Finders, Keepers: Recruitment and Retention in a Changing World


By Anya Levykh

Back in the good old days of HR, when a job needed a body, an ad was put in the paper, resumes magically filled the in-tray, and in short thrift a perfectly suitable candidate was found. Said candidate was always grateful for the job, didn’t dare ask questions about benefits until they were mentioned by someone else and certainly didn’t require any mollycoddling. This paragon would come to work, do his or her job and go home—to what or whom, most neither knew nor cared.

Today, with straggling Gen-Xers and blossoming Millennials (otherwise known as Generation Y) beginning to dominate the work force, an economy that hasn’t quite stopped spinning and the implications of social media in the work place, the fields of recruitment and retention are viewed as anything but mollycoddling. They are the life preservers of the modern corporation.

But how does one approach the current confluence of economy, demographics and technology in the effort to build a better company from the ranks up?

Recruitment: Feeding the Social Fire

The hoary chestnut of networking brings to mind cheesy events from the nineties, when one could exchange over 100 business cards within 60 minutes and still have time to demolish a buffet; that unfortunate recollection cannot hide the fact that social networking, whatever the medium, seems to be the preferred avenue for both businesses and the employees they seek.

“It’s about creating and strengthening your networks,” says Janice Antaya-Finlayson, who sits on the board of directors for BC HRMA and is vice-president, human resources for Best Buy Canada. “And the twenty-first century is going to be all about networks.”

One of those mediums, of course, is social media, which has been the hot topic in recent years—in part because of the economic valleys over that same period. “When the economy took a bit of a dip, we felt the drain in terms of our recruiting resources and needed to find more cost-effective and efficient solutions,” says Antaya-Finlayson. “Turning to social media definitely helped us during that period.”

In fact, most of Best Buy’s new hires now come through their social media and online portals, including their own online job board. “We do have some walk-ins at our stores and I don’t think those will ever disappear completely,” continues Antaya-Finlayson. “[But] I can count on one hand the number of print employment ads we have done in the past year.”

Another factor in the rise of social media is the demographic angle. Best Buy’s average employee age, for instance, hovers around 28 years. “If you look at the demographics of who we’re looking for, they’re on social media,” says Antaya-Finlayson. “That’s where they are spending their time, building their networks, building relationships. And that’s what we are now expanding on, so that we can create those relationships before we actually have a need to hire someone.”

Employers seeking to create relationships before the need for new employees arises are now becoming a common occurrence. “While we’ve found sites like Raisin Jobs, Craigslist or Kijiji give us the best responses, social media hasn’t played a huge part in our recruiting strategy,” says Anna Grolle, director of corporate operations and human resources for Cactus Restaurants Ltd. “But it has helped to build a community. We have a very strong Cactus community, and on our Facebook and Twitter sites you will see just as many postings from employees as from clients.”

This more aggressive form of recruitment is not limited to the search for young workers. Companies like Telus are taking the lead in terms of executive search practices. Telus has, in fact, established the first in-house executive search team in Canada. More than just a glorified resume-compiler, the system is designed to actively seek out “passive” recruits, high performers who are already working and who may not, perhaps, be actively seeking new employment. The benefits, according to Helmut Hager, executive recruitment and strategic sourcing director for Telus, are vast.

“HR has traditionally relied on external executive search firms, so they only take over the search with those individuals who have already gone through the funnel,” says Hager. “But if you can be at the forefront, if you have the expertise and knowledge to do that [national or] international recruitment, then you can ensure that you are receiving not just those that fit your technical and leadership components, but also your cultural component.”

The benefits of such a system are quantifiable. “The success rate of hired executives is significantly better when they’re being hired by someone with intimate knowledge of our culture and the various groups within the company,” says Hager. “Other advantages include significant cost reduction, a common approach and attitude across the organization, and higher internal and customer satisfaction.”

Of course, Telus, a company with over 35,000 employees, spans the entire demographic, and their recruitment approach reflects this. “We use a multi-pronged approach,” says Hager. “We always use the more traditional avenues, like job boards, advertising, referral programs, but what we find is that Facebook and Twitter are more social tools and work best for the younger generation, while something like LinkedIn has a more professional aspect and nets us more seasoned individuals.”

However, never overlook the old-fashioned concept of “real world” networks—and a bit of incentive. They can net ideal employees from any age group. Grolle, whose company employs a large share of first-time workers, corroborates. “Three years ago, when the [hospitality labour] market was really tight, everyone was having trouble finding employees. What we found most successful was our internal referral program. A current employee refers someone they know, and once that recruit makes it through the probation period, we pay the referrer a finder’s fee.”

Although the finder’s fee may be more unusual, the concept of referral systems is one that is well-used at other companies, including both Telus and Best Buy.

Retention: Feeding the Future

Of course, once you’ve found your employees, the fun really begins. Today’s new workers are casts of a rather idealistic stripe, and they prefer to walk fences of their own making. The once-powerful salary and benefits package, while still of obvious importance, is not the rainmaker of old. Millennials, and even Gen-Xers, look for myriad tangible and intangible factors when choosing where to hang their professional hats.

Two symbiotic motivators are education and advancement. Prospective employees are looking to increase their knowledge and experience base and a company’s internal learning and advancement policies can be a deal breaker or maker, as in the case of companies like Cactus. “Our best employees are the ones that are home grown,” says Grolle. “We’re a growing company, we like to promote from within, and we have a strong philosophy of continuous improvement through education. Our employees are not afraid to tell us what they want, and all of our benefit and compensation programs include education.”

Training and education play a large role at Best Buy and Telus as well. “We offer an extensive range of long-term training courses for managers,” says Hager of Telus, “as well as leadership, mentoring and coaching programs, and online training.

Another prominent motivator is work-life balance. “Millennials want to work when and how they want,” says Hager. “At the end of the day, it’s more about what they deliver, versus the when and how.”

To that end, Telus has established an active telecommuting workforce of full and part-time employees who work flexible shifts from the comfort of their own home, with noticeable results. “We’ve seen a huge increase in retention rates among those who can work from home,” says Hager. According to Shawn Hall, a spokesperson for Telus, the company has set a goal of having 70% of their team members working from home by 2015. This is already showing benefit to both the company and to employees, according to Hall. “We save in real estate costs, and our retention and engagement rates have gone up dramatically. Just as an example, one of our workers was able to get rid of the second family car, and has more time now to spend with her two children.”

Balance encompasses more than just flexible hours, however, as Antaya-Finlayson is quick to point out. “The strongest feedback we have received is for our staff purchase programs and the employee discounts on our merchandise.” In addition to its own internal employee discount program, Best Buy has established programs with outside suppliers for goods and services ranging from auto dealerships to tennis lessons, which are then offered to employees at preferential rates. “We try to make a lot of things available to our employees at highly subsidized costs, so that there is something for everyone.”

Telus has its own employee service programs, such as the popular My Personal Assistant program, that grants employees annual credits for a concierge service that covers everything from gift shopping to lawn maintenance. In addition, each employee receives what Hager calls a “life-balance account,” which allows for a certain annual sum that can be spent towards achieving life-work balance in whatever way the employee sees fit.

If you’re wondering where the aforementioned idealism comes into play, Cactus Club’s Grolle has the answer. “Many of our prospective employees are attracted to our company because of our commitment to the environment. More people now are looking not only to work, but to make a difference as well, and our partnership with programs like Green Table and Ocean Wise, as well as our commitment to local producers, are all huge attractors.”

Nor is Cactus the only company to add a hint of green to their corporate prospectus. Telus and Best Buy also have strong environmental initiatives, covering everything from recycling to power conservation.

Communication: The Catalytic Agent

In the end, the key to successful recruitment and retention boils down to the frequent and encouraged use of open ears, free speech and positive environments. “It’s [really] about a great employee experience,” says Antaya-Finlayson, “because then the employee will create a great customer experience. The approach is always to be ahead of what is it our employees are looking for, and try to look at it by level, by demographic, and by location in terms of what are their needs. And a critical part of that is how do we communicate? And how do you get people engaged about talking with you about what they are receiving?”

To encourage that engagement, Best Buy created an internal social media site where employees can ask questions, blog about their experiences and ideas, and share information. “I think the real challenge is that the employer needs to engage its current workforce online, in social media, in order to continue to build relationships with them, to continue to build networks with them, and to continue to engage them in conversation,” continues Antaya-Finlayson. “And I think when you do that, employees start to feel more of an emotional connection, or belonging to something, versus feeling that ‘it’s just a job.’ It becomes ‘their’ company.”

Telus also has strong social engagement policies. “There are many studies that show that individuals join because of the company, but leave because of the direct boss,” says Hager. “So we provide a lot of training to management, so that they are equipped to deal with a diversified labour pool.” In addition, Telus has created various mentoring and social support groups to encompass the wide variety of backgrounds among its employees, including groups that cater to those belonging to the LGBT and new immigrant communities, as well as those of various religious beliefs.

“We provide daycare centres for employees, as well as similar arrangements for those who need elder care or emergency care. Our major buildings, in addition to facilities like gyms and lunchrooms, also have prayer or meditation rooms, where employees can go to reflect or pray as needed,” says Hall. “In fact, in our Toronto centre, there is a large Muslim population, so we have arranged for those employees to be able to store their prayer rugs within the prayer room in the building. We try to recognize the diversity of Canadians, and all of our benefits are meant to flex around who people are, and allow our employees to bring their whole selves to work.”

Not surprisingly, it is a reference to social media that best describes the challenges and potential of HR in these areas.

“HR is very uniquely positioned to become, if you will, the Facebook of the organization,” concludes Antaya-Finlayson. “We have access to people and information, so we have the ability to connect people across the organization, with different levels of expertise and skills, connect people to each other, and create those networks. You share expertise, you may be able to share mentorship, and you can transfer knowledge from the younger generation to the older generation and vice versa, as everyone has something to learn from everyone else. And HR can do this very effectively, and help itself to achieve its own future goals, by helping to create those connections.”

On A Side Note:  Dealing with Periods of Transformation

As the first baby boomers enter retirement, there is a growing pressure on employers to fill the gap left by highly paid—but also highly experienced and highly knowledgeable—workers. Companies like Telus have been bringing back recently retired boomers as contractors for several years now, particularly in the fields of education and mentorship. And they’re not alone.

Hugh Finlayson, Chief Executive Officer of the BC Public School Employers Association, which is the employment association for 60 school districts across the province, has been dealing with the turning of the tide for several years. “Of the senior management positions in the public education system,” says Finlayson, “close to 60 per cent are 55 or older.” Considering that the average age of retirement in the education system is around that mark, the pressure becomes obvious and imminent, and gives rise to the question, “What do we do?”

“The way we dealt with it was to control the data and understand the system,” explains Finlayson. “Our first challenge was to understand the data, who are our employees, what is their career track, what motivates them, and what does their retirement picture look like.”

The association then created Make a Future, an electronic portal with a three-fold goal of putting a face to British Columbia, putting a face to the individual school districts, and creating an electronic recruitment area. That site then led to connections with social media through Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. “We take the view that the individual districts are marketing themselves to an internal provincial market, a national market, and for some specialties, an increasingly international labour market,” continues Finlayson. “So now, when we need to hire someone, we have an outreach system and specialized networks to draw on, so the site is as much about that outreach as it is about presentation.”

A pro-active marketing approach is similarly espoused at BC Hydro, which, prior to 2006, was predominately an aging work force. “In 2006, we started a major hiring push,” says Rick Milone, Manager, Total Rewards for BC Hydro. “Currently, boomers and Gen-Xers make up 60% of our total demographic, but the percentage of Gen-Xers and Millennials is growing steadily.”

No doubt more companies will embrace such outreach and marketing concepts in coming years, as more boomers leave the workforce. The common theme of connection rings is touched in closing by Finlayson. “You have to touch and reach out to each demographic group, because each group has particular motivations, needs, and particular experiences with recruitment and the work place, so it’s very much understanding those groups and how you connect with them.”

(PeopleTalk: Spring 2011)

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