The Recruitment Industry and COVID-19

  • April 29, 2020

The Recruitment Industry and COVID-19

Recruitment is an industry built on momentum. It relies upon continuous process and movement (vacancy, interview, candidate selection, job allocation, onboarding...), so such a system is bound to suffer when the wheels stop turning and daily working life grinds to a halt. The COVID-19 outbreak has inevitably, and perhaps irrevocably, changed life across the globe. It has been a thief of normality and a scourge on businesses big and small. Living under lockdown has seen the impossible happen: life as we know it has been put on pause.

Under the tide of this unprecedented event, businesses have been scrambling to adapt. It’s a pursuit which yields varying gradients of success and is almost entirely reliant upon the industry-specific impact of COVID-19. Video conferencing tools have seen userbases soar, while the fate of the hospitality industry hangs in the balance. So, what about recruitment? Needless to say, COVID-19 has thrown the job market into chaos. Scarcity increases value; job security has become a highly prized asset just as companies action mass furloughing, axe plans for recruitment, and downsize their staff

The overall outcome has been a kind of limbo (albeit a tumultuous one). When action becomes challenging, thoughts naturally turn to outlook. Of course, pessimism is rarely useful in business survival, but positive sentiment alone is not enough to repeal the damages the recruitment industry is currently weathering.

In Jim Collins’s famous book, Good to Great, he details the incredible story of Admiral Jim Stockdale. Stockdale was the highest-ranking United States Military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the epochal time of the Vietnam War. He survived eight years of imprisonment and was released in 1973. During his bleak stay in the war camp, he was tortured over twenty times and established a complex internal communication system to relieve the sense of isolation established by his captors. Living without prisoner rights, Stockdale had no release date and indeed, no guarantees he would ever make it out of the prison at all.

After his release, Stockdale was asked who didn’t make it out of the prison camp: “Oh, that’s easy,” he said, “the optimists”. Stockdale pointed out that the optimists sealed their fate by setting arbitrary goals for their release; “we’re going to be out by Christmas” or “we’re going to be out by Easter”. Each time a milestone passed, the optimist’s hearts would break a little more. Alas, the Stockdale paradox was born. In opposition to the optimists, Stockdale survived by keeping faith without rooting his hopes in precarious uncertainties.

While none of us can imagine the personal anguish and struggle Stockdale must have endured in such trying circumstances, there are certainly lessons to be drawn from his story of survival in a period of great uncertainty. As the news reports keep reminding us, this pandemic is unprecedented and ultimately unpredictable. It will not work to a timetable. If the recruitment industry is to survive it must focus on more than just the eventual return to normality, and instead consider strategy and innovation which will prove integral to the industry’s progression.

These are qualities that require an honest assessment of the situation at hand and rigorous, creative problem-solving to address the most pressing issues. The current situation is unlike anything the recruitment industry has ever faced before; while lack of funds during the 2008 financial crisis meant recruitment was down across the board, COVID-19 has had a much more inconsistent impact. In certain sectors, businesses are experiencing a surge in demand (including supermarkets, health care, tech and FinTech, online distribution chains, delivery and logistics, as well as businesses enabling remote work and homeschooling).

For some businesses, the issue is mainly one of adjustment. They may still want to recruit but barriers to the interviewing and onboarding process are complicating matters. Recruitment agencies are also likely to feel the pinch, as companies are less likely to outsource recruitment in times of financial difficulty. Candidate and talent pools have shrunk in some areas while expanding immensely in others. In addressing these issues, it is essential the recruitment industry is proactive in devising new virtual systems for typical processes (many of which are rooted solely in traditional face-to-face interactions).

Considering the scale of confusion and uncertainty, clarity in communication is especially paramount at present. Being transparent with prospective candidates is a mark of respect in difficult times, even if that means admitting your own uncertainty. For any ongoing recruitment projects, candidates will expect clear instructions on the remote interview process, timescales on hearing back, and what the onboarding process will look like if they are hired.

Those who think outside the box will be the ones to come out of this pandemic stronger. The UK government’s furlough scheme should help businesses to retain their staff during these difficult times, and this will be important in securing a quick bounce back post-pandemic. Still, it will surely be those who adapt to new modern, remote systems during the most trying times that will reap the greatest merit. Trailblazing the way for flexible and remote working is essential in keeping life in recruitment processes, and what better way to lead than by example. The situation continues to unfold, and while we can keep our outlook positive, we should ensure such positivity is balanced with meaningful productivity, as well.