Definitely Doug 9/30/22: You’re Hired!

9.30.2022
by Doug Rice
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Just in case you hadn’t noticed, the hospitality industry has a major labor issue. Occupancy is roughly back to pre-pandemic levels, but a lot of the workers have not come back – and they don’t plan to. In the U.S. alone, the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show employment in the accommodation sector is still 19% below its February 2020 level, or almost 400,000 jobs short. Many of my past blog topics have explored areas where technology can reduce the workload at hotels, and the feedback is that it often helps.

But technology can’t do much for tasks like cleaning guest rooms or cooking meals, and even when it can, we might not want it to (do you really want your fine-dining meal delivered by a robot?). Food and beverage workers are in particularly short supply, and it is difficult to deliver a quality experience without enough of them.

The job market remains tight, and the behavior of job seekers has changed, in many ways likely permanently. A recent study of hospitality job applicants by Hireology found that 45% of job seekers applied to more than 16 positions, up from 32% in just one year. And in terms of evaluating different opportunities, the study found that flexibility is now more important than higher pay, with 50% of current employees saying they would take a pay cut for the flexibility they want. Salary is still the most important qualifier in searching for a new job, but schedule flexibility is second.

While larger corporate hotel employers may have human resources departments with trained recruiting professionals, many hires are made not by corporate staff by front line managers at individual hotels. They may not have access to, be able to navigate, or have the necessary skills to successfully use recruiting software designed for professionals, and they may need a very different solution. For them, recruiting is just one of a hundred tasks occupying their work day, and it is one that many are poorly trained to do.

In a tight job market, with applicants applying to 15 other jobs, most front-line hiring managers don’t stand much of a chance when competing for talent against large companies who employ professional recruiters who spent their entire careers honing their skills for reaching, attracting, qualifying, and ultimately hiring candidates. The applicant may never see that poorly constructed job listing because the person who created it did not understand how applicants search and filter opportunities. Or if they do see it, it will likely be less well marketed than professionally listed jobs right above or below it on the job site – and seem less enticing.

This week’s blog will focus on recruiting and onboarding solutions. There are many different approaches and no single right answer, but I looked at several companies offering solutions with many different features and options. The question is which one (or ones) are best suited to the people doing your actual hiring. Some focus more on the needs of professional human resources departments, others on front-line hiring managers, and some do both. Many companies carry the process all the way from recruiting and evaluating to onboarding, training, ongoing engagement, payroll, and talent management; others just handle one or two of these.

Every company I spoke with for this article had some level of specialization in hospitality. While there are many companies offering non-hospitality-specific recruiting software that can be used by almost any company, the best practices provided by the ones I spoke with still form a good checklist against which to compare the more generic solutions. I thank the CEOs and other senior executives I spoke with from Hireology, Hosco, Mitratech (which acquired talentReef last month), and WizeHire for their time and insights. Two other companies active in the field did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

The advantage of industry-focused hiring software is that it is natively aware of typical job definitions, skill sets, career paths, compensation, and other practices. Hospitality has many things in common with other industries, but also many differences. Knowledge of the industry allows software to scan a resume looking for industry-specific keywords that will provide insight into a candidate’s qualifications that a generic recruiting package might not. “Server experience” means something very different when used by a candidate for a food and beverage job than it means for a computer room maintenance position! Also, hospitality-focused software will generally be better tuned to hiring low-level, hourly staff, where the employee needs, preferences, and job search behaviors may be quite different than for professional positions catered to by many other solutions.

In addition, certain job boards focus specifically on the hospitality industry. Generic job boards such as LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter, and Indeed are supported by most recruiting packages, but some of the specialized ones may not be. Hosco, for example, in addition to offering recruiting software, provides a global membership site where anyone interested in hospitality jobs can sign up for free; it also has outreach programs to educational institutions and associations focused on hospitality. Whether used independently or through another service, services like this can be very useful especially for reaching potential employees who may be working in another part of the world but who are looking to gain international experience and are open to relocation – something common in hospitality but not in most other industries, where applicants typically target jobs in a specific city.

The Candidate Experience

A major differentiator of recruiting software, and one that is particularly important in the current labor market, is the ability to provide candidates with a great experience that draws them into the process and that exemplifies the type of employer they would want to work for. When a candidate clicks “apply” for 16 different job listings, what happens next greatly affects which companies they will engage with. Good candidates for hourly jobs today often remain on the market for only one or two days; to capture them, you need to move them through the funnel quickly. Many top-tier companies in other industries are now doing same-day hire and offer; some now reportedly measure their application-to-hire time in minutes rather than days.

Best practices are to complete an initial assessment and (for those that pass) reach out to the candidate the same day, even just an hour or two later, with next steps. Leaving an hour or two rather than responding instantly can leave the candidate with the impression that their application has been reviewed by an actual human, and quickly. The contents of that email or text can reinforce this with language emphasizing how eager the company is to meet them, even if it is fully automated.

Two of the CEOs I spoke with stressed the importance of “meeting the candidate where they are.” This means that the process should give the option to communicate by email or text message. Text messages are now preferred by most, as they are easier to respond to quickly and from anywhere, but a few may still prefer email. One vendor cited statistics that SMS gets a seven times faster response rate and twice as much back and forth, meaning faster and better engagement. Communications from the employer should be easy and intuitive to respond from a phone, not just from a personal computer. Multiple, short interactions can help to build engagement without requiring large blocks of time – each interaction gives the company the opportunity to sell itself and make the candidate feel that they are genuinely wanted.

The experts cautioned about trying to collect too much information too early. Instead, get only what’s critical at the initial application (name, contact details, and a resume if they have one handy – but you can look them up on LinkedIn or get that information later if they don’t have it on their phone). You can ask more questions in subsequent interactions, but even then, try to limit them to ones that can be answered with a click or two on a mobile device, and only a few questions at a time. In other words, make every interaction painless and quick.

Unlike a few years ago, when candidates were still mostly selling themselves to employers and employers could sit back, sort through resumes, and call in the few that they really like, today’s market requires ongoing two-way conversation. Your tools should support a strong marketing message that helps candidates understand why they should want to come work for you beyond the basics of a paycheck. How flexible are the hours? What are the opportunities for training and advancement? What kind of benefits are offered? What are current employees and culture like? What are the company’s values? Having good answers to these questions and communicating them early in the process can make a big difference in the quality of candidates that will apply.

Some jobs may require skills assessments, which some of the recruiting software companies provide (or most will allow you to select your own). Particularly for entry-level or lower-level administrative positions, initial assessments should be as few and as short as possible, focusing on just the one or two most important skills that cannot be assessed from a resume or LinkedIn profile alone – for example, an Excel skills test, or test of verbal proficiency in Spanish. In either case, a 10-minute test should at least qualify the candidate (or not) for the next round. Your goal here is to filter out unqualified candidates, not qualified ones who are too busy to go through a long assessment before they even know if they want the job. You can always do additional testing once the candidate is more fully engaged.

Remember that the typical candidate is juggling 16 different opportunities and likely managing them all during their lunch breaks or while watching television in the evening. You need to present as few barriers as possible until you have ruled a candidate out. Personality assessments can be useful but can wait until you are close to the decision to hire.

Once the applicant has been qualified for an interview, the next step is also crucial. Which of the 16 employers makes it easiest to interview? Some of the software packages offer the ability for the candidate to schedule their own interview online, making it easier for them to find a time they can be available. This can be further enhanced if the interviewing manager can offer interviews outside of normal work hours, which might conflict with candidates’ current jobs. Support for virtual interviews can also be useful; while some hiring managers may not want to use them, those that do can often speed up the process. Again, anything you can do to make your job less of a hassle to apply for than the other 15 improves your odds of landing the candidate.

One vendor CEO recommended a technique I have used in many similar situations to evaluate existing technology solutions and processes. Turn the roles around, go online, and apply a job you have posted. You would be surprised how often you will see major flaws in the process, just by trying it. If you get frustrated navigating the user experience, you can bet that candidates do as well. And while a candidate that is dead set on a job at your company might tolerate a bad user experience or find workarounds, most candidates will not. You won’t find everything a candidate might, but you may find a lot.

Many older software packages were built more for compliance than for attracting talent, and their application processes ask for so much information up front that today’s applicants simply give up and move on to the next job listing. Yesterday’s job market might have allowed employers to get away putting many obstacles in the application path to discourage all but the most eager applicants, but today’s does not.

The Hiring Manager Experience

Many recruiting packages can manage the recruiting process well for a professional recruiter in the Human Resources department; in fact, most were designed for this. These users are well trained in how to market an employer to job seekers, how to write engaging job descriptions, how to screen and assess candidates, and how to interview. Most commercial recruiting packages provide functionality to manage this process, coordinating distribution of job opportunities to all major job boards, communication with applicants, monitoring progress and next steps for each candidate with minimum interaction with the recruiter, and providing analytics to assess the effectiveness of different job boards for specific job categories. But they also tend to assume that the user knows the ins and outs of effective recruiting.

There are fewer packages that cater to non-professional recruiters, so if your hiring managers are general managers or department heads at small or midsized hotels without access to trained recruiters, you will want to look for the features they offer. Like the candidates, these hiring managers are busy people doing a hundred things and may never have large blocks of time to focus on recruiting (especially in today’s market, where general managers are often cleaning rooms!).

For the hotel manager who is only an occasional recruiter, the software (or services offered by the software provider) should meet them where they are, help them write a good job description and maybe even provide a first draft based on answers to some basic questions. Some solutions will provide guidance on what salaries applicants are accepting in similar jobs in the local market, and how to select a compensation range so that you are not filtered out by candidates who set their minimum bar at just a few dollars more. Packages should offer a good mobile experience that allows hiring managers to enter decisions make from their phone screen, providing relevant information about the candidate and buttons to accept or reject them for the next stage of the funnel – with pop-up alerts to facilitate rapid responses to the candidate.

Once the manager has made the decision, the process should automatically notify the candidate and, as needed, start them on the next step of the process. One vendor described the ideal process as Tinder-like: the hiring manager should get enough information to make an informed decision to swipe left or right in just a few seconds, so they can move more candidates through the funnel quickly. Later steps can winnow the list down, but you can’t winnow candidates that never get to that stage because you were too slow to move them through the process.

Systems should make it easy for hiring managers to collaborate. The hiring manager should be able to ask a more specialized colleague to weigh in on an applicant, simply by clicking a button. Once the colleague has responded, the application should pop back up for the hiring manager to review the colleague’s perspective and decide what to do with the application. Real-time alerts can enable this process to be very quick; the colleague should be able to view and act on the request while walking from one task to the next in the hotel, so the consultation can be completed asynchronously, in minutes or an hour, rather than delaying the candidate for several days.

Applicant scoring has aspects of both art and science, and it can be difficult to understand the impact of “proprietary algorithms” some vendors claim to use. But you can consider certain basics. Are disqualifying questions asked in a yes-or-no format so that you can eliminate candidates who simply will not meet the needs, such as “are you available to work on Saturdays?” Is there consideration of where the candidate came from that can be compared to your most successful profiles? This could include geographic considerations, prior employment by other hotel companies, educational focus, or experience in other relevant industries such as restaurants, event centers, or senior living.

Interviews are often a major pitfall for nonprofessional recruiters; without training, it is hard to get a good assessment of a candidate in an interview. Some of the packages provide help, such as interview templates or suggested questions. This can be particularly important if different managers will be interviewing different candidates for the same job, as it reduces the likelihood that ratings will be based on subjective criteria that may penalize a candidate based solely on who interviewed them. Today, the goals of the interview are twofold, both to assess the candidate and to sell the candidate on your company as an employer. Interview questions that can start to build a relationship can significantly enhance the “sales” aspect. There are lots of good books to read about this, but front-line hiring managers don’t have time, so software that guides them through proven processes can help.

Reference checks are another area where automation has recently provided new options. Manual reference checks often take quite a long time, are not very informative, and can be time-consuming for both the hiring manager and the reference. Some packages offer a standard questionnaire that can be sent by email or text, can be completed quickly, and can provide more statistically meaningful comparisons across candidates. Most references provided by candidates will be positive, but benchmarking can illuminate the degree of enthusiasm the reference has. In addition to reference checks, many packages support automated background checks, employment verifications, scheduling for drug screening, and similar last-minute compliance requirements.

A final point of comparison is the level of support provided by the vendor. Some provide a software package with typical software support options. Others add consultative services to help the company design effective marketing campaigns, to help front-line managers write job descriptions, to provide templates for effective interviews, and to help with other processes that HR professionals might not need but that may save line managers a great deal of time and headache. Some also provide webinars and online courses to help upskill hiring managers, or online videos to sell the company as an employer. Some offer services to enable employers to participate easily in career days at hospitality schools and universities. These services may be very useful to some companies and of limited value to others.

Some packages automate the onboarding process as well (and may offer modules or integrations for payroll and other systems). Onboarding is critical for building the relationship with the new employee, so anything that can reduce or simplify the necessary compliance paperwork can have a lot of value. You want to make the employee’s first day at work an exciting, engaging, and uplifting one that builds their excitement about the job, not a day filled with drudge paperwork that could have been submitted electronically in advance.

Don’t Forget Employee Referrals

Another differentiator among the various solutions is whether and how they support employee referral programs. Statistics show that hires resulting from employee referrals come on board faster, stay longer, are better qualified, and are happier in the job. Employee referrals are generally low in cost (referral bonuses often are in the range of $500 to $1000, with larger amounts often paid only after the employee has stayed for some amount of time) and the candidates are much more likely to be qualified. When hired, they adjust more quickly, often with help from their referrer, who has a vested interest in their success.

Unfortunately, while many recruiting packages support the major job boards, fewer have implemented modules to support internal referrals, which often find candidates who were not actively looking and therefore never visit job boards. Not only do employees need a way to submit potential referral candidates, they also need support for distributing job opportunities to people they know (such as through social media) and for tracking and paying out referral bonuses. Tools like QR codes can be used to open a chatbot, where an employee might send a templated text to a friend or make a post on social media.

Employee referral programs are good for the company, the candidate, and the referring employee, and a good referral module can add a lot of value. Some of the most successful employees earn as much as 10% additional compensation through referral programs, based on a track record of successful recommendations. In a world where labor is scarce, these employees are worth their weight in gold, and the referral program accounts for a significant portion of their income – and your new hires.

Compliance

Laws and regulations governing discrimination, data privacy, and immigration are complex and vary by jurisdiction, but there are pitfalls to watch out for, and you should include a review of them when evaluating recruiting and onboarding software. If you have access to a Human Resources professional during the selection process (even if they may not be involved in the actual property-level recruiting activities), you can ask for a checklist to review with potential vendors; or if not, you can ask several of the vendors what they do to ensure compliance and compare best practices.

Be sure that candidates are notified of any activities that involve sharing of their data with third parties, in accordance with local privacy regulations. Be particularly wary of how any resume screening software (often called Artificial Intelligence but more commonly a form of keyword analysis) might be programmed (even inadvertently) in a way that might screen out protected classes of applicants. Organizations that have diversity goals should also consider whether and how scoring algorithms can appropriately reflect them.

Conclusion

There are many variables that impact a company’s recruiting success. Technology may not play the most important role, but it is increasingly essential to managing the process of reaching as many potential candidates as possible, convincing them that the company wants them and is a good place to work, and then pushing them through the funnel before someone else does. Companies like Amazon have a huge advantage in having fine-tuned both their processes and technology to optimize their labor pool, and they have proven their success in attracting many former hospitality workers during the pandemic. Hotels compete with Amazon and other large companies for much of their labor force, so they need every advantage they can get in today’s market. The technology solutions can help.

Douglas Rice
Email: douglas.rice@hosptech.net
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ricedouglas

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