What's the best way to recruit high-quality HR people?

Hiring is difficult across the board right now, but the people profession can be an exemplar when recruiting its own

Samantha Lubanzu recently went through a recruitment process for a senior role at a global organisation. Over six long months, she sat through eight rounds of interviews. She met everyone from executives to every member of the team with whom she’d be working. After interview number eight, she was told the role was moving to London (she’s based in Manchester) and therefore she was no longer suitable. 

If that candidate experience makes you wince, does it make it even worse to hear Samantha is an HR professional? With recruitment meant to be one of the profession’s core competencies, surely we can do better than this? As David D’Souza, CIPD membership director, puts it: “We need to hold ourselves to a standard of recruitment experience that we would want friends and family to pass through as a candidate.” 

A combination of drivers – the economic bounceback, Brexit, pandemic-driven lifestyle changes and so on – means the general recruitment market, to quote one CPO, is in “the craziest state I’ve ever known”. The same could be said of the market for people professionals. “The HR recruitment market has never been more buoyant and is extremely candidate-driven,” says Louise Sorrell, business director for HR at recruitment firm Badenoch + Clark. “We have gone from redundancies and furlough to fighting a battle to find top talent.”

Data from the Hays Salary & Recruiting Trends 2022 guide shows 85 per cent of employers plan on recruiting HR staff over the next 12 months. “HR [is at the] forefront of employers’ minds as the function has been a key driver and support of workplace changes,” says Yvonne Smyth, who leads the HR practice at Hays. Yet despite high recruitment intentions, employers are struggling to attract those with the required skills and experience. More than half (54 per cent) of employers say these skills shortages and the strain they are placing on teams is lowering morale.

As the UK economy reopens and rebuilds, the need for HR is clear. With many organisations chasing growth-inducing transformation, leaders recognise the need for stronger people teams. The changing shape of UK plc adds another competitive element, says Deloitte’s resourcing director Simon Hallett. “There is more competition in terms of employers now,” he explains. “We are seeing more non-traditional businesses including rapidly upscaling tech businesses that need to grow their HR functions quickly. That creates movement in more established areas.” 

Then when you think you’ve found the perfect hire, they may be snatched away at the last minute. Sorrell has noticed an increase in counter offers, as organisations dig deep into their pockets to retain staff with cold, hard cash. It’s something Jennifer Hulme, HR director at Marlowe Fire and Security, has been burned by. “I made a terrible mistake hiring a candidate who joined, then left on day three,” she says. “They had multiple offers on the table and waited for an alternative firm offer before leaving.” Hulme has also had to fill an HR officer role twice in a year, after her original hire was offered a pay rise elsewhere, and experienced multiple no-shows for interviews. 

Such tough conditions mean no one can afford to be complacent. It’s a great time to examine your recruitment processes: can they keep up with the market? “Ensure you can act quickly, as the market is moving at pace,” says Sorrell. “Good candidates are being snapped up.” She advises making sure the process has no more than two or three stages.

It’s also worth reviewing and benchmarking your pay and benefits offering. But Hulme, whose people team has grown from four to 14 since she joined in June 2020, advises thinking holistically rather than getting too hung up on numbers, because candidates are becoming increasingly interested in the broader package. “You need to approach with a competitive salary, then spend the rest of the time discussing the other elements – development, style of leadership, CSR initiatives, the social side, holidays, benefits and colleagues,” she says. “You can no longer offer a great salary and pension and expect that to 
be enough. You need to understand the needs of your candidates and, to an extent, tailor the package to them.”

She also focuses on painting a picture of HR’s contribution to the business and her vision for the future. “I am adamant that each person understands the role they will play in the journey and can see their accountability for it,” she says. Some might see spending time on the vision and strategy before making an offer as too much effort, but Hulme believes it’s worth the upfront investment. “Candidates have been enthused by the idea of a departmental journey with clear goals and direction,” she says. 

It’s an approach that Karen Saunders, an interim chief people officer who recently finished an assignment in the higher education sector, also takes. Like Hulme, she found recruiting an almost entirely fresh people team a challenge, and also focused on offering candidates a full picture of the people strategy: “Time consuming, yes, but beneficial in terms of getting people productive much earlier.”

But how does that match up with the need for speed? Hulme has experienced poor recruitment processes where candidates have been offered roles out of desperation. “You can’t do this in HR: you have to be sure and take the time you need,” she says. “That doesn’t mean a quick decision can’t be made, but you need to have strong recruitment mechanisms in place to ‘test’ the candidate.” 

Hallett believes it’s about finding a balance between speed and human connection – something many hiring managers and candidates will have been sorely missing since March 2020. He also advises making judicious use of psychometrics tools: “If you understand people’s natural preferences and traits, you can compare them against the requirements of the role and have a higher quality discussion. It’s a good way of ensuring a 50/50 approach – as much about the candidate understanding if the role is right for them.”

When it comes to reaching top talent, having a strong employer brand is more important than ever, says Sarah Dewar, CPO at Concern Group. “We have done a lot in the past year to show our employer brand, values and commitment to our people externally, which has led to increased interest from people who are keen to work in an organisation where the people function is valued,” she says. “You need to stand out as a forward-thinking and dynamic function. Show potential candidates how you invest in people.”

Sorrel has noticed a decline in the number of candidates applying for roles through traditional job adverts, while Saunders tried “every type of recruitment approach”, from direct recruitment to agencies, but found the best outcomes came from networks. However, people professionals need to bear in mind that diversity can suffer when recruiting via networks and mitigate accordingly. 

Even if you have the perfect recruitment process, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to find the perfect hire. Saunders has found herself underwhelmed by the quality of candidates. “Perhaps I was looking for unicorns – but as a profession that should be at the forefront of change, we seem to see a lot of people who can’t see the horizon and the opportunities for creating great places to work,” she says. Hulme says she has at times been disappointed by a lack of passion and enthusiasm from candidates. 

Perhaps one answer to recruitment woes is for the people function to become many of the things it advises the business to be: more open-minded, more flexible and more inclusive. “So often in our profession you see limits placed by organisations only seeking candidates who have experience within the same sector” says Emma Louden, hub people lead at AND Digital. “By restricting the candidate pool, organisations are missing out.”

AND Digital is one of those fast- growth tech businesses Hallett alluded to earlier. In 2021 alone, 500 new people joined, including 12 people leads. Louden credits being open-minded about experience as one of the reasons why recruitment hasn’t been too painful. “We don’t restrict ourselves to recruiting only those with sector experience: we want to bring a breadth of experience to support diverse thinking,” she says. “The most challenging part of hiring the right person for the role is their approach to the people profession. The world of work is changing at a rapid pace and HR professionals are still taking a traditional approach, which is not always fit for purpose in hyper-growth, 
agile organisations.”

“We reduce the level of fresh thinking in organisations and the breadth of talent available whenever we default to only hiring people with sector experience,” agrees D’Souza. “There is value in sector knowledge, but it is only part of most roles. It is given too much weighting.”

Taking the experience debate one step further, is it even worth questioning whether your next hire needs any HR experience at all, particularly for junior roles? Helen Asher, director of people and culture at environmental planning consultancy LUC, passionately believes not. “With the exception of recruitment roles, I’ve always tried to bring in people who want to start a career in HR but have been hitting a brick wall of not having any experience,” she says. “I still remember what it’s like – having started my working life in retail and admin.”

“There is undoubtedly a far bigger market for entry-level roles if we don’t demand prior experience, and good candidates can be attracted through inexpensive direct advertising on generic jobs boards,” she points out, adding: “I suspect the obsession with previous experience has contributed to the barriers to diversity in our profession.”

It’s something Lubanzu has experienced. Years before the eight-round interview debacle, she moved into HR from a commercial role at a large financial services organisation. It was an experience that was anything but easy, and something she thinks has a lot to do with being a Black woman. “I’d meet all the benchmarking and still get told I didn’t fit,” she recalls. “One time, I was the only person to apply and I still didn’t get the job. I was told I was a ‘risk’. From a diversity perspective, it’s shockingly hard to get into HR. We don’t practise what we preach.” It’s a damning indictment of a profession supposed to champion inclusion and diversity, and something people professionals need to keep in mind when making recruitment decisions. 

Greater responsibilities, accelerated business transformation, a challenging recruitment market: in many ways the current landscape for HR is the perfect storm. But that doesn’t mean people leaders can take their eye off the ball of what ‘great’ looks like in recruitment. As D’Souza puts it: “We know better. We are the experts in what is better, so we should commit to delivering better.”  

How to make HR recruitment a breeze

Louise Sorrell, business director for HR at Badenoch + Clark, offers top tips for hassle-free hiring:

  • Ensure you can act quickly with your recruitment processes. Review your current process and keep it to two or three stages. 

  • Avoid using multiple agencies at once and meet good candidates as they apply, rather than waiting for a closing date.

  • Ensure your onboarding process is engaging (especially for those working remotely) and maintain contact with candidates between the offer/acceptance stage and start date.

  • Review current pay and benefits and compare with your competitors. This is often a deciding factor when candidates are making a decision on multiple offers.

  • Sell your career progression opportunities and internal and global mobility options at interview stage, as many candidates feel the pandemic had an impact on their career development. Sell the organisation, your culture and your values at interview stage as well – if you have a great culture, it could make the difference between a candidate choosing a higher-paid role over yours.

  • Choose your best brand ambassadors to interview – those who are able to engage and articulate your employer proposition with enthusiasm. More than ever, recruitment is a two-way process and employers need to sell themselves just as much as candidates if they want to attract the very best talent.

  • Ensure your employees feel part of a shared identity. You can differentiate yourself in a candidate-short market by making sure your employees feel recognised and valued and that their wellbeing is supported.

  • Be more open-minded when shortlisting. Can you consider candidates with no HR experience for junior roles? Does the role demand someone who already has their CIPD Level 7 or can you offer this as part of the benefits? Can you consider someone more senior who is looking for a better work-life balance or from a different part of the business who can transfer their commercial skills into HR?