Paperless Route for Recruiting

By Fay Hansen

Mar. 9, 2006

Two years ago, senior management at Continental Airlines announced that the company would have to turn to international markets to survive. Executives out­lined a plan to expand on five continents–immediately.

    Within two months, the company moved from an antiquated, labor-intensive domestic recruiting process to a global Web-enabled and paperless approach that allows it to staff any location worldwide with half the number of recruiters and at half the cost of the old system. Continental launched 10 new international destinations in 2005 and used the new technology to recruit 3,200 new hires for locations ranging from Argentina to India.

    More than one-fourth of all employees of U.S.-based multinationals now work outside the United States, and that portion is growing far more rapidly than the domestic workforce. With many industries facing the same globalization imperative that has hit the U.S. airlines, the recruiting function must be prepared to staff new destinations with unprecedented speed.

    Within the past few years, Web-enabled systems have created the potential to source the global workforce with the same flexibility and technological sophistication that multinational companies use to source other materials and components. A major prerequisite for this achievement is the consolidation of information so that workforce planning and recruiting decisions can occur on an international scale.

Instant gratification
When the mandate to expand globally came down, Continental was swimming in the paper generated by an inefficient recruiting process. Under the old system, the airline advertised jobs in U.S. newspapers and then flew recruiters out to do open calls for hundreds of candidates at hotels in major cities.

    “We had nine full-time employees just scanning in paper résumés or cleaning electronic résumés,” recalls Kimberly Paul, manager of global recruiting. With the mandate to expand internationally, Continental faced the decision of expanding recruiting departments in each territory or adopting a Web-based approach. “The directive came from corporate that we had to go paperless,” she says.

    Continental tapped iCIMS’ iRecruiter to create a Web-based operation so that candidates and recruiters could access the system from any of Continental’s international flight destinations while still maintaining the company’s unique screening and interviewing procedures. “We started fresh and did not migrate old information,” Paul says. “We rolled the system out first for the United States and then went global, all within two months and in a very seamless process.”

    Continental no longer uses any newspaper advertising in the United States, and very little elsewhere. Successful U.S. candidates are flown into Houston or Newark, New Jersey, for interviews with a recruiting staff that no longer travels. “I’m not a technical expert, but I was able to train our recruiters onto iRecruiter in a matter of hours,” Paul says. “They love the system.” Now Continental handles 80,000 applications a year with an exceptionally lean staff.

    When Continental enters a new international destination, it does a full launch with announcements in the local media about the start of service. “This drives people to the Web site, where we have posted the open positions,” Paul says. “Résumés arrive electronically in Houston, and we e-mail the candidates information for on-site interviews.”

    In July 2005, Continental posted 30 positions to staff the new location in Delhi, India, and received thousands of applications.

Full-strength screening
    One of the biggest advantages of the Web-based system is the automatic screening process that culls unqualified candidates before they proceed to the application. Continental’s flight attendant candidates, for example, move through 41 questions before the formal application. New screening enhancements will be added in 2006.

    Using the Web-based system is a prescreening process in itself and has generated significant quality-of-hire improvements, Paul says. “When we installed iRecruiter, we had some resistance from hiring managers with line positions or entry-level openings,” she says. “They believed that candidates for dining services and ramp jobs, for example, would not have sufficient access to or knowledge of computers to use the system. We told them that the entire company runs on computers and we want a candidate pool that reflects that.”

    The hiring managers pushed back, but the company moved ahead with posting all positions on the Web site, including relatively low-skill jobs. Despite the hiring managers’ initial concerns, large numbers of applications roll in for every job.

   “The quality of hire is now so much better because managers don’t have to do basic training and hand-holding for employees who need to use online employee services or who may need to use computers at some point on the job,” Paul says. “Even ramp agents, who have a primarily physically demanding job, may need some computer skills.”

Staged approach
    Colin Day, president and CEO of iCIMS, which produces iRecruiter, recommends that companies take a staged approach to installing a global system. “Part of the process of moving to a global recruiting system is overcoming perceptions about the difficulty of recruiting in different languages and complying with local laws and EEO regulations,” he says. “Companies have questions about the speed of the system and whether local recruiters will be needed.”

    Few companies do a full global rollout right from the start. Instead, they run a U.S. pilot program and then extend it. “Companies commonly take a regional approach, setting up career centers in specific locations and then moving on to the next,” Day says. “We believe in doing it in steps. The solutions are relatively simple, but they may seem complex to the client.”

    Once the decision has been made to go global, the timeframe for a full implementation may be as brief as a few weeks, or several months for the more complicated models. “Continental moved very efficiently,” Day says. “It was really a process of looking at the markets it wanted to attack, which was a function of the routes that it was winning. Then we set up career centers for those markets, with local job openings and applications. It was all very fast.”

    Significant cost savings come from bringing recruiting into a central location and eliminating the need for local recruiters. Continental’s global hiring is centralized at its Houston headquarters. “The automated global system is far more efficient and allows companies to keep a much leaner staff than they would if they attempted to roll out a global campaign with recruiters,” Day says. “Domestically, companies have been able to cut staff by 50 percent, and the same applies globally. You’re on the same platform and using the same method, but just expanding out.”

Decision-making process
    Installing a global Web-enabled recruiting system entails company-specific considerations. First, the company must determine whether the site will be multilingual or English only. “Continental decided to keep the entire system in English because it needed employees, particularly flight attendants, who could speak English,” Day says. “Companies can also choose to go with the local languages in the front end or candidate-facing parts, including the career center, the job listings, the screening questions and the application, but remain in English for the back end.”

    Also, companies can set up local-language career centers that incorporate local equal employment opportunity policies. “The information may come in local languages, but then it resides within a system where the field names may be in English,” Day says. “Some companies chose to segment, so that recruiters can log in to user groups that reflect their territory, and then open up the parameters to search outside their territory if needed.”

    Companies must also decide whether they want a centralized or decentralized system. Centralization means that they do all hiring, including international, through one location. A decentralized system puts local recruiters on the ground and requires a larger staff. “We are sometimes shocked to see some very large organizations running with an extremely lean HR staff, and relatively small organizations with a huge recruiting staff,” Day says. The only industry-based trend he reports is in retail, where companies commonly install a decentralized system to accommodate point-of-sale hiring.

    Data-protection considerations continue to preoccupy some organizations, but perhaps unnecessarily so. “We have to work with companies to help them achieve a level of comfort with data-protection laws such as Europe’s safe harbor provisions,” Day says. The provisions, approved in 2000, allow U.S. companies to simply certify that they provide “adequate” privacy protections as defined by the EU directive on data protection.

    “It’s as big an issue as companies want to make it,” Day says. “In reality, there’s a lot of bark but not as much bite as you might think. The core is that you have to show that you have a strong and consistent security policy for your data center and that the policy is published and available to the customer base.”

    EEO concerns have moved to the forefront. Applicant tracking systems have made it easier to track EEO data, so there’s more pressure to perform up to standards. “And because it is now possible to track EEO data on every candidate, enforcement has stepped up,” Day notes. “The United States remains one of the most difficult locations in terms of the reporting procedures.”

    Web-enabled systems allow companies to track source effectiveness, time to hire, cost per hire and customized effectiveness measures. “Companies can decide how to advertise for positions and then test different sources and see immediate results for each source,” Day says. “The systems track employee performance, so quality of hire can be tracked against expectations. Companies are right on the cusp of adding detailed quality-of-hire metrics.”

    Some companies that have turned to Web-enabled global recruiting are staffing locally for their international locations. Others are sourcing from a global talent pool. “We expect to see more of the second model in the future,” Day says. “We’re just beginning to tap into the power of these global talent systems. To be able to search your global database for candidates who have expressed an interest in working in a specific location is an amazing resource.”

    Continental plans to launch six new international destinations in the first quarter of 2006 and will hire 3,500 new employees during the year. This next stage of global growth will be fully supported by a recruiting system that links Houston to candidates in Sweden or South Africa with equal ease and low costs.

Workforce Management, February 27, 2006, pp. 34-37Subscribe Now!

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