apply for a position unless they meet 100% of the stated requirements, while men will apply if they meet 60% of the demands.
We should also think twice about parroting general requirements such as “strong communication skills” or “proven team player” if they are not actually essential to the role at hand, since these descriptions can discourage neurodiverse applicants (with conditions such as dyslexia and autism). Even the word ‘experienced’ may put off entry-level applicants, while asking for ‘enthusiastic young people’ will turn off older candidates. Think: do we really need to make this stipulation or are we able to remain open-minded about who would be best for this role?
Minding our language
Getting the wording right in a job description is therefore fundamental: details should be clear and accessible, we should spell out acronyms, and steer clear of industry jargon or perceived language bias on the grounds of age, gender or any other protected characteristic, using inclusive terms.
As well as making job titles gender neutral (for example, chair/chairperson, not chairman), we should be aware of the impact of gendered wording, which can perpetuate inequalities.
Research shows that job descriptions containing more ‘masculine wording’ (such as ‘lead’, ‘ambitious’ and ‘confident’) are less likely to resonate with female applicants; however, adverts using more feminine words (‘support’, ‘interpersonal’, ‘commit’) have only a small adverse effect on applications from men). Superlatives (best; world-class) also appeal more to men than women. Fortunately, free tools such as Gender Decoder can help us avoid such unintended bias.
To avoid binary pronoun definitions, it may be best to address ‘candidates’ or use ‘you/your’ rather than ‘he/she’ (for example, ‘The successful applicant will be self-motivated and creative’). Meanwhile, stipulating hours may deter parents or caregivers (still more likely to be women than men) so it can be more equitable to define performance requirements instead.
On top of general proofreading, asking colleagues from under-represented groups to read through job descriptions before we use them may help to surface any unconscious bias or stereotyping that has gone under the radar. Bear in mind, too, that claims under discrimination legislation like the UKs’ The Equality Act can be made by candidates who feel discriminated against at any stage in the recruitment process.
Where we are genuinely committed to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and want to encourage applications from diverse talent, we should explicitly state this commitment in job descriptions, being sure to reflect and align these values in the candidate journey, employee experience and external brand. The same goes for commitments to accommodating neurodivergence or disabilities, and to initiatives around issues such as wellbeing and sustainability.
It’s important to note that candidate experience begins at this point – with the job description representing our first interaction with potential employees. The language within them gives clues to our values and helps to convey our distinct strengths and organisational purpose.
Since each person who goes through our hiring process may influence a future purchasing decision about our product or service, we must treat candidates as customers at all times, putting them at the heart of the journey. Not only may those who have a negative experience stop using our product or service, they may talk to their family and friends about it, and write about it online. They are also unlikely to apply for future positions that we offer.
Our aim must therefore be to provide every applicant with a positive experience, treating them with respect from start to finish, whether they are shortlisted for the role or screened out at the earliest stage. Our job description is the foundation of this and sets the tone for the process.
Fishing the talent pool
Precisely how we source our candidates depends on the type and seniority of role we are recruiting for, our candidate demographics and the level of competition for this type of job within the labour market (which may require us to get creative, IKEA-style). It will also vary according to the job location and, of course, our budget.
If our aim is to recruit as diversely as possible, we should advertise in a way that reaches the broadest spectrum of people – measuring success against this parameter when evaluating outcomes.
Options include advertising on our own website (requesting CVs or providing an online application form), amplifying the message via social media, and using professional networking platforms such as LinkedIn. These provide a window into our organisation, so we must ensure that we display it to our advantage.
To gain a large volume of applications, we could also turn to third-party job sites (larger companies often have ongoing subscriptions to these) and place ads in regional, national or international publications, as well as in job centres. Specialist publications such as trade journals will help us to target candidates in a particular sector. To access minority groups, we may need to target agencies and websites aimed at these demographics.
In certain cases, we may outsource some or all of the hiring process to specialist recruiters (ensuring they understand the character and values of our organisation and have the same diversity policy), or use head-hunters to find and approach candidates for senior positions. The latter method is expensive, but beneficial in sensitive circumstances where advertising an appointment might impact on an organisation’s reputation.
At the other end of the seniority spectrum, for graduates and postgraduates, recruitment fairs are commonplace in sectors such as finance and technology; our organisation might also host candidate open days for those with in interest in our organisation.
Where there are no current vacancies, we should hold on to the details of the talented people we encounter, keeping in touch with them via professional networks on LinkedIn and Twitter. As leaders, networking and pipelining are keys way of bringing people to bring into our organisations, whether they are actively job hunting or simply keeping an eye out for interesting opportunities. We can also encourage (and incentivise) employee recommendations – while bearing in mind that those from minority backgrounds may have fewer contacts and weaker connections to the labour market.
Some larger organisations go so far as to actively create roles for talented people they encounter, whether or not a current vacancy exists, so as to acquire their traits or skills for the company.
Effective pipelining is both external and internal. While it’s always good to bring new capabilities and perspectives into our teams (and annoying to fill one gap only to create another) we should not default to external hires before ascertaining that we cannot find the skills we need within our current workforce. Consider who could do the job with a bit of training and mentoring and who is looking for a new challenge. We can create a robust internal talent pipeline with continuous upskilling, making learning and development available at the point of need.
Not only is hiring from within less costly and time-consuming, these candidates understand our culture, require shorter inductions and have an existing commitment to the business. They are less likely to leave because they’ve failed to settle in. Pipelining internally also demonstrates to other staff that there is mobility within the organisation, which helps to engage and retain talented people.
Even if we have somebody earmarked for promotion, and are not advertising externally, introducing a proper process that mirrors the one for external hires (from internal advertising via newsletters or the intranet, to applications, interviews, shortlisting and formal offers) keeps everything fair, professional and above board, and means the candidate feels they have earned their new role. Often, however, our shortlist will contain both internal and external candidates.
Selection: how to reflect and compare
We may have clear insights into the strengths and weaknesses of internal candidates, but shortlisting external candidates is a more challenging prospect. Most organisations still compare applicants’ CVs and covering letters, checking each person’s skills, experience, qualifications and interests against job descriptions. However, some use ‘screening questions’ that place less emphasis on education and work history, while others only refer to CVs later on in the selection process, when they have already met the candidates and can look beyond superficial impressions.
Since the detail contained in a CV can fuel our conscious or unconscious biases, anonymising them helps to level the playing field – removing photos and addresses, plus details of gender, age, ethnicity, and other identifiers that may sway us in one direction or another. There are flaws and drawbacks to blind CVs – for example, it’s impossible to mask all information, some hidden details (such as maternity leave) can help to explain gaps in employment, and it can prevent us from identifying minority candidates when we are actively seeking to hire them. But the idea is that they enable us to stay focused on a candidate’s specific credentials rather than their demographic characteristics.
Research shows that, on average, British citizens from ethnic minority backgrounds have to send 60% more job applications to get a positive response from employers than their white counterparts (90% more for people of Middle Eastern or north African heritage). Even a candidate’s name can impact on their success, with ‘white-sounding’ names giving applicants a proven advantage.
Having a diverse panel review CVs can also help to protect against screening bias. Another option, of course, is to supplement or replace CVs with digital alternatives such as bespoke application forms (designed to give better insights into candidates’ values, aspirations and strengths) and video-applications – where we can find out more about a candidate in 60 seconds than we can by wading through a written outline of their work history.
Setting pre-interview skills assessments, psychometric tests or challenges (sometimes gamified) allow us to compare practical capabilities rather than credentials. For some creative roles, we could also request digital portfolios, or we might conduct work sample tests that require individuals to perform tasks which are physically and/or psychologically similar to those they would experience on the job. These help us to verify candidates’ claims about their skills and experience.
Unilever, for example, has digitised its graduate recruitment process, replacing CVs with its own online form, which applicants can complete using their LinkedIn profile. They then gain access to 12 skills-assessments games, which they can play anonymously from home in around 20 minutes, with gameplay feedback provided after 48 hours.
Next, candidates are asked to record a video interview on their laptop or smartphone –answering pre-recorded questions, with answers assessed by a machine learning algorithm; those who reach the final stage are invited to a Discovery Centre to work through real-life business challenges and see for themselves what it’s like to work at Unilever.
Every applicant receives real-time feedback throughout the process and participates in a varied and inspiring experience designed to attract tech-savvy talent and to be fun, fast and authentic.
Tech is now increasingly integrated into the candidate journey, from chatbots fielding enquiries to algorithms screening CVs for key words. The aim is to speed up the hiring process, improve consistency of decision-making, while reducing the discrimination associated with human biases.
However, artificial intelligence (AI) systems learn to make predictions based on data, so predictions are generally more accurate for groups which have more data available – and can reinforce the status quo as a result. Amazon found this to its cost in 2018, when it abandoned a computer programme that was found to discriminate against female candidates on this basis. There is also a risk that some candidates will learn how to game the system.
The insightful interview
The shift to AI-powered recruiting may be inevitable (and arguably preferable), but in the meantime, most organisations still use a more traditional, human-centred interview process to assess applicants’ skill-sets and behaviours, and their likelihood of fitting into the business.
Our interviewing strategy should be clearly defined from the outset: how many rounds will we have? Will interviews be in-person or via phone or video? Who will be involved, and who will be making the final decision? If we haven’t already done so, we should also identify the format/s we will use, liaise with appropriate attendees and formulate competency-based questions.
The typical employer will interview between six and 10 people for a role, and hold up to three rounds of interviews, with two the most common. Exceeding four rounds is likely to lead to interview fatigue (for candidates and interviewers). For example, Google used to subject its applicants to more than a dozen interviews. However, it reduced them to a maximum of four, having conducted research showing that after the fourth interview, interviewers had 86% confidence in the candidate, from which point confidence rose by less than 1% with each additional interview. In fact, 94% of the time, the hiring decision remained the same whether the candidates were interviewed four times or 12 times.
To elicit new insights, interview rounds are likely to vary in format: one might be a telephone pre-screen interview, followed by a panel interview and a one to one with the hiring manager. A UK study suggests that the more people who participate in rating candidates, the more likely we are to correctly identify the best person, though we obviously need to strike a balance between making accurate decisions and overwhelming candidates. The researchers recommended having at least three reviewers to vet each candidate: for example, the hiring manager, a member of the recruiting team and a member of the leadership team.
Letting all candidates know what the process will involve and what to expect is good practice. We should give as much information as possible – from the dress code and clear directions to the venue (or video-conferencing instructions) to the lead interviewer’s name, and even the list of the questions we intend to ask. This benefits candidates who are neurodiverse, but also helps everyone else, reducing pre-interview stress and removing unnecessary barriers to performance.
Providing excess detail is preferable to leaving things open to interpretation. For example, we should explain what we mean by “smart casual”, how the entry system works and let people know that they will have to report to reception before heading up to the third floor for their interview. We could also outline the interviewing format and the reasons behind our choice.
In structured interviewing, we use the same questions for every candidate in the same order, which tends to make them fair and consistent, helping to reduce personal bias. These interviews are easy to replicate, allowing us to compare multiple candidates. The downsides are that they involve advance planning, can feel a little impersonal, and limit opportunities to explore subjects or issues in-depth.
Unstructured interviews are conversational and involve building a dialogue/rapport with the candidate, and having a free-flowing discussion. While these may be more flexible, spontaneous and relaxed than their structured counterparts, they can also be less objective and less easy to compare, though they may be suitable for second interviews.
With either format, we should clearly steer away from asking anything relating to the candidate’s age, gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs or personal circumstances. It is not acceptable to ask a candidate if they’re planning to have children, or to quiz them on their retirement plans. Just as when writing our job description, we must remain sensitive to our conscious and unconscious biases and mindful of anti-discrimination legislation. Where possible, involving a diverse panel of interviewers can help level the playing field for a-typical candidates.
Various interviewing techniques are available, but behavioural interviewing is widely believed to be the most accurate predictor of a candidate’s future performance. It has a structured format and is based on an analysis of the requirements of the job, reducing bias and ambiguity because candidates are evaluated on job-related questions.
Essentially, behavioural interviewing focuses on a candidate’s past experiences by asking them to provide specific examples of how they have demonstrated certain behaviours, knowledge, skills and abilities. Answers should reveal their actual level of experience and their potential to handle similar situations in our organisation; the most accurate predictor of future performance is past performance in similar situations.
Remember that while the interview is a two-way process, the ratio of conversation should be 80:20 in favour of the interviewee.
To gain relevant responses, we must ensure our questions relate to the behavioural traits we are looking for, also making them open, so that they elicit more than a “yes” or “no” response; they should be probing, but not designed to catch people out. “Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck, or 100 duck-sized horses?” might be a quirky thing to ask friends in the pub, but it’s not productive in job interview.
Instead, questions should be designed to generate practical insights into candidates’ transferrable skills and competencies. For example:
- “When have you brought an innovative idea into your team and how was it received?
- “Give me an example of a business decision you made that you ultimately regretted.”
- “Describe a situation in which you used persuasion to convince someone to see things your way.”
To find out more detail, we can ask follow-up questions such as:
- “Could give me a bit of background to the situation?”
- “What exactly did you do?”
- “What was your specific role in this?”
- “How did it turn out?”
- “What might you do differently now?”
While our structured behavioural questions will form the majority of the interview, these will be topped and tailed by more generic questions (“Tell me about your last job and why you wanted to leave”; “Are you still interested in the job based on the information provided during the interview?”).
We should finish by giving the candidate an opportunity to ask questions and providing them with a clear idea of when and how they will be notified about our decision. Be sure to find out their thoughts on the role and salary package, and to ascertain details of their notice period. We need all the relevant information at our fingertips before making any offers.
Choosing our candidate
When weighing up the pros and cons of our shortlisted candidates, we can use our selection criteria to make a more objective choice (with colleagues, if we are part of a panel). Instincts have a place in decision making as long as we can separate our biases from genuine red flags (for example, inconsistent answers or poor feedback from other people who interacted with the candidate, such as the receptionist).
Keeping all candidates in the loop regarding progress is a courtesy which also protects the reputation of the company and ensures we don’t burn our boats, should our top candidate refuse the position. Many talented people have other offers on the table.
When we’re ready to make a job offer (subject to conditions), it’s advisable to do this via phone or video call, in order to talk through the terms of employment and establish whether these are acceptable, following up in writing. At this point we should take advice from our HR colleagues or advisors to ensure we are acting legally and including all the paperwork required within the correct timescale. Reference checking is an important part of the process and shouldn’t be overlooked in our hurry to get somebody on board.
We should also break the bad news to unsuccessful candidates in a timely fashion – ideally via phone, so that they can request feedback. We may wish them to reapply for future jobs or simply to leave the process with a positive perception of our organisation.
Induction: the importance of onboarding
The final stage of the recruitment process is integrating our new employee into the organisation. Onboarding starts the day our candidate accepts the job offer – with the short window between offer acceptance and start day presenting an important engagement opportunity. While HR might design and deliver the induction process, when managers take an active role in it “employees are 3.4 times as likely to strongly agree their onboarding experience was exceptional”, according to research by Gallup.
To prevent misunderstandings which make our new hire think twice about joining, we should support them to complete the necessary paperwork, provide all relevant information about the company and their role, and discuss any reasonable adjustments we might need to make to help them to perform it to the best of their ability.
Practical issues to cover include where they will work, core hours, probation periods, taking time off, payroll policies, details of parking, dress code and so on. If we have an employee handbook, we should send this out. Let people know what they can expect on their first day and ensure they have the passes and equipment in advance; some organisations give their new starters an itinerary for their first week. Again, for neurodiverse people in particular, these details can be crucial to their success in the organisation.
When our new starter arrives, we should help orientate them by making the experience feel personal – having somebody to welcome them, introducing them to team members and other key stakeholders, and showing them around the office (if they are based on site). We must ensure they are able to use the IT systems and have the logins and equipment they need. A welcome lunch may make them feel valued, but they will also want some downtime to assimilate information, settle into their new environment and also start doing their job.
Over subsequent weeks, we have a role in supporting our employee to transition from newbie to high-performing team member, by setting clear expectations and arranging any role-specific training as speedily as possible. Checking in with them regularly ensures we know whether they are coping; pairing them up with a mentor provides ongoing peer support.
The first few months of a new job can be difficult for even the most competent and confident of people (at any level) – and many new hires quit in the first six months, feeling neglected, overwhelmed, under-appreciated and underqualified. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employee turnover can be as much as 50% in the first 18 months for senior outside hires.
If we do not want to undo our good work in attracting, selecting and bringing new talent into our organisations, we must play our part in supporting new employees, enabling them to integrate into our teams and become the assets we dreamt of hiring when we drew up our candidate personas right at the start of the process.
Test your understanding
- Outline the three key stages of recruitment.
- Describe two ways in which we can reduce bias and discrimination in the process.
What does it mean for you?
- Reflect on your own organisation’s recruitment processes and anything you might like to change.
- Consider whether you tend to hire for culture fit or culture add – and the impact this might be having.
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