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Ep 543: Hiring At Speed And Scale

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Earlier in the summer, I collaborated with the SmartRecruiters team to interview four fantastic practitioners who spoke on The Hiring Without Boundaries stage at RecFest in London. We recorded the conversations backstage at the event, and this is the first of three podcast episodes where I will be sharing them.

Hiring for frontline retail positions has always been a challenge, but since the pandemic, it is a challenge that has increased exponentially. So how does an expanding retail group fill 30,000 roles a year at pace while ensuring a high-quality candidate experience that reflects the fact that their candidates are literally their customers?

My first RecFest guest is Adam Reynolds, Head of Talent at Frasers Group. Frasers Group is a multi-brand international retail chain, and Adam and his team have used technology to transform their TA strategy to meet the needs of the business in a very tough talent market.

In the interview, we discuss:

• Recruiting challenges

• Growing hiring exponentially

• Urgency, pace and velocity

• Getting stakeholder buy-in

• Quality communication at scale

• Automation without being robotic

• Storytelling

• The fundamental role of technology

• Ratios and data

• Talent pooling silver medallists

• How will the role of the recruiter evolve in an AI-driven future?

Listen to this podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Transcript:

Matt: Support for this podcast is provided by SmartRecruiters. SmartRecruiters enables Hiring Without Boundaries by freeing talent acquisition teams from legacy applicant tracking software. SmartRecruiters next generation platform serves as a hiring operating system for over 4,000 customers like Bosch, LinkedIn, Skechers, and Visa. Companies with business-critical hiring needs turn to SmartRecruiters for best-of-breed functionality, world class support, and a robust ecosystem of third-party applications and service providers. To find out more, go to smartrecruiters.com. That’s smartrecruiters.com.

[Recruiting Future theme]

Matt: Hi there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 543 of The Recruiting Future Podcast. Earlier in the summer, I collaborated with the SmartRecruiters team to interview four fantastic practitioners who spoke on The Hiring Without Boundaries stage at RecFest in London. We recorded the conversations backstage at the event, and this is the first of three podcast episodes where I will be sharing them.
Hiring for frontline retail positions has always been a challenge, but since the pandemic, it’s a challenge that has increased exponentially. So how does an expanding retail group fill 30,000 roles a year at pace while ensuring a high-quality candidate experience that reflects the fact that their candidates literally are their customers?

My first RecFest guest is Adam Reynolds, Head of Talent at Frasers Group. Frasers Group is a multi-brand international retail chain, and Adam and his team have used technology to transform their TA strategy to meet the needs of the business in a very tough talent market.
Hi, Adam, welcome to the podcast.

Adam: Hi, Matt. How are?

Matt: I’m good, I’m good. So, you’ve just come off stage, packed room. I didn’t have the benefit of seeing your presentation, so I wanted to ask you lots of questions about what you were talking about. Before we do though, please just introduce yourself and tell everyone what you do.

Adam: Yeah. Hi. So, I’m Adam Reynolds. I’m the Head of Talent for Frasers Group. We are a retail conglomerate that incorporates Sports Direct, House of Fraser, Jack Wills, Flannels, a whole bunch of other household names, as well as an emerging digital offering through I Saw It First, Missguided, Studio Retail. We’re growing by acquisition. My team as a result of that, from a TA perspective, is also growing, not by acquisition, but more organically.

Matt: Yeah, absolutely. How big is your TA team now?

Adam: So, we are just under 20 heads in my team recruiting across UK market, as well as the European mainland, as well as also some areas in APAC now, as well as that’s beginning to expand.

Matt: Talk us through your recruiting challenges because really interesting business, obviously, lots of things going on. What are the big recruiting challenges that you have?

Adam: Sure. So, the presentation today was focusing on probably the least glamorous and the least sexy part of recruitment. But for us, I guess fundamentally, the bit that adds the most value to our business, and that’s your store-based colleagues. The problem, I guess the challenge that we have in that space, it sits across all of our recruitment, really, and it’s in the attraction area, and it’s getting people to want to work for your business. It’s getting people to look at your business. There’s a lot of options out there at the moment. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that retail maybe isn’t everyone’s first choice right now. I think there’s a lot of businesses out there that are emerging maybe or are seen as more sustainable and longer-term.

I think Frasers books the trend with that, commercially massively, in fact. So, educating and informing people about the opportunity with a business-like Frasers, that is very bricks and mortar. We have a digital element to it and we will always be bricks over clicks. We’ll have those physical stores. I guess, that might make us look a little bit less attractive to some people. So, for me, look, principally, attraction is the most important, I guess, lever that we’re going to need to pull in the near future.

Matt: Give us an idea of the kind of the scale of the numbers that you’ve got going through in that type of recruitment.

Adam: Yeah, sure. So, from a global headcount of around about 40,000, we hire roughly 30,000 heads per year. But a lot of those are, of course, seasonal colleagues, so it’s not necessarily due to a huge amount of churn. It is due to the fact that we scale up and dial up the numbers at seasonal time, so summertime and Christmas time. We hire principally about 90% of that. 30,000 is in the retail space, and probably a 2,500 in the head office space. We have quite a large warehouse operation, but it’s not something that my team looks after, but it is still obviously a big part of our headcount additions annually.

Matt: Is that something that’s scaled up as you’ve acquired more companies? Has it got a lot bigger recently?

Adam: Yeah, sure. So, it very much has. Actually, I joined in 2020 and we were looking at around about 12,000 to 14,000 heads higher per year across the whole state, all included, retail and head office. We took that to around 25,000 last year. That’s just mainland UK. We’ve not included Europe and our Asian operations into that. We’ll take it just over 30,000. So, yeah, look, it’s not quite exponential, but it’s certainly going up by a pretty decent percentage on annual basis.

Matt: Talk us through how you did it.

Adam: Okay. So, [chuckles] blood and sweat, frankly, [Matt laughs] and also trial and error as well. We went in there with a theory and with some principles, and they were based on the numbers. We lent into the science of recruitment. We knew our ratios, we knew what the numbers were saying, we knew, again, the presentation I just gave them was very much looking at the COVID world and the post-COVID world. The landscape changes that had happened as a result of that. I guess, how we did it is by implying urgency, basically. There was a level of pace and velocity, as we called it, that we applied into recruitment at all stages.

The three points on the phrases TA triangle are pace, volume, and quality. They all pull in different directions. They don’t make good bedfellows, unfortunately, you know they– [crosstalk]

Matt: Not at all.

Adam: [laughs] -contrasting. But we needed to find a harmonized process that not only looked to maximize them, certainly didn’t compromise any of them. Yeah, we did that by applying real urgency and agency to what we did and applying very strict SLAs to time frames that we would leave candidates hanging for, for instance, we don’t want anybody not knowing things for longer than 48 hours. It shouldn’t be in a process longer than seven days without knowing-

Matt: Wow.

Adam: -where you are and jobs shouldn’t stay open for longer than 30 days. There was some real rigor behind that, but it was listening to the story the numbers were telling as attrition was happening because people had options. There were so many options in the post-COVID and mid-COVID world that you needed to move with purpose quickly. How did we do it? Yeah, it was by not compromising any of those three points, but really leaning into pace.

Matt: So, on that topic of pace, as it lays around pace and you mentioned 48 hours and seven days there, are you combining the key issues of great candidate experience in terms of communication, but also the demands of the business? How have you done that?

Adam: Yeah. I go back to the blood and sweat piece as well. And that’s not just in terms of the actual legworks. There’s a lot of manual working, devising, developing, and embedding processes, but it’s actually getting your stakeholders, your business in our instance. This is a business that operates in 25 countries. Every piece of process that you produce needs to be translated into a whole bunch of languages and trained into a whole bunch of people. Everything that you want to do needs to be harmonized and systematic and all that sort of stuff.

Yeah, it was really, really difficult. We learned a huge amount about bulk communication. I think that was the big thing that we really learned. It was trial and error. We didn’t get it right. I would be lying frankly, if I told you that it was all smooth sailing and it went perfectly well from the start. It really didn’t. There were some ugly times, and we had to really hold a mirror up to ourselves and say, “Okay, is this working and why isn’t it working?” Asking the business, “What do you want? What do you want to see? And how would this work for you?” I said in the present temptation there, “This is not the beginning of the end. It’s maybe just the end of the beginning of this process.”

Matt: Yeah, absolutely. Talk us through a little bit more about bulk communication. How does technology work around that? How do you ensure the quality of communication at scale? Because I think that’s always been such a massive challenge for talent acquisition. It’s like recruiting is great one on one, but how do you keep that quality up 1 to 10,000 or whatever it is?

Adam: Do you know what? This is death by thousand paper cuts, actually, because there are so many ways that you need to communicate with people in order for them to actually take it in and listen. There’s a level of repetition, and it is a drumbeat. Fundamentally, it is drumbeat communications. There is no way you send out a comms and it gets embedded and it becomes BAU. You go out with the communication, you do a physical training, you do an eLearning training. You have a multimedia approach to this. There is so many different angles that you need to approach. How do I get this information into a store colleague that doesn’t look at a computer all day?

Matt: Yeah.

Adam: They’re on the shop floor. How do I get that? They’re busy and they’ve not got time to spend doing an eLearning module or sitting through a training program. What is the mechanism by which we–? So, there’s some policing of this as well. There’s the bad cop element that you’re running through reports and creating league tables of naughty boys and girls and sort of saying, “Don’t be low on this league table. Your errors are high or you’ve done particularly well. Can you maybe be a bit of an advocate for this?” Finding that peer to peer, and that’s the key. The peer-to-peer learning, that almost a herd mentality of when a group of people start to pull in the same direction. The people that aren’t pulling in that direction begin to feel like they’re not pulling their weight.

So, it was creating that kind of swell of support around what you were doing. So, you needed to create some anchors, some key people that were going to be your go-to people, if you will, in the retail space and say, “Okay, you’re an advocate of this. You’re good at this. Talk to your guys in your area. Can you support me on this training program? If I drop this comms into you, can you make sure it goes out to those people?” And then you create an eLearning and you do a physical thing. Every time you pick up the phone and every time you talk to someone, you remind them, what’s the top two things? Top three things? What are these things? This repetition, that’s the key.

Matt: Has it over time become obvious, what’s in it for them?

Adam: For sure. Oh, 100%. Look, the whole basis of this was to deliver commercial benefits for the business. This is not because we want to challenge ourselves to hit a vanity KPI. It is absolutely about, commercially. We need bodies on the shop floor. We need to fill these roles. The cost of a role not being filled is, this is not being sold. We can almost track on a graph, we can see drops in productivity within a team where they have too few sales assistants, where they’re missing an assistant manager, where there’s no store manager. That’s an impact commercially. We can’t take that as a business, nor should we either. So, yeah, they see the benefits of this completely. Doesn’t always mean they do [crosstalk] things,-
[laughter]

Adam: -but it lights a bit of a fire beneath them.

Matt: From the candidate perspective, how much automation is there in the process and the communication and how does that feel and how do you shape that accordingly?

Adma: Yeah, it’s a balancing act, isn’t it? There is a sweet spot that you’ve got to find between automation of communication, and it becoming robotic and systematic, and people want to feel like they’ve been spoken to by a human and taken into consideration. So, we always make sure that naturally there’s an automated element to the front end of that process where the funnel is wide, there’s no way we can directly communicate on a one-to-one basis with– We got 1.3 million applications last year. We hired 30,000 of those people. There’s a lot of people there that we had to reject at first stage.

Matt: Yeah.

Adam: We conducted close to 90,000 interviews in total across the business. Most of those would have been virtual interviews. So, there’s a lot of interactions people have. So, we make a mandate that, when somebody has approached a certain point in the process and they’ve met a person, whether it’s virtually or whether it’s in-person, there’s a direct communication there. Prior to that, we automate that communication. We make it as personable and as value aligned, and with the tone of voice and the tonality of Frasers Group built into it, but of course, we have to seek the efficiencies.

Matt: What role does technology play in all of this?

Adam: It’s absolutely fundamental to it. It underpins everything that we do, if we didn’t have that, the system that we’ve got does an amazing job of creating very elegant and attractive and nice communication flows for people. We can bespoke and we have bespoke it within an inch of its life. That’s fantastic because it allows us to– You obviously know the business and you know the amount of facial and brands that we’ve got so many different doors that we have with brand names above them, they all have a slightly different tone of voice.

Matt: Yeah.

Adam: So, having the capacity to be able to and a system that will recognize that, and we’ll send out a Sports Direct toned letter to somebody or a Flannels toned letter to somebody or a Frasers Group, if you will. This system allows us to do that. Without that, it’s homogeneous and then it becomes sanitized and it becomes robotic.

Matt: Absolutely. Digging into that and also going back to what you said right at the beginning, in terms of the competition that you have in the market, the fact that not everyone will see retail as a natural career for them, how do you tell that story? How do you convince people to apply in the first place?

Adam: Wow. If you find the answer to that question, Matt, [Matt laughs] whoever you’re interviewed, if you ask that same question, please, to everybody, and if you could just get back to me with some data on that one. We’re quite lucky. We acquire businesses, and it means that we come at retail from angle of growth. So, we’re on a trajectory. We’ve got amazing financials, we’ve got growth in physical stores, in digital. The challenge is– and now I want to go back to the attraction piece. The challenge is getting people to look at your business, first of all. That applies to everybody. Everybody’s got the same problem. How do you stand out in a crowd of everybody shouting the loudest?

Everybody starts trying to be creative, and then everyone’s being creative, and then everyone’s not creative because you are part of the same crowd. But once we get people to look at us, I have real confidence that people will stand up and take notice of our business because of the commercials, the brands that we’ve got. What a great story we have, and all these acquisitions and things. It’s a brilliant, brilliant story to tell. The challenge is getting them to look at you in the first place and trying to reeducate, I guess, a landscape of people that maybe aren’t necessarily seeing retail as a long-term career for themselves.

Matt: Yeah.

Adam: In the digital space, absolutely. eTail will be the future, of course. Where do you buy your clothes? Someone’s got to buy that, you got to buy them from somewhere. But the shop-based stuff, that’s the bit that we’re working on at the moment. Again, we’re definitely not there yet. There’s a whole story to tell that we’ve not quite cracked yet. For me, 23 onwards, the goals and the targets are going to be in that space.

Matt: You mentioned ratios and things like that. Tell us about the data that sits behind all of this. What have you learned?

Adam: Sure. So, through 2020, we took a real deep dive into the data. The numbers were quite ugly. Ratios had spiraled out of control almost. We were seeing a 65% offer to hire ratio, which is, all the work that you’ve done up to that point. For some of them to not start was really, really ugly. We’re very, very familiar with our ratios around applications to interview and interviews to hire at things, because that drives our productivity. It gives us an opportunity to apply the right resource to projects and things like that or to put the right spend behind things, if we need to attract a wider community of people. We live and die by the numbers, frankly. When you’re recruiting that many people, it would be foolish not to be really, really aware. Even if you’re not comfortable with your numbers, the knowledge is power and you can do something about it.

Matt: Yeah. So, with so many applications, so many people getting through to certain parts of the process, how does it work from a talent pooling perspective? Is this an area where you can do talent pooling?

Adam: Yeah, for sure. So, in the retail space, particularly in the early careers retail space, so this is people that are doing Saturdays jobs, part-time jobs, seasonal jobs, that kind of thing. They have a period of time when they are going to be available to do that sort of work. Maybe they’re going through university or education or what have you. So, you’ve probably got, let’s say, between six months and four years, that person is going to be a live active candidate. We’re aware of that. So, we create communities that allow us to farm that group of people.

So, what we referred to in the presentation was the velocity of the hiring process means that we create a lot of applications but we move only a small amount of them through because we’re very purposeful about the people we move through. We make sure we target them with the automation that’s in the system and it allows us to target the right people to put through the process. But then as a result of that, it creates a whole amount, a whole huge group of silver medalist candidates that we can drop into communities and do something with. So, that for me, the future of retail recruitment for us is to nurture and to create those communities and to allow them to drive all future recruitment at colleague-based level and above as well.
A lot of people stay in retail. So, you become, whether it’s institutionalized by the retail, you get bit by the bug and you tend to move up the ladder and you like what you see in retail. So, you do tend to move up the chain from a job level perspective. So, if we can capture these people at a store colleague-based level, we can follow their career. Even if they don’t join us as a supervisor, they might join us as an assistant manager or a store manager or so on.

Matt: This is such an interesting area because you’re already using a huge amount of automation, you’re really working on personalization. Where does that leave recruiters in the future? I suppose two parts to this question, what role do the recruiters have now in this system as it were? Where do you think that’s going in the future?

Adam: Really interesting. I watched the talk earlier about ChatGPT, and I had some really candid conversations actually last night and today around the use of this kind of tool. It’s only one part of this, isn’t it, the automation and the AI and the community piece. We can’t do recruitment without a human intervention. There’s no way to do it. They can’t do it. We need to assess, we need to vet, we need to deal with queries, we need to offer an FAQ to our stores, we need to have the ability to audit and edit and to review and assess ratios, we need to make a subjective in many instances call as to whether this role needs a sponsorship behind it or does this role need to go to a LinkedIn or what have you.

I’m a staunch believer, that gut instinct that you can’t get from an automated system that ChatGPT won’t do for you. It sits in your recruiter. That’s in your recruiter. They make a judgment call. We align our process so heavily to a values and culture model. There is no way a system can assess that. We can do a Boolean search and a ChatGPT or an AI can tell you whether someone’s got words on their CV that match, which is great. They are never in a million years going to be able to assess somebody’s values, behaviors, and cultural match or addition to a business. And that’s a person.

Matt: Do you think that we’ll get to a point where people can do that better, spend more time on it? What do you think the future will look like?

Adam: I think we’ll start to weaponize these automation tools and find more efficient, because ultimately, they are efficiency drivers. They’re not replacement tools. I think that you either work with them or you work against them in Luddite type fashion. I suppose, we will work with those tools and we’ll find ways that they will make our process better. They won’t necessarily replace elements. Maybe they will replace things, but they will also additions into a process. They’ll allow us to write better adverts, for instance. There’s a time saving mechanism, my recruiters are better spent assessing people or assessing CVs or speaking to stakeholders or doing the value-added bits. If we can get a piece of automation that’s going to do the bits that are administratively laborious and onus, what a great thing that is going to be. You are always going to need to have– We’ve always built efficiencies thing, but you’re always going to need to have a person turning the wheel.

Matt: Adam, thank you very much for talking to me.

Adam: No problem. I really enjoyed that.

Matt: My thanks to Adam. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past episodes at recruitingfuture.com. On that site, you can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter, Recruiting Future Feast, and get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time, and I hope you’ll join me.

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