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National Association of Counties • Washington, D.C.      Vol. 34, No. 14 • July 15, 2002

The H.R. Doctor Is In

E-recruitment Attracts Best and Brightest

The time honored tradition of looking through the Sunday newspaper want ads to find job opportunities in government will soon become an exhibit, alongside traditional civil service systems and one size fits all benefit programs, in the Museum of Bureaucratic Antiquities.

Instead counties, cities and other public agencies are responding to changes in workforce demographics and attitudes, as well as more advanced e-recruitment techniques in the race to attract and retain the best and brightest. Even the federal government will be changing its ways. Yes, I know that seems like an impossible, unlikely event. However by 2005, half of the 900,000 federal civilian employees will be eligible for retirement.

Traditional recruitment methods, in the face of new realities, do not represent best practices. If old recruitment methods will increasingly fail public agencies, what is on the horizon?

The first part of the answer involves the concept of branding. This must be immediately distinguished from anything involving red-hot iron poles and tissue scarring on the backside of cattle. However, even our Madison Avenue advertising friends will acknowledge that the concept is similar. That is, creating a mark to distinguish one property or commodity from another. It involves the creation of distinctions, whether real or implied, between one agency and another.

Does the concept work? Absolutely! Just spend a few moments doing diligent public administration research in a mall or supermarket and observe the behavior of people who pass by generic breakfast cereal, shoe brands, clothing or perfume to go directly to the far more expensive brand names. These brands are often no better than the generics, except for the allure of using a product reflecting an image created through advertising.

The concept of establishing a brand works and it is time it started working in public agency human resources practices.

It already works for government agencies in the tourism and convention sales business. Just ask the king of branding Nick Grossman, president of the Broward County Florida’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. It is all about selling the destination as a unique and wonderful place to spend time (and money).

In the evolving world of human resources recruitment, the opportunity to use branding and the risks of remaining within older, decaying model of want ad placement is directly parallel. It is increasingly difficult to find quality candidates for police officers or sheriff deputies.

There may be many candidates who apply but when you screen out those with a criminal history, those with literacy, poor attendance and work habit problems, the number of candidates who are at the top of the applicant pool is relatively small. There may also literally be dozens of police agencies competing for the same candidate pool. Few applicants for such jobs apply at only one agency.

They may have a dozen applications pending at any given time. How do you distinguish one public agency employer from another?

Of course, the pay and benefits at one agency may be better than another, but that is increasingly a marginal difference. Developing a brand for the agency which establishes a positive and memorable image and surgically inserts that image into the mind of the applicant is a big part of the answer.

Another part of the process improvement recipe in HR recruitment is to carefully and thoroughly review every aspect of recruitment practices from the standpoint of the candidate. What can be done to make the entire process so much more pleasant and simple in your agency that it will stand out in a positive, extraordinary way from what the poor candidate has been experiencing elsewhere.

How does your county or city practice standout compared to the competition? The typical public agency recruitment process is littered with inflexible rules, lack of automation, tradition bound thinking, and restrictions placed in civil service ordinances or union contracts.

The result is that applicants find their encounter with human resources like crawling over broken glass. They may encounter an overworked staff, which focuses only on making it through until 5 p.m. Instead, each staff member should be commissioned as a positive agency ambassador, always scanning the environment for spectacular candidates and welcoming them in extraordinary ways.

Past HR Doctor articles (see Simple Gifts or Free Refills at the HR Doctor’s Web site) have discussed exceeding customer expectations for service. We can apply this concept to the recruitment process by extending recruitment office hours to make it easier on candidates who work elsewhere during the typical business hours of operation. Make 24/7 Internet-based applications possible, and accept resumes by fax or e-mail at the initial stages of recruitment.

Have an applicant reception area in HR which is pleasant and comfortable. Consider serving cookies, coffee or water to applicants. Tell the auditors who question this practice to put down their number 2 pencils and remember what it might have been like when they were unemployed and job searching several decades ago. When a candidate for technology professional, for example, appears to have extraordinary qualifications and may be in town for a couple of days, consider a fast track application review process.

Provide rapid feedback to maintain the interest of the potential employee so the person leaves thinking they just had a wow experience. These candidates need to leave the HR office, whether they made an in-person visit or an e-visit with a feeling that they want to be part of this team. That approach is the best way in the short-term and in the long run to set one agency apart from the other.

The fact that it is difficult to change HR minds and practices to apply these approaches to recruitment makes it all the more likely that an innovative agency will have a competitive advantage in the recruitment market.

These innovative restraints should not be blamed entirely on the HR staff lapsing into a coma. The HR Doctor has repeatedly argued that HR is a metaphor for the entire agency. Slow moving, sloth-like HR practices are often a reflection of the support, or lack of it, provided by the elected and appointed officials. These are the leaders who ultimately set the tone and establish the height of the bar for the practices and attitudes in the organization insisting on innovation and excellence as an important and positive business practice for every top manager.

It can be powerfully argued that if these positive attitudes are not present in the realm of HR as gatekeepers and ambassadors, then the entire organization suffers.

Branding may involve slogans, billboards, shrink wrapped buses or logo clothing items. It may also, ironically, involve placing ads in newspapers to develop brand recognition for the organization. However, want ads will increasingly be used only to drive readers to the agency’s Web site, or to increase familiarity with the brand rather than to actually print a long and microscopic list of job openings at the county today. In fact, increasingly, the readers of such want ads will be turned away because they won’t be able to find their reading glasses to focus on the very tiny fine print anyway.

Finally, the idea of creating a brand for the organization is something which, in and of itself, can be a challenging and enjoyable project for the staff. For example, the HR Doctor recently helped create a brand slogan to be used by one public agency which will identify itself as providing “maximum strength public service ©.”

Sorry colleagues, it’s copyrighted! If the agency can become know by this brand and assuming it actually pays attention to and works hard at delivering great service, the brand can help instill pride, increase morale and increase agency success. A few words passionately embraced can be very powerful. Typical bureaucratic words, many in number and robotically recited over and over again, are frustrating and drive people, including staff people, away from supporting the agency, its goals and even its leaders!

The federally trademarked HR Doctor wishes you all the best.

All the best,
Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •