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Recession Reshapes Relationships With Hiring Managers

April 5, 2010
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Newell Rubbermaid’s recruiters face the same grueling challenges that recruiters confront across the United States.

The number of active candidates is still soaring, passive candidates remain reticent to make a move, and the recruiting staff has been cut. But their greatest challenge is re-educating hiring managers about applicant pools and the impact of the recession on recruiting capabilities.

Newell Rubbermaid’s recruiting experience during the current business cycle is a familiar roller-coaster story. The global marketer of consumer goods headquartered in Atlanta holds a portfolio of household-name brands including Rubbermaid, Calphalon, Lenox, Levolor, Sharpie, Paper Mate, Parker and Graco. Revenues continued to rise through the first three quarters of 2008 and hiring remained brisk, with the number of open positions averaging 450 at any one time.

But in October 2008, global conditions began to unravel and the number of open positions plummeted to 200. In December 2008, the company issued a revised fourth-quarter outlook and announced it would freeze wages, cut its salaried workforce by 10 percent and shut down a number of manufacturing facilities.

After a series of layoffs, worldwide employment at the company now stands at 19,000.

Newell Rubbermaid left the recruiting staff based abroad largely intact but was forced to downsize the recruiting function in the United States. From October 2008 to January 2009, it cut the number of U.S. recruiters by one-fourth. The company handles virtually all recruiting in-house.

Throughout most of 2009, the number of open positions averaged 150, or one-third of the pre-recession level. The company finished the year with revenue of $5.6 billion, down from $6.5 billion in 2008.

In October 2009, as the first signs of recovery emerged, Newell Rubbermaid boosted hiring. The number of open positions now averages 340, still below pre-recession levels but well above the rock-bottom levels of the downturn. The company expects core sales to increase in the low single digits in 2010.

“At the end of 2009, we began adding recruiting staff, but we are still cautious,” says Mike Rickheim, vice president of global talent acquisition. The recruiting function is now staffed with 30 full-time recruiters worldwide, with 60 percent of those based in the United States.

Misplaced assumptions
“At the beginning of the downturn, one manager referred to me as the ‘Maytag Man’ because he believed there was no demand for the service I provide,” Rickheim recalls. “It made me aware that we had to work to manage expectations. Hiring managers believed that all you have to do is post a job and the right candidate will magically appear.”

As unemployment rose, hiring managers’ expectations rose too.

“It has been challenging,” Rickheim notes. “In addition, the company entered a major transition five years ago with a new CEO focused on brand building, so we have to find the best talent for that purpose, but hiring managers assumed we didn’t have anything to do.”

Because of the recession, the number of applicants per job opening at Newell Rubbermaid has jumped by 35 percent.

“The challenge is in the fit,” Rickheim says. “Increased applicant flow does not mean better applicant quality.

“Candidates will apply for roles that are a stretch for them, or they will just take a flyer at any opening. The recruiting job is more difficult because higher applicant flow doesn’t equate with quality applicant flow.”

Even when suitable active candidates appear, hiring managers still tend to view them as damaged goods.

“There’s always some stigma attached to unemployed candidates,” Rickheim notes. “Hiring managers fear the worst. They assume that people were rejected by another company and don’t understand why we would hire them.”

Recruiters have worked hard to get hiring managers to adjust their perspective on active candidates.

“Our recruiters have at least been able to get hiring managers to look at the reason why the person is unemployed,” Rickheim reports. “Many of the hiring managers now know someone who has been affected by the recession, so it’s becoming easier for them to understand.”

At the same time, the recession has made it more difficult to pry passive candidates away from their current position.

“While we’ve seen 10 percent-plus unemployment, the 90 percent who are still employed are scared to death about taking a new job,” Rickheim says. “They are afraid of being the last hired and the first fired in a new position, and they don’t want to take the chance. So our recruiters are facing a larger number of active candidates who must be vetted, while passive candidates are more reticent.”

Investing time, boosting transparency
Helping hiring managers understand the realities of recruiting during a period of high unemployment requires a greater investment of time and increased transparency about the recruiting experience.

“We’ve been able to do some education about what we’re doing to secure talent,” Rickheim says. “For example, a passive candidate may own a house that’s underwater and can’t move because of that, so we go back to the hiring manager with that conversation. We break it down and walk the hiring manager through the reasons why a passive candidate may not be willing to take a position.”

“Our approach is complete transparency with hiring managers from the very first conversation about the job and their expectations,” Rickheim says. “The downturn provided the opportunity for us to improve those relationships. The volume of hiring went down, so we had more time to spend with hiring managers. Some expectations were so out of whack that we really needed to have a conversation about them.”

Despite the flood of applicants, the company has not seen improvements in quality of hire.

“The perception is that everyone is looking for a job, but passive candidates are unwilling to move, so it’s harder to drive quality of hire,” Rickheim notes.

But the company has seen a slightly positive trend in time-to-present and time-to-fill.

“This is not because of increased applicant flow, but because of our continued relationship-building with the hiring managers,” Rickheim says.

The company’s recruiters face an additional challenge in gaining approval for filling open positions.

“We’ve seen a significant change in the approval process and the due diligence necessary to get leadership to approve hiring for a position,” Rickheim says. “This has complicated recruiters’ lives.”

Newell Rubbermaid is now refining its sourcing process to improve applicant fit.

“We’re being more selective about posting jobs on Monster and CareerBuilder,” Rickheim says. “Particularly in this economic environment, casting a wide net is not productive. But we have recruiters who have seen this movie before and can approach each job appropriately. It comes down to fishing in the right pond.”

Workforce Management Online, April 2010 -- Register Now!

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