Shopping for a great candidate experience

We haven’t got the time to do an assessment centre.
You haven’t got the time to sort out an appointment that does not work out later on…

We’re so busy, we’ll just squeeze some interviews in next Wednesday.
Appointing the right person for the post is one of the main investments you’ll make this week/month/year. This must be prioritised and planned properly.

We’ll try to do the shortlisting tomorrow.
What? See above….

Does the above sound familiar?
For the last 18 months or so we have been on a bit of a mission to improve recruitment and retention particularly in the retail part of our charity. I blogged about this a while ago A Matter of Manners when we had just adopted this approach. A really important by product is the candidate experience whether or not they get the job. As well as getting the best person for the post, we want every candidate to feel that they had a good morning/day/afternoon with us, received fair feedback and are likely to feel positive about our charity going forwards – possibly supporting us in some way in the future.

As context, we are a local charity operating in an area of high employment and the world of the charity shop is very competitive with extremely tight profit margins. It’s also much more complex than I could possibly have imagined, when you factor in Gift Aid, local product pricing, the sensitivity required when working with a large team of diverse volunteers etc. Some of our roles are minimum wage, so we think carefully about what else we have to offer and also why someone might want to work for us e.g. affinity with our values and charity mission. Every single paid role really does matter and everyone has the potential to make a significant difference to our charity.

So, we introduced assessment centres for every role, on a shoestring budget. The only external expense was the use of some on line numeracy and IT literacy testing (for shortlisted candidates only I hasten to add.) The first assessment centres we ran included a presentation by us of what we are all about, a tour of our warehouse with plenty of chances for candidates to talk to existing staff and volunteers, some sample sorting of donated stock, a group exercise then an interview. Initially assessors were the most senior people in HR (myself included) and the most senior retail team, including our Head of Retail. Our aims were to create a process that was realistically aligned to the skills required in the roles being recruited to and to show the existing retail management how assessment centres are likely to lead to better hiring decisions. Previously, fairly standard interviews had been used, possibly with a work trial in one of the shops. We designed simple assessment scoring materials such as what behaviours to look for when observing the group exercise, and worked with our retail colleagues on weighting of all the assessment components. (For example, the numeracy and IT literacy, whilst important, had a lower weighting, and also served as something to follow up with a successful candidate if this scored less well than other aspects.)

Over the next few months, our HRBP and I gradually withdrew from direct involvement, as our colleagues’ skills and confidence to use this approach increased and a wider range of retail staff got involved in running the assessment centres including individual shop managers. In a 12-month period staff turnover in our retail arm reduced from 23% to just over 15%. I’m happy to say that in most cases where someone who we appointed after an assessment centre left, it was for personal or family reasons.

We are encouraging this approach in other parts of the charity. Assessment centres don’t have to be scary and full of expensive psychometrics or complicated exercises. I think this proves that if there is a strong business need, you prioritise aiming to do it properly, you think imaginatively and practically about what to include, you work closely with managers in the beginning, and you ‘upskill’ others to take it forward without you, success will follow.

This is not, of course, the only thing we have been doing to improve our recruitment process and the candidate experience. Other low or no cost activities include open days, selected careers fairs, apprenticeship conventions, use of different on-line jobs portals, on line media editorials and the design of the application process itself.

We also feed back over the phone to everyone who attended, regardless of whether we offered them a post. (I feel so strongly about this, and I am regularly shocked to hear examples of the shoddy treatment of unsuccessful candidates dished out by some organisations/agencies across all industries and at all levels.) We have had unsuccessful candidates describe their experience with us as ‘a great day, I’ll definitely support you in the future, though I’m sad I didn’t get the job’, ‘I learned so much that I can use to help me to be successful in getting another job’ and even ‘I had the best day ever…’ The latter may be taking it a bit far, but wow!


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