Sourcing seasonal talent

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Getting the right people for the right job at times of the year when business is particularly intense is no mean feat. Kirsty Jerome, HR controller with River Island, explains how a new online recruitment process meant managers could spend time on candidate quality rather than wading through an excess of inappropriate applications.

The Christmas season is, for the majority of high street retailers, the most important trading period of the year generating, in some cases, more revenue than the rest of the year put together. In these recessionary times the consumer pound is a highly valued and scarce commodity and Christmas is a welcome catalyst to get people spending money. As footfall increases and numbers of shoppers rise, so the need to increase headcount has to keep pace if customer service levels are to remain high. Nothing puts customers off more than long queues, slow service and under-resourced staff struggling to cope with the demand. Staffing up for Christmas can be a make or break activity for retailers.

As peak recruitment loomed into view for River Island, the central resourcing team knew they would be facing the perennial challenge of recruiting seasonal workers in time for the Christmas rush when every other high street retailer was out there doing the same thing. It was survival of the fittest.

For River Island peak recruitment means hiring up to 6,000 additional people each year. Until recently River Island employed a totally manual approach to its sales advisor recruitment. The paper-based system, which was driven by store managers, failed to offer the organisation or candidates any consistency when it came to screening applications and the selection process itself. Applicants would walk into a store and hand in their completed application form, and the appeal of the River Island brand often meant hundreds of applicants turning up in individual stores. The volume was overwhelming.

The manual approach also put a great deal of pressure on the central recruitment team. Often vacancies remained unfulfilled because we simply couldn’t process the sheer number of applications received. And because we weren’t able to track candidates once they had applied to a store, we had no way of letting applicants know what was happening to their application if anyone contacted the central team to check on its progress. As a team and an organisation we recognised the need to give candidates a better experience and relieve the recruitment burden from store managers giving them more time to drive sales,” she says.

A bold step forward

A bold decision was made to take away the burden of screening candidates from store managers and outsource the overall management of the recruitment process to the central recruitment team – with a little technological assistance. Bold because the central recruitment team was small and there were no plans to increase headcount. The only way the team could manage would be to introduce an online recruitment process with a first class applicant tracking solution. We needed a recruitment system that would lead and support candidates through a slicker recruitment process and attract the right people. By emphasising and focusing on the candidate experience we realised we could increase the quality of applications, as well as realising
positive benefits for our employer and consumer brand.

Managing talent technologically

The recruitment solution recommended by recruitment experts Changeworknow included leveraging the skill and expertise of the central recruitment team to post vacancies on the corporate website and manage candidates once their applications had been submitted. Criteria-based questionnaires were used during the online application process to help applicants assess their suitability for the roles. By using technology to manage the volume and quality of candidates through online screening and filtering of suitable applications it was possible to cut down on the volume of applicants and save on store manager time by providing a qualified shortlist.

The central team posted the vacancies, sent a shortlist to store managers and arranged the assessment days. “We were keen to involve store managers in the recruitment process only where they could add the greatest value. Because we recognised how important it was to take the burden of recruitment administration from store managers, the solution we proposed and implemented with River Island ensured they continued to be involved in the recruitment process, but limited their involvement to decision making,” explains Lesley Nash, director of Changeworknow.

The solution also exploited a number of technology-based techniques to make recruiters’ lives easier. These included setting quotas on vacancies so that when applicant numbers reached the quota the vacancy would close down. That way the system was self-managing when it came to candidate numbers and our team did not have to deal with excessive numbers of applicants.

Taking a leading edge approach

River Island also embraced the use of text messaging to keep in touch with our candidate base by sending interview reminders out which significantly improved the attendance rate at their assessment events.

Following a review after the first year of implementation we took things a stage further and incorporated online interview booking into the process. We had to set up thousands of interview slots in order to narrow numbers down to the 6,000 hires we needed to make. The time it was taking to get in touch with these candidates was virtually a round the clock job. We managed to automate this by sending emails to the relevant candidates asking them to click a link to see what interview slots were available and then book themselves on. All we had to do then was set up the interview dates and times.

Candidates seemed to appreciate the new process. The response to the emails is almost instantaneous – and we were able to fill an assessment event in 12 minutes – pretty fast, in comparison to our previous system.

Exceeding expectations

The number of applications generated by the new online recruitment system in year one was overwhelming. We were concerned we wouldn’t get enough applications to fill the 5,950 seasonal vacancies we have across the business. But our expectations were entirely surpassed by 51,000 submitted applications and the overall quality of the candidates who wanted to work with us. Year two was even more successful, especially following a review to tighten the selection criteria even further.

Between September and December 2009, close to 65,000 people started the River Island online recruitment process. Of this group approximately 53 per cent of individuals submitted their application, the remainder de-selecting themselves from the process based on feedback received on their suitability. This represented a massive saving of time and cost to the central team.

Positive business impact

The recruitment process for sales advisors used by River Island before the introduction of the online solution did not capture any recruitment data. Therefore there was only minimal management information on which to benchmark the success of this new approach. Two years on, however, it is a different story. Average time to hire is approximately 32 days which, when recruiting for the Christmas trading period, is key to getting the right people in the right stores as quickly as possible. And it doesn’t stop there, recruitment for new store openings has been transformed with a new store in Banbury being fully staffed in just nine days.

The new approach to recruitment has also helped to create a more positive working relationship between the central recruitment team and store managers. Not only have we been able to help store managers save time, but we have really been able to add value to the recruitment process, ensuring their expertise is focused on selecting from the very best candidates.

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