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Hiring During an Economic Downturn

By Tom Watson on December 4, 2008No Comment

What a tight market means for employers
A tight market can have both positive and negative effects on hiring organizations. On one hand, it means that top talent may be looking for new opportunities after a layoff. On the other, it might mean that potential candidates who are already employed may be reluctant to move to a new organization because they are anxious about the economy.

In order to take advantage of what could be a strong pool of candidates looking for work, hiring managers will want to be flexible and creative about considering people with different backgrounds. For example, an extremely talented CFO who was laid-off from the for-profit sector could be an effective COO at a non-profit, but only if the hiring manager is willing to consider someone with a less traditional background.

To counteract candidates’ resistance to move to another organization, hiring managers need to be sure that they are actively marketing their organization as an employer of choice throughout the hiring process, a strategy that will be discussed later in this article. 

Making the decision to hire
Deciding to add an employee is a serious investment. In addition to benefits and compensation associated with the new hire, the hiring process itself can be costly in terms of overhead and staff time. And onboarding a new employee can also be a lengthy and expensive process. That’s why it’s crucial to be sure that you are hiring for the right person at the right time. There are several steps you can take in order to make this decision.

The process of deciding whether or not to invest in a new hire actually helps you prepare for the hire itself. When you take the time to analyze the responsibilities of the position and ask tough questions about other ways in which they could be met, you will have a much clearer picture of what the role calls for and what kind of candidates you should pursue.

Take the time to develop a task-oriented job description. This isn’t the job description that you’ll eventually post, but rather an internal document that breaks down all of the required components of a particular position task by task. When a position is broken down in this manner, a host of new opportunities and questions opens up.  You may discover, for example, that employees are actually doing more than what is outlined in their job descriptions, because the roles they were hired for have evolved.  It could be that you do not need an outside hire, but an internal re-organization, enabling current employees to pick up essential tasks.

Reduce overhead and staff time during the hiring process
Whether you hire a search firm or you manage the search internally, if you’re not prepared you’ll be wasting time and money. Here are some ways to prepare for a hire:

1.) Recognize and plan for the time hiring takes. In-house searches typically take about six months and 150 hours of staff time. That can be the tipping point for a staff and board that is probably already doing more with less, so it’s crucial that staff is aware of the time commitment and that you truly have the capacity to manage the hiring process.

2.) Establish a process. Before you even post a job description or look at a resume, map out a hiring process. Who will review applications? Who will schedule interviews? How many interviews will be held? Who will be involved in the process? How and when will the final decision be made? Who will communicate with candidates throughout the process? Document all of these roles and responsibilities so that internal staff is prepared for whatever they need to do. Knowing this in advance will also help you give candidates a clear understanding of the timeline and process.

3.) Make sure that only key stakeholders are involved. Most non-profits are consensus-driven organizations, which means that decisions involve several levels of input from multiple people. This kind of consensus-building is important from a cultural perspective, but it can bog down a hiring process, turning off strong candidates and taking up staff time. You can avoid this by making sure that only the people who need to be involved are participating and that you are maximizing staff time and expertise. Then communicate the plan to staff ahead of time to set appropriate expectations.

4.) Use external resources. Tap into your network, not just to find great candidates, which is an efficient and cost-effective way to launch a search, but also to find resources that will make the hiring process easier. Is there a board member who has a background in HR and might be able to craft interview questions? Or do you know a lawyer who could draft an offer letter?

Attracting strong candidates
As mentioned previously, a challenging economy may mean that candidates are unwilling to leave their current positions to join a new organization, especially if that new organization seems unstable or risky in any way. Here are some steps you can take to attract top talent despite the current economic situation:

1.)  Protect and promote your brand. Know your marketplace positioning and infuse every communication to candidates with that brand awareness. Tell candidates about why your organization is great…and make sure everyone involved in interviewing is doing the same.

2.)  Be prepared for questions about your financial situation. It is understandable that candidates will be wary about finances in the current economic climate. It’s important to answer their queries about funding and budgets as quickly and transparently as possible. This may mean providing them with copies of financial documents or setting up conversations with board members or other people in the organization who understand the financial picture.

3.)  Keep candidates front and center during the hiring process. The sheer logistics of moving candidates through the hiring process can be so challenging that many organizations forget about the importance of making them feel like they are wanted and respected. You can do this by treating candidates with care, informing them of the process, communicating regularly, and, once an offer has been made, letting them know how excited you are about the possibility of them joining your team.

4.)  Look beyond salary when making an offer. The economic crisis almost certainly means that many non-profits are going to have to scale back wherever they can, and in many cases, this will mean in salaries. But it’s important to remember that salary is only one component of a compelling package. Think creatively about compensation when putting together an offer. What other benefits might matter to the employee? These could include flextime, telecommuting, professional development opportunities, a sabbatical, or an increase in vacation time. Do not underestimate the power of these less tangible benefits.

Hiring during an economic downturn can be challenging from both a time and resources perspective. But you can attract exceptional talent and make an investment that will serve your organization’s mission and growth if you carefully prepare for a hire and remain flexible and creative throughout the entire process.

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