The Mounties code

Posted on 7 May 2008 by The Manufacturer

Always get your man – or woman. Recruiting is a particularly challenging aspect of personnel management. What’s the best way to go, asks Ruari McCallion – direct or through an agency?

It takes youngsters a while to understand that potential employers aren’t gazing restlessly across the distant horizon, just waiting for them to offer themselves; nor that they will wade through piles and piles of CVs, painstakingly decoding the coffee-obscured and badly-spelled prose.
As the primary objective is to reduce the huge pile to a small one, the no-hopers, badly presented and misspelled are the easy targets for elimination.
Employment agencies position themselves as the people who will, at least, reduce the time-consuming sifting process. But how good are they? Some candidates submit totally unsuitable CVs while others report applying for advertised jobs that don’t exist. Some agencies fail to understand carefully-explained clients’ needs – in short, they can waste everyone’s time. That’s not good, for two reasons: potentially good candidates will avoid agencies with a poor reputation and employers will lose patience with asinine behaviour from people who claim that their raison d’être is to be helping them. So finding a reliable agency is essential.
After filtering the CVs and presenting only those that are suitable, a good agency would give candidates some preparation about the job, the employer and expectations – and encourage the candidate to find out some background stuff about the employer, too. But the entire process takes time: the employer needs to brief the agency properly and the agency needs to take on board what it’s told, and both need to prepare themselves properly for interviews.
“Management time has to be assigned for interviews. The job description has to be sorted out, clearly covering duties, hours of work, responsibilities and obligations,” said Gillian Dowling, a legal adviser to Croner Consulting – an adviser on employment law, HR and health and safety matters. “On separate pieces of paper, lay out the personal specifications – identify the skills you’re looking for, aptitude, knowledge, experience and competence required for the job. If you do your own recruitment, you have to do this yourself; if you go to an employment agency they will need it, so it has to be done either way.”
Questions for the interviews need to be formulated in advance, so that you’re asking essentially the same of everyone and can make fair comparisons. And leave time between interviews to make notes and review. “After two or three interviews, you simply don’t remember clearly. Written records are also potentially useful if a candidate takes action alleging discrimination.”
The recruitment agency business turns over something in excess of £23 billion a year. They clearly have a role but the question manufacturing employers have to ask is: when should they be used and when is it better to recruit direct?
“There are advantages and disadvantages in both approaches,” said Carl Simon, of Voltech Instruments, which operates in a niche market in power electronics for transformer testing and power analysis. It’s now expanding, as its market recovers post-9/11 and the telecoms collapse. “We’ve been looking for service and calibration engineers, support technicians with electrical and manufacturing backgrounds, people who understand and empathise with our products and approach, and our experience is that they’re getting thin on the ground. We’ve had to cast our net pretty wide. I’ve found myself dealing with 15 agencies, from Newcastle in the north to the south coast, and all points in between. I’ve also advertised locally, which worked particularly well when I was looking for a part-time purchasing assistant.” For him, the benefit of working with agencies is pre-qualification.
“I hope that any kind of recruitment agency will vet CVs and send me a subset I can look at,” he said. “You clearly miss that filtering if you go through the local paper, for example. We give the agencies a brief, talk them through our requirements, take them through the factory, make sure they understand and, if we haven’t had a CV from them in three weeks, say, I’ll go somewhere else. We have ended up recruiting more from overseas – Poland, for example, where we’ve found people well-qualified, keen to improve themselves and hard-working. We try to bring people in at entry level, see how they work out and then promote from within. That’s motivating for them and it helps them to make a valuable contribution to the business.” Overseas recruitment will, almost inevitably, be through specialist agencies.
Voltech is a small company but its mixed approach isn’t too far away from big organisations’ practice, either. “We use a combination of internal or direct recruitment and agency. Locally, we recruit ourselves; we rely more on agencies for recruitment further afield,” said Graham Hempsall, head of HR – recruitment for BAE Systems Submarine Solutions in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria.
The HR department retains responsibility for setting recruitment criteria, and analysis and justification of need. Once it has clearly determined its needs, it briefs its third-party providers to source suitable candidates.
This sounds straightforward, but all isn’t necessarily as good as he feels it should be. “The principal advantage of agencies should, from our perspective, be their broader marketplace awareness. But, while they have wider presence, that doesn’t always happen. We also look for them to have people on their books who are appropriate for our needs. But, again, that isn’t always the case.”
There are many examples – outside BAE Systems – of failures by agencies to live up to expectations or promises and with market awareness that would put ordinary companies out of business.
Sending hardware mechanical engineer CVs to software companies; failing to grasp transferability of skills, leading to too narrow specification. But it’s a bit of a two-way street and employers should share some of the blame. Well-qualified and experienced (say, 30-something) engineers may like the look of a job that seems to be a career progression, but £40,000 a year in London for skilled people with young families is simply inadequate; contemporaries in financial and other service sectors will be getting a lot more.
Employers need to accept that highly valuable people come at a price – the agencies should tell them and the clients should listen. Rates for skilled temporaries can be higher, which should be an elbow-jogger. Temps are, of course, a growing and important factor and need as much attention as permanent staff.
“We use temporary people to flex between peaks and troughs. Some, with specialist skills, could be with us for a couple of years or even more; we may transition from temp to permanent where appropriate but if the individual lives in, say, Scotland, has family and roots there, they may not wish to – they may prefer the temporary lifestyle,” Hempsall said. The advantage of using agencies for temps is twofold: first is the marketplace awareness and the access to suitably – qualified individuals. “We could be looking for pipe fitters, for example; an agency may let us know of a job on the North Sea coming to an end and that 20 or so fitters will be coming available.
We want them to find us the right people, quickly.” Second, the temp agency is the employer, not BAE or whoever. It is the agency’s responsibility to carry out immigration, qualification and suitability checks and there is no mutual obligation – the temp can choose to go elsewhere and the client company can flex the numbers at short notice, as required. It can work well – as long as everyone acts in accordance with established procedures.
“Our advice is that you should treat temporary workers as temporary,” said Dowling. “What I mean is – if you have someone who has been in place for nine or 10 months, you should consider what you’re going to do.” Unfair dismissal protection and other employment rights kick in after a year – although the client employer should not have the responsibility if they’ve managed the situation properly. “There is no moral or legal obligation to make temporary workers permanent, no matter how long they’ve been in place. This principle was made clear in a recent case, James v London Borough of Greenwich. But if someone has been in place more than a year and the company has mistakenly treated them as one of their own, perhaps given them extra work outside the temp relationship, or carried out a disciplinary procedure, or even arranged holidays, there’s a risk that the temp has become an employee.”
Courts look at the facts of the relationship, not just the contract, so leave the holidays, sick pay, direct payment and so on to the agency. In recruiting, spend time to ensure the agency understands both your needs as a client and the nature of the job – and spend time yourself making sure you are working with people who understand your business. Complaints against agencies only really amount to around 10 per cent of the industry – but that 10 per cent is worth billions of pounds and, if it’s your money, it’s 100 per cent of your experience.