Gun for hire

Sunday, 01 August 2021

Jessica Mudditt photo
Jessica Mudditt

    COVID-19 shook up Australia's recruitment industry by accelerating emerging trends and shaping new practices — several of which look set to remain in the post- pandemic era.

    Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia in March 2020, a war for talent was already being waged. Skills that were particularly prized included those that fell under the umbrella of digital technology, data analytics, engineering and STEM. According to Tim Mundy, CEO of employer branding agency Digital Affair, the pandemic made existing competition between companies even stiffer. The human resources profession was stretched as many industries went into free fall.

    “In Australia, we were used to importing our talent and would often look to more mature industries overseas,” says Mundy. “The executive teams of large Australian organisations had always been a mixed bunch of people from all four corners of the world. It’s somewhat impossible for these organisations to be importing some of the talent they need right now. So everybody’s fighting over the same people.”

    Managing partner at NGS Global Marianne Broadbent agrees. She says even with the return of skilled Australian expats into the domestic job pool, the numbers are too small to compensate for the lack of skilled migrants who would traditionally be entering the market.

    “I don’t talk about ‘skills shortages’ because at the very senior level, they’re not actual skills, they’re experiences,” she says. “That is to say, the client is seeking someone who has actually delivered what it is they need, such as a digital transformation. That is certainly one shortage area.”

    Maintain an edge with employer brand

    When competition for talent is fierce, organisations can differentiate themselves by having a strong employer brand. This is comprised of the employer value proposition (EVP) — the rewards and benefits offered to employees. It also includes the reputation of a company as a workplace, as opposed to the products or services it provides to customers. It is the difference between a job seeker leaping at a vacancy advertised at a particular company, or running in the opposite direction.

    “Employer brand is one of those terms that’s been neglected and undersold,” says Mundy. “Often it is seen as PR hype, but employer brand is what makes people want to come and work for you, and stay and perform, and keep coming back — even when it’s hard.”

    With lockdowns turning flexible work practices mainstream, employers may need to consider other ways of retaining their status as an employer of choice. “Over the past year, many things that used to set certain employers apart have essentially been flatlined,” says Olivia O’Leary, founder and employee experience specialist at Upside People. “That includes flexible work practices. As a consequence, a lot of organisations will need to rethink what they’re offering employees.”

    Some degree of flexibility is now an expectation rather than a hope, says Tamara Hatton-Ward, founder and director of Pinstripe Recruitment. She notes one of the first questions a candidate asks her is whether a particular organisation has a work-from-home policy. Flexible work hours, such as nine-day fortnights or four-day weeks, are also well regarded.

    Beware of shiny trinkets

    Candidates are more selective than they were prior to the pandemic, and a significant number are being drawn to a company rather than the actual role, says Courtenay Baker, general manager of fibreHR. That makes sense, as lateral movement within organisations is now expected and remote work makes it theoretically possible to be employed by any organisation. Some candidates are willing to take certain risks, such as short-term roles, and there is a new willingness to cross industry and functional boundaries, says Diane Humphries, director of Cameron Recruitment. O’Leary predicts that in the future, there will be a trend of talented teams moving as a group from one organisation to another. This is already occurring in areas such as investment management.

    “There is a greater openness to the public sector, even if it means a reduced financial reward,” says Broadbent. “Those conversations were sometimes challenging. Today, they’re much easier because many people are looking for a sense of purpose and to make a contribution to the public good.”

    At commercial organisations, employees will be powerful advocates for the employer brand if they regard their employer as a good corporate citizen. This is especially true among younger employees, observes Humphries.

    “In my view, the attributes of what makes a good employee stay with a certain company has changed,” says Baker. “We see employees give greater discretionary effort when they feel valued and have a strong sense of belonging. It’s easy to talk about shiny trinkets, but nowadays people are more interested in what an organisation is doing, where it’s spending its profits and how it is aligned with particular values.”

    Employer brand is what makes people want to come and work for you, and stay and perform, and keep coming back.

    Tim Mundy
    Digital Affair

    Leaders must live the values

    However, it is vital for the organisation to follow through on what it promises to deliver. A lack of authenticity will quickly take the shine off its appeal. Word of mouth spreads quickly, with a single negative experience capable of being shared publicly on websites such as Glassdoor, which allows employees to post anonymous company reviews.

    “Make sure the purpose sits within the fabric of the organisation and that it is coming top- down from the leadership group,” says Baker. “Are the leaders living those values? How does the organisation promote its strategies for hiring and developing its people and setting its corporate governance practices?”

    Mundy says that maintaining the employer brand through company culture has become more difficult in the era of remote working. “Employer branding used to be highly visual; it was something that you could walk around and see within an organisation,” he says. “With so many people now working remotely, how do you maintain your company culture in an online environment?”

    An important first step is to utilise internal communications channels. “Leaders are arguably the most important advocates for the employer brand. In a remote working world, they need to be more visible,” says Mundy. “It’s time to graduate beyond the monthly CEO newsletter.”

    Treat candidates like customers

    An employer brand can be sorely damaged during the recruitment process. One of the most common mistakes is companies failing to treat every candidate with respect and care, says the CEO and founder of Employer Branding Australia, Mark Puncher. Failing to acknowledge unsuccessful applicants is unacceptable.

    “Candidates ought to be treated like customers,” he suggests, adding that an automated reply to every job application should include a timeframe for a decision to be made and a link with video content about the candidate’s prospective team. “It’s about taking a longer-term view, because even if they don’t get the role on that occasion, you want them to follow you on social media and continue to experience your work culture.”

    Another common mistake is failing to ensure that the recruitment process continues at a good pace. “Good candidates are what I call a ‘perishable commodity’,” says Broadbent. “It’s well known that once an executive starts thinking about another opportunity after you’ve approached them, then you have unsettled them in some way — and they will be open to other opportunities.”

    New technologies as time-savers

    Data analytics, AI and machine learning can help make the recruitment process more efficient and offset some of the manual, time-intensive elements. Resumes can be screened for specified keywords against the job criteria and candidates can be kept informed of their progression through the hiring pipeline.

    As Broadbent notes, this is more useful for filling more junior positions.

    “An executive and board search is much more about being proactive by seeking out potential candidates who aren’t looking for a role and is very much relationship-based,” he says. “So the application of AI technology is different.”

    No matter the time savings provided by new technologies, human judgement is always necessary to prevent mismatched hires. “One of the biggest risks of an over-reliance on technology in the recruitment process is that it can reduce the assessment criteria for a role to technical expertise alone,” says Robert Half director Victoria and WA Andrew Brushfield. “This can overlook the importance of cultural alignment and can’t adequately assess soft skills like lateral thought and time management.”

    However according to the co-founder and CEO of tech company Curious Thing, Sam Zheng, AI has progressed past merely matching key words, and can assess soft skills and attitudes. Its clients include the Australian federal government and the US Air Force and it has seen fivefold growth in the past year alone.

    “When you have thousands of people applying for a job, human recruiters will quickly look at the resumes and interview the top five per cent of applicants,” says Zheng. “We use AI, so we can interview everyone.”

    Gone in six seconds

    LinkedIn studies have found the average resume is judged within six seconds in high-volume hires. This leads to candidates being excluded due to bias — unconscious or otherwise.

    “We aren’t claiming our AI is better than a human, and we aren’t saying AI should make the final decision,” says Zheng. “However, it provides the chance for every candidate to prove themselves. Everyone is assessed equally by their answers, not by their gender or family name.”

    Candidates are provided with a qualitative report that outlines areas where they did well in the interview. Zheng adds that positive comments about the AI interview experience with Curious Thing have been posted on Glassdoor. “They liked that they were kept updated. Often you hear nothing back when you go for an interview in a relatively competitive market.”

    Make sure the purpose sits within the fabric of the organisation and that it is coming top- down from the leadership group.

    Courtenay Baker

    O’Leary cites employee onboarding platform Enboarder as a clever intersection of technology and the personal touch. When a new hire signs an employment contract, it sets off a train of automated messages, which includes things like how to reach the office on public transport from their home. Their manager will receive a notification on the start day along the lines of: “Hey, did you know your new hire’s drink of choice is a cappuccino? They’re about to arrive — why not greet them with a cappuccino?” As far as first impressions go, that would be fairly hard to beat.

    Culture can be diluted with so many people, so you have to anchor it around strong values.

    Jon Tanner
    MitchelLake Group

    The view from South-East Asia

    Based in Singapore, Jon Tanner is CEO/managing partner of MitchelLake Group, a global executive search and specialist recruitment firm for digital transformation, technology, media and innovation companies.

    “The concept of employer brand is emerging in South-East Asia, and it’s becoming more competitive for employers,” says Tanner. “There’s always been an abundance of local talent from a general labour perspective, and good universities producing raw talent. International players are competing for talent in these markets — Indonesia, in particular. Companies such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are obviously well- established aspirational brands globally and have a lot of cut-through here.

    “Large local brands like Grab and Gojek are learning what needs to be done to attract and retain top talent. The first phase was fast-paced growth — they had so much money, people wanted to be around them. As you scale up and things settle and you’re no longer a startup, how do you retain that connection with your employees? You’ve got to have strong leadership to embed culture because it’s not just a group of people in a room anymore. Culture can be diluted with so many people, so you have to anchor it around strong values. Otherwise, things tend to sort of spiral off in their own direction in a way that isn’t always positive.”

    Some companies mentioned in this feature may have advertised in Company Director, but have had no involvement in determining editorial content.

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