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What did the Romans ever do for recruitment?

Written by: Philip Emms is lead research consultant for local government and Tim Hills is senior researcher at GatenbySanderson.
Published on: 1 Jun 2023

Executive search is not as recently-established an industry as you might think. Ancient Roman recordings of people’s work history have been uncovered, mostly for those in the upper tiers of society and senior positions within the military, who were scouted by senators or those with political or imperial ambitions.

Some might argue that today’s executive recruitment industry has not changed that much over many years – some may still believe it is based around a notebook of contacts and hard-won phone numbers. This stereotype, however, does not resemble the reality we experience and have built our careers in.

Executive search, particularly in the public sector, is a transparent, intelligence and research-driven practice, based on evidence, integrity and rigour, supported by professional insight and opinion from executive recruiters. It is a sector that embraces change, fresh ideas and new ways of working. It is this agility that is needed in unprecedented times right now, with emerging and potentially game-changing technology accelerating rapidly, the pressures of exceptional workforce supply and demand and the evolving mutual expectations of employees and employers alike.

The current employment market is characterised by both changing habits and circumstances. At a national level, the employment rate is relatively high and unemployment rate low; nominal earnings have increased but real earnings are down; redundancy rates are low; economic inactivity post-covid is increasing with a significant rise in the number of people reporting long-term sickness as a significant contributing factor.

Persuasive arguments can be made that increased home working can be either beneficial or detrimental to mental or physical health, depending on individual circumstances. Within local government we are seeing numbers of social workers in permanent posts decreasing while agency social workers increase, and there are escalating vacancy rates in finance, legal services, HR, property and planning, with consequential pressure on pay.

So, what is the recruiter’s response to these challenges; what innovation can we and the sector embrace to address them to improve attraction and fill vacancies?

Local authorities possess a wealth of recruitment and employment data. Understanding the composition of your current workforce, their motivations and drivers, should inform your employer value proposition and help define what it tangibly means to be part of your organisation. This core proposition should underpin your market approach attraction activity. Analysing vacancy rates, application numbers candidate progression, understanding diversity and inclusion statistics, and maximising tools such as Power BI to understand current performance metrics all contribute to becoming more insightful, agile and responsive.

Candidate engagement is a key component to the attraction strategy in high demand markets. Start by carefully considering how to build the narrative around your employer brand and values, your unique ‘place’, locality and neighbourhoods. Use all available assets to bring the organisation to life in terms of the richness of its communities, the quality of life and the legacy that tackling its challenges will offer. We live in a mobile, visual and sensory world so use technology to paint a more interesting picture.

One organisation recently recorded a video in the style of the sitcom Car Share where two colleagues bring the borough to life and share their thoughts on working for the council. How much more effective creative thinking like this can be in distinguishing culture and working environment. While technology creates more flexibility, accessibility should be at the forefront to ensure a truly inclusive experience.

Achieving greater diversity and representation will be at the heart of many campaigns. We aim to push boundaries, positively challenge accepted thinking and approach specifications differently to sense check they are not unnecessarily prescriptive or prohibitive.

The evolution of working practices, particularly agile and hybrid working, was of course accelerated by the pandemic. Its rapid adoption, enforced by necessity, means that many authorities have still not fully understood or defined what it can offer when thought of more creatively. At one extreme, if there are no geographical constraints, then one might argue that the talent pool has widened. That does also point to increased competition, as employers can similarly recruit from any location. Defining what ‘agile’ means for your organisation, clarity of messaging, questioning internal behaviours that do not meet those expectations are essential. Only then, can you quip and enable teams to deliver excellent services to customers and communities.

The evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) presents us with opportunities to deliver processes more efficiently. Might there be opportunities to improve initial candidate screening or sifting? Could AI tools, over time, help eliminate bias and potential human prejudice. Application processes could become more skills or competency based, where AI tools are able to recognise and quantify candidate strengths to identify best fit within an organisation. AI certainly has the potential to become central to talent pooling.

Conversely, tools such as ChatGPT, might compromise the authenticity and origin of applications. In a more philosophical, ethical sense, is it wrong for AI to help generate a CV that is factually correct? What if the candidate is neurodivergent or disabled and is using the AI tool to give them fair access to employment? How sure can we be that AI tools are free from bias in conducting automated sifting processes, when their initial learning may have been from a particular cohort?

Moving away from traditional application processes, completely or in part, should be informed by the diversity you aim to achieve. Video applications, for instance, can enable us to look at individuals beyond their specific career history and get to understand their values, motivation and wider experience against a certain role profile. We have seen some very interesting results from different cohorts in testing this technology.

Whatever the starting points for these winds of change – be they technology, economically or socially led - the end point remains the same – to improve the lives and outcomes of communities by building the best talent. New ideas, technology and methodology are essential to meet the challenges that rapidly-changing conditions bring and communities face. However, what does not change is that talent management is about people, just as it was in Roman times, and more important still, it is about individuals who need to be engaged, supported and listened to from that first engagement and every touch point after. 

Philip Emms is lead research consultant for local government and Tim Hills is senior researcher at GatenbySanderson.