Staffing: Hurry up and hire

Take too long to recruit staff and the best candidates will end up taking a job elsewhere. Computer Weekly explains how to get...

Take too long to recruit staff and the best candidates will end up taking a job elsewhere. Computer Weekly explains how to get your man - or woman

Despite the current economic downturn and subsequent job cuts there is still a massive skills shortage in the IT industry. Attracting the right candidates remains as critical as ever. You might think that companies would be going out of their way to make themselves as tempting as possible to potential applicants, but, from the point of view of many , it must seem as if some firms are actively trying to discourage them from joining.

According to Rick Bacon, managing director of software services firm Parity, who also runs the company's technology staffing division, a lot of organisations are failing to attract the right staff because their recruitment processes are too long. Although he admits that the quality of the service provided by some recruitment agencies leaves a lot to be desired, Bacon says many companies use the agency as a scapegoat when things go wrong when the real problem is an internal one. "A lot of companies have an eight-step interview process and that's ridiculous," he says. "It gives the impression that the company cannot make decisions."

Bacon recommends a three-step interview process. "You should be able to get people through this process in two weeks," he says. "You'll get the best candidates that way. If you're still recruiting after two months you've got a problem." Any decent candidates will be long gone, he says.

The point is that the skills in question are scarce and the right candidates will generally be working somewhere else. They have to be lured away. It is up to the company to make an impression, not the other way round.

But the length of the recruitment process is not the only issue. Bacon says interviewers must be good and company Web sites, often the first port of call for candidates, up to scratch. "You have to see some of these Web sites to believe them," he says. "They're horrible. Candidates will ask themselves why on earth they would want to work there unless it was to build their recruitment Web site."

Failing to respond to online applications quickly will also result in companies missing the boat. Another way of cutting down on time is to make sure that the letter containing the job offer covers all of the relevant areas and information.

Bacon attributes recruitment problems to the way the IT industry has evolved. "Because IT has been so dynamic and fast changing it has never really got its arms around an HR strategy," he says. The US has realised this and made some progress, with Europe catching up fast.

For companies the implications go beyond failing to get the right people. "It's a tremendous cost to the company and most of it could be avoided," says Bacon. "Costs will be measured in millions, not tens of thousands." He points to the loss of knowledge, the projects that don't get started and the loss of continuity. Furthermore, candidates have long memories. "If you talk to the candidates who have been burned, they won't work for those companies any more," he says. "It's a small community. People know who the slow, disorganised companies are."

However, Bacon's view is far from universal. Ann Swain, chairwoman of the Association of Technology Staffing Companies, does not believe the length of the recruitment process is the main problem. Nor does she feel that the state of a company's recruitment Web site is a big issue. But she does agree there is often a lack of internal procedure in companies looking to recruit staff, which can be frustrating for both the recruitment agency and the candidate. "Some companies are good and some not so good," she says. "The more efficient companies have the best chance of getting the best people."

Swain believes the main problem is that there just aren't enough candidates with the right skill sets, like Java and C++. And that availability will shrink further as a result of the current economic downturn. "In the UK now we seem to be talking ourselves into a recession," she says. "Very few people will be looking to move from a secure position."

"It's a buyers' market at the moment," echoes interim IT director Colin Beveridge, who says that fewer candidates will be willing to jump ship at the moment. Like Bacon, Beveridge thinks the length of the recruitment process is a factor. "It is a problem," he says. "It takes a while to get people in, which is one of the reasons why there has been a need for the contract market."

However, Beveridge doesn't believe that companies still recruiting after two months have got a problem. Neither does he believe that the two-week figure is a possibility outside of the contract market. "From my experience, in large companies, the start to end process - from identifying the need to having someone walk through the door to do the job - is 14 weeks," he says.

First, companies have to get approval to advertise a job internally, sometimes twice, before they can advertise externally. It then takes a couple of weeks to get the external job ad approved. A couple more weeks are needed to get through the responses, draw up lists and send out letters before candidates can be interviewed. By week eight a company should have drawn up a shortlist and be making offers in week eight or nine. The successful applicant will then have to give four weeks' notice, starting the new job around week 14 or 15.

Beveridge believes that the most this could be cut by is about four weeks. "The only way to short-circuit that is if you took a 'Popstars' approach and invited your long list, asked candidates to stay over, and then did your second interviews on the same trip," he says.

"Anything under three months for a professional position would be reasonable," says Angela Baron, employee resourcing adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. However, three months should be the absolute maximum. "Anything longer than that and you do risk losing people," she says.

Baron says some candidates will have to give three months' notice and then suddenly you're looking at a six-month wait. Like Beveridge, Baron says one area where companies could save time is by getting back to promising candidates soon after the interview.

Baron says a fundamental problem is that some companies embark on the recruitment process in an ad hoc manner. Careful planning will help the process go more smoothly and also save time. "Who you employ is an extremely important decision and it shouldn't be taken lightly," Baron adds.

One man who does believe the recruitment process is far too long and a major barrier in attracting the right staff is Christopher Young, managing director of the Impact Programme. One of the stories that came out of Impact's War for Talent event in May was that of a public sector body which admitted it was taking nine months for it to get to the point where it could offer jobs to candidates.

Young says companies should cut down on the time taken to recruit candidates by doing as much work as possible before going to the market. And when they find someone good who fits, they should recruit them as soon as possible, before someone else does.

Young also believes too many people from different parts of the business are involved in the recruitment process. "I don't understand what an awful lot of them bring to the party," he says. He suggests that larger companies allow individuals to recruit their own staff and provide them with a budget to do this.

"As a manager, if you trust your staff, you shouldn't even have to see the candidate yourself," he says. "It depends how bold you are. It comes down to empowerment, really." Delegating recruitment should cut down on the time taken to recruit because fewer people will be involved in the process.

Companies should look inside more to recruit and cover areas where there is a skills shortfall, Young suggests. "Develop the people you've got," he says. Mentors can be used to turn marketing directors into IT directors, for example, assuming they are willing. "Organisations are very bad at stretching individuals and moving them across," he says. Doing so would also help reduce recruitment fees, which Young describes as "criminal".

There is no single cause for the skills shortage and no magic wand can be waved to rectify the situation. In the short term, companies can increase their chances of attracting skilled staff by offering interesting projects and clear career paths on top of the seemingly obligatory large salaries and benefits schemes. Strategies such as cutting the recruitment process cannot hurt, but in the long term companies should consider internal measures to build their skills pools, such as mentoring programmes and company training courses. Until that happens, too many companies will still chase too few candidates and the whirligig will continue.

When slow brings woe
Rick Bacon of Parity gave two actual examples of how tardiness had wrecked recruitment processes. A "big software company" needed eight people. After a recruitment process it offered positions to four. However, the paperwork had to be signed by the project cost controller, who was out of the office. As a result, the offers went out six weeks after the last interview. By then three of the candidates had accepted jobs elsewhere.

Then there was the "big US company" that needed 50 network security staff. The initial response was good. It was whittled down to 100 candidates and letters sent out to 50. So far, so good. What killed it was the time taken. Some of the decisions had to be made in the US and the company wanted more than a three-step interview process. In the end, for all its efforts, it only found six employees.

Keeping applicants sweet
  • Respond rapidly. With online applications, applicants expect an acknowledgement very quickly - within 24 hours - and a follow-up within a few weeks

  • Provide feedback at the various stages of the recruitment process

  • Take a professional approach

  • Treat candidates with respect: they spend a lot of time on their applications and sometimes they never even hear back. This is unacceptable.

Source: Angela Baron, Chartered Institute of Personnel Development

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