It’s All About Engagement: What 2020 Can Teach Us About Recruiting and Retention

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The pandemic wreaked havoc on businesses all across the United States, leaving mass layoffs in its wake. In December alone, 140,000 people lost their jobs. These layoffs — coupled with 2020’s already high unemployment rate — created a serious staffing problem for many industries.

During the pandemic, decisions about how to handle reduced income have largely been made privately in senior offices. Not only does this sow distrust and discontentment — which hurts retention — but it also ignores a potential solution. Employees know what bureaucracy is; they know what’s worthless in terms of tasks and time, but no one asks them. When companies make decisions behind closed doors, they miss opportunities to ask their employees about the problems they face.

That’s why I believe the real issue for companies today is a matter of retention and engagement. Many employers wouldn’t be scrambling for staff right now if they had taken a strategic approach to keeping and engaging their long-term employees. It’s possible to do more with less by focusing on these two factors.

Instead of making hasty hiring decisions, you should take a step back. What can you do to improve your culture, productivity, and hiring process? By focusing on proactive solutions, you can avoid future complications. Here are four ways you can attract and keep the right people:

Get Rid of Stock Job Descriptions

Standardized job descriptions remind me of stock photography. When you see candid office scenes on brochures and websites, you instantly know those aren’t real people. The situations look too fake, the people too perfect, and the smiles too forced. The same goes for stock job descriptions.

One of the things we do at my company, HPWP Group, is redo job profiles. Descriptions are often lists of tasks, which candidates read as activities without meaning. Instead, we write them in terms of the outcomes the employee will produce. To identify those outcomes for your roles, ask questions like “What are the results of this task?” and “What is this role responsible for achieving?”

Another thing: You know the last line on a job description? It’s typically “All other duties as assigned.” Why? Because management wants to be able to say, “You’re not busy, so we’re going to tell you what to do.” This encourages people to do the minimum. Instead, try ending your description by saying, “We want everyone to proactively engage with the business and help it achieve its objectives.”

Drive Employee Engagement

Many companies excelled at external crisis communication during the pandemic. However, most fell short when it came to communicating internally and involving employees in decision-making. While employers were thoughtful about being empathetic, they weren’t thinking about the other part of communication: listening.

During crises, leaders usually get together. As the “smartest” people in the room, they figure out what to do without employee input. A woman I know says her company’s 15 leaders went behind closed doors and decided to reduce the salaries of anyone making a certain amount of money or more. The group that made the decision was part of that reduction, but other less costly solutions might have been available.

That’s why you should plan and orchestrate specific discussions with employees. Talk to them about big staffing decisions and listen when they give feedback on culture. When you show your workforce why you care, you’ll improve retention and make your business a better place to work.

Check out the latest issue of Magazine for more career advice and recruiting trends:

Innovate the Hiring Process

The past year showed us all the business landscape is changing, and the same old tricks won’t attract top talent anymore. I’ve talked to many employers still doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. More than anything else, a lack of innovation holds back the hiring process.

At a workshop we ran on staffing techniques, one participant was struggling to fill a job on a Native American reservation. We encouraged them to be wildly creative since what they were currently doing wasn’t working. They wrote a poem about the role — and after it was published, the number of responses tripled.

You can shift toward creativity by changing your vocabulary. At HPWP Group, we say “recruiting” instead of “staffing” because it conveys a proactive, exciting approach to hiring. Try adjusting your language and experimenting with new hiring techniques. If something works — great! If not, don’t worry. You never know until you try.

Use Peer-to-Peer Recruiting

Don’t just hire anyone. Hire only the people who understand your mission and fit your workplace. If you can hire for character and cultural fit first, then that’s what you should do. Experience is important, but you can always train people later.

It’s time to do things differently. Use peer hiring to ensure a good fit. Give employees a say in hiring decisions and see how potential hires interact with existing team members. Managers don’t like to do that — they want to have the final say — but this approach can ensure successful hires and improve retention.

For example, the manufacturing industry is struggling to recruit candidates right now. It’s partly because people don’t want to work in that industry, but it’s also due to problems with the hiring process. When we’ve used our high-performance hiring teams, we’ve cut turnover by half, and we once saved a company more than $4 million in one year.

It’s time to make your business a better and more desirable place to work. The pandemic and resulting staffing crisis have revealed underlying problems with engagement, retention, and hiring. By adopting these four strategies, you can better listen to employees, collaborate on solutions, and make hiring more innovative.

Sue Bingham is founder and principal of HPWP Group and author of Creating the High Performance Work Place: It’s Not Complicated to Develop a Culture of Commitment.

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Sue Bingham, founder and principal of HPWP Group and author of "Creating the High Performance Work Place: It's Not Complicated to Develop a Culture of Commitment," has been at the forefront of the positive business movement for 35 years.