How can people functions leverage automation and digital technology to improve recruitment, selection and onboarding? Using technology in processes like recruitment has many benefits. Increased accessibility, improved candidate experience and speed are the top benefits cited by at least four-fifths of respondents in a recent CIPD survey. But getting the balance wrong between technology and human interaction can have the opposite effect: almost half (48%) of respondents said this can reduce accessibility for some groups of candidates and three-fifths said it can result in a more impersonal candidate experience.

In this article we share insights from three people professionals on how they’ve leveraged technology: to improve their recruitment, selection and onboarding processes. Their names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

Recruitment – automating processes to free up time for branding and analytics

Over the last few years, TechCo transformed its business from manufacturing to software engineering, having gone through various acquisitions and demergers. With operations in 25 countries, it wanted to strengthen its new employer brand to attract the best candidates. Each year it hires around 2,500 new employees and receives around 100,000 applications, so recruitment needs to be efficient and ‘on brand’. 

TechCo set up a ‘Centre of Expertise’ to centralise some of its people function and to standardise its processes and systems, including recruitment. When the company launched the recruitment module of its HR information system (HRIS), time-consuming tasks in the process became automated, allowing some recruiter roles to grow to include employer branding. This involved understanding where the candidates are coming from, advocating the organisation’s culture, redesigning its presence on social media and strengthening its voice at employer events in universities.

Like the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and large organisations discussed earlier in this digital transformation series, TechCo turned to its HRIS and integrated tools to improve efficiency and access to people data. Repetitive tasks like posting job adverts on multiple job boards, interview scheduling, offer approvals and background checks were all automated. 

Also, with talent data now more accessible, it’s easier to set targets, track progress and make data-driven decisions. TechCo would monitor metrics like time taken to fill positions, candidate quality and dropout rates. It set service level agreements to make people more accountable for their recruitment activities. And understanding where most of its successful candidates come from helps recruiters to reinforce TechCo’s presence in these channels. Additionally, learning how easily positions are filled (whether through a competitive process or via promotion), helps inform future planning for similar recruitment drives.

Despite the benefits, not all of TechCo’s recruitment teams were ready to adopt the changes. In some cases, it was due to a lack of willingness or capacity to evolve (other initiatives were happening concurrently). In others, it was due to differences in local labour laws and customs.

Getting to where it is now was an iterative process according to Cara Walsh, TechCo’s Talent Acquisition Operations Global Lead who was involved in implementing the HRIS recruitment module. The initial focus was on adoption and targets were not introduced until TechCo had been monitoring the new processes for six months. The global standard operating procedures (SoPs) and the points where local SoPs apply were revised several times before and after launching the recruitment module. 

Learning points

  1. Set specific targets throughout the recruitment process to hold people accountable for the tasks assigned to them, even though those targets might evolve over time.

  2. Listen to user suggestions when building a product roadmap to prioritise which ones get implemented now, next or later. Also explain which ones won’t be implemented and why.

  3. Consider investing in resilience training to help employees feel more comfortable with change.

Selection – using AI to conduct first-stage shortlisting and giving candidate feedback 

RetailCo, a UK-based essential supplies retailer, receives several hundred thousand applications for store-based roles every year. Store managers had to go through the written applications in the applicant tracking system to select candidates to interview. This was time-consuming, particularly during busy periods like Christmas. 

The system was also tedious for candidates. John Meyer who was Head of Talent at RetailCo said, ‘There are so many individuals out there that are filling in applications, what is often the same information time and time again. If we know that the individual is a good fit with the business, then we don’t want to be wasting their time.’ 

To improve the experience for both managers and candidates, RetailCo simplified its selection process and enhanced it with an AI-powered chatbot – all in just five weeks. This was timely as RetailCo had already received over 60% of its usual, annual volume of applications during the first eight weeks of the pandemic, when non-essential shops had to close. The benefits were clear, so getting buy-in was easy and IT involvement was minimal because the solution is cloud-based and the people function worked directly with the software vendor.

RetailCo transformed its selection process so that it’s faster and can give personalised feedback to all candidates. In the first stage, the system checks whether candidates have the right to work in the UK and collects their names and email addresses. Those who pass this stage are invited for a text-based conversation with the AI chatbot on a computer or smartphone, at a time, pace and place that suits them. The chatbot asks five questions that have been carefully designed around the organisation’s values and expected behaviours. Candidates who complete the interview receive a report, highlighting five to six examples of their strengths and two to three coaching tips based on answers from the interview. Choosing candidates to interview for the final stage is easier for store managers because the strongest applications appear at the top of the list in the applicant tracking system.

As a result of the new selection process, the overall time to recruit has reduced by at least half and candidate feedback has been so positive that RetailCo is also using it for contact centre roles where it also receives a high volume of applications. Candidate satisfaction is high (89%) and virtually all (99%) of them complete the process. The equality impact assessment figures, reviewed quarterly, are also reassuring. The gender and ethnicity mix of candidates remains proportionally consistent through each stage of the process.

While RetailCo continues to explore opportunities to improve its processes, it has no plans to use the same selection process for some roles, like management. ‘We are trying to understand what will be the best fit… Over 90% of management roles are filled through internal promotion. There’s not really a specific need for that,’ said Meyer.

Learning points

  1. Concentrate on what really matters to candidates and hiring managers when simplifying your selection process. Pay attention to the balance of AI and human interaction in the selection process.

  2. Consider how AI can be leveraged to improve efficiency as well as candidate experience. Candidates appreciate receiving feedback particularly when their application has been rejected. In this case, AI was used to give feedback to all candidates.

  3. Watch out for potential sources of bias and regularly monitor the diversity of your candidate pool and new hires. AI is used to evaluate text here, circumventing the problem of incorrectly transcribing audio to text because of people’s accents.  

Onboarding – supporting managers to switch to remote onboarding

Opportunities to automate onboarding processes for different employees aren’t reserved for large organisations like TechCo and RetailCo – they are also usually available in HRIS for SMEs. If your HRIS doesn’t have this feature, ask your software vendor and explore alternatives in the market, particularly if you have a lot of new recruits.

Besides automating processes, you can also guide managers on how to help new team members settle in and perform in their new roles. Sue Kelly, HR manager at SMECo, put new procedures in place during the pandemic because remote onboarding is so different from starting a new job in person. For instance:

  • Kelly developed manager guides on remote onboarding (and also remote interviewing) that were similar to what you would expect in a standard onboarding guide. But an example of a key difference was a tip to check that their audio and video are working. This is not always instinctive for managers who aren’t well-versed in using technology. To make sure managers understand and follow the guide, Kelly briefed them and provided one-to-one support.

  • The induction programme was redesigned to be used online. Kelly shortened it from a half day to two hours because ‘attention span is very different’ when the new starter is not there in person. She adapted ice-breakers for online use, ensured the slides were short, snappy and attractive, and made sure that speakers from the organisation included male and female senior managers as well as male and female junior employees.

  • Kelly ensured that communication was crystal clear for new recruits and everyone involved. Because there’s a lack of visibility, everyone involved in the onboarding process needs to know what to do, by when, and how to report if problems arise.

Learning point

For remote onboarding to be effective, adapt existing in-person onboarding activities to suit an online audience.

For more about onboarding, take a look at the resources from our partner Personio:

Our insight series continues next month with a focus on learning and development.

Series author:

Hayfa Mohdzaini, Senior Research Adviser

Hayfa joined in 2020 as the CIPD's Senior Research Adviser in Data, Technology and AI. She started her career in the private sector working in IT and then HR, and has been writing for the HR community since 2012. Previously she worked for another membership organisation (UCEA) where she expanded the range of pay and workforce benchmarking data available to the higher education HR community. Hayfa has degrees in computer science and human resources from University of York and University of Warwick respectively.

She is interested in how the people profession can contribute to good work through technology.

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