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Even as recently as last summer, companies were rightly complaining about how tough it was to find and retain talented employees in the tightest labour market in 35 years. Now, with the global economic crisis sending unemployment surging, at least you don’t have to worry about that anymore, right?

Actually, you do. You’re risking your firm’s future growth if you assume that today’s fast-rising jobless rate means you no longer need to pay much attention to staff recruitment and retention. After all, is nobody looking to hire top talent? Are employees all of a sudden magically satisfied and fully engaged with their work? Have demographic trends flip-flopped and solved the steadily worsening labour shortage? Of course not!

My experience as a recruiter tells me that top talent—the right people, not just any applicant—are just as hard to find as they were nine months ago. In fact, they can be harder to spot amid the flood of applications you’re likely receiving these days.

This same deluge of applications has created a false sense of security among many employers, leading them to put HR on the back burner. Yet recruiting and retention is as important as ever if you’re to position your firm for future success. Wise employers are finding new, cost-effective ways to keep building their employer brand and prepare for the return of the labour shortage. Here are seven keys to HR success during tough times:

Use the lulls to cultivate leaders:Remember all those things you had no time for before the recession? Do them now during any downtime. your leadership team is one of the best investments you can make to supercharge their leadership practices. When things pick up again, they’ll need to hit the ground running. To prepare for that, you’ll need to revisit your mission, vision, values and culture to identify the required leadership behaviours. During a half-day on-site meeting, your team should discuss these behaviours, assess whether you’re walking the talk as a leadership team and identify actions to address any shortfalls.

Train the survivors to raise their game: There’s an old saying that’s truer now than ever: “What if I train them and they leave? But what if I don’t train them and they stay?” If you’ve had to lay off people or put growth plans on hold, at least for now you can’t simply hire the new skills you need. Instead, you need to make your existing people more productive by identifying your top internal talent and focusing on performance management, training and learning opportunities. If you invest in developing your people now, they’ll be more likely to stick around when the job market opens up again. And in the meantime, they’ll also be more willing to go above and beyond the call of their job descriptions to learn and apply their new knowledge, boosting their productivity.

Tell ’em the truth face to face: More than ever during uncertain times, employees have questions and concerns about your firm’s business results and challenges, and about their own future. The key is to be up front and honest about these challenges and where your company is going. Establish weekly team meetings and opportunities to connect in person. Giving your employees a chance to hear information and ask questions first-hand will engage them, whereas distributing information by e-mail just doesn’t cut it in tough times.

Define what top talent looks like: Even if you’ve had to lay off staff and put growth plans on hold, you should develop a solid workforce plan for when things start to recover. It needs to spell out your anticipated head count and hiring needs. This will give you a much better idea of the sort of talent you’ll need, and help you avoid the mediocre hires that often result from leaving things until the last minute. I see too many companies conduct workforce planning in a reactive way: “We need to hire a sales manager yesterday.” They post a job and settle for the first decent-looking candidate, rather than someone truly right for the job. You’re much better off following the “slow to hire, quick to fire” adage. It will pay off big in the recovery if you spend some time now thinking about the skills, knowledge and talents you’ll need to hire, and then—as detailed in the final point here—getting people with those qualities on your radar.

Treat job applicants like human beings: If your firm doesn’t have a current job opening, it will be tempting for whoever handles your HR to ignore the applications and resumés clogging their inbox—or, at most, to reply with a generic “thanks, we’ll keep you on file” e-mail. Yet you’ll be rewarded if you instead—unlike most employers—provide a positive experience for job candidates. For candidates that aren’t a match, rather than tell them you’ll keep them on file, be honest and tell them they’re not a good fit. They might mention your honesty to someone else who is a better fit. To people who might become a good fit once they gain more experience, tell them they’re on the right track and to keep in touch. As for the few who you’d probably hire today if you had a vacancy, treat them like you would a hot sales lead. Call them, talk to them, get to know their career aspirations, tell them about your company and set yourself a reminder to e-mail them every month or two to say, “Hi, we haven’t forgotten about you.”

Speed up your process for identifying the gems: It can be an awful slog wading through a mass of job applications looking for the few promising candidates. The slump has worsened this problem. How can you cope if you’re swamped with 200 applications for every posting—especially if you may have fewer people to screen them? The solution is to streamline the steps you take to assess applications. Challenged to find the time to do this? Think of the ROI. If it takes you 10 minutes to screen each of 200 applications, that’s more than 33 hours of drudge work. Even saving a modest three minutes per application would free up 10 hours to devote to something more productive—and 10 more hours with every subsequent hire. As well, you might invest in technology to help you screen smarter. Off-the-shelf applicant tracking systems (ATS) such as HireDesk by Talent Technology (www.talenttech.com) are easy to implement, and can be customized to your business. Or you could hire a specialized recruitment process outsourcing (RPO) firm to handle some of this work.

Fill your talent pipeline: Once you’ve streamlined your process for reviewing applications and identified the most promising job seekers, take the time to engage them. As noted above, even if you’re not currently hiring, keep in touch. Invite them to register for career alerts, receive RSS feeds from your blog, and follow you on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or other social-media tools. Create a relationship so that they’ll stay in your orbit until the next time you are hiring. As the economy recovers, your company will be well-placed to scoop up the top talent, beating out rivals who’ve let HR slide to a low priority during the recession.

Derek Gagné is president of Vancouver-based talent management consultancy Derekgagne.com. He has been helping organizations with their recruitment and retention strategies for more than 15 years. His areas of expertise include workforce planning, recruitment, retention, leadership development, organization development and customer service.

More columns by Derek Gagné

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