Improving the Internal Recruiting Process: A Strategic Opportunity for HR

Mar 28, 2005
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Over the last 20 years, there has been a tremendous amount of change in human resources and recruiting. When I first got started in the field, we were called the “personnel” department, and the only computer in the office was a mainframe terminal tucked away in the storage room that gave us look-up access to payroll records. The most effective way to communicate was to type a memo on a typewriter, make a few copies, stuff them in envelopes, and distribute via interoffice mail (is there such a thing as interoffice mail anymore?). Internal job postings were printed and posted on bulletin boards near the cafeteria or break room. We used to route resumes via courier and were amazed when we got a fax machine (okay, now I am dating myself). Today, a PC or laptop sits on every desk; corporate email servers send gigabytes of data in seconds; web portals provide employees with access to all the information they could ever want; and there are enough self-service applications to make you wonder why there is still a human resources department. Despite these advancements in technology, when it comes down to organizational behavior and human nature, some things never change. Hiring managers still complain that recruiters send too many resumes that don’t fit their requirements. Recruiters think managers never provide timely feedback on candidates, and HR is still busy trying to become a strategic business partner. Most surprisingly, there has been remarkably little change in the way corporate human resources handles the internal transfer process. For HR managers and recruiters, however, this can be good news. By taking a careful look at the internal transfer process, HR can reveal new opportunities for improvement and can take on a strategic role in bringing those opportunities to fruition for the company. Is Employee Self-Nomination the Best Approach to Internal Transfers? Also known as the “internal job posting process” or “internal mobility,” internal transfer refers to the way in which employees seek out new career opportunities within the company. Today, most employees can access a corporate website with online job listings. They can search for jobs by keyword, department, or location, all in real time. In many cases they can even set up an alert that will notify them when a job gets posted that matches their interests. These are all vast improvements to the old paper-based internal transfer process; however, the vast majority of corporations still rely exclusively on a self-nomination approach for internal movement of talent. This means it is up to the employee to identify needs and opportunities on their own. Self-nomination job posting systems are important tools that give employees the ability to take their career advancement into their own hands. Unfortunately, corporations do little more than post job opportunities to identify internal employees to fill vacant positions. There is little control over whether the best employees are aware of the opportunities available or that they feel confident to pursue those opportunities. Succession planning processes and leadership development programs typically focus on the top 10% of the company, but the majority of positions that are filled internally are left to the self-service approach. This self-nomination approach to internal mobility has significantly limited the effectiveness of the HR function and presents one of the best opportunities for the HR executive to drive change and truly become a strategic business partner. Significant value is lost when a great employee chooses to leave the company for growth opportunities, particularly when there was most likely a job opening that could have provided that same opportunity internally. For the HR decision-maker, reversing that trend requires a strategy that moves beyond self-nomination and includes a more proactive approach to internal mobility. To identify opportunities for change, it is important to consider the organizational dynamics that make self-nomination the dominant methodology and its impact on a company. These include:

  • The influence of the compliance culture on internal recruiting
  • The pressure that employee mobility puts on company managers
  • The impact of current practices and policies on employee career decisions

By examining the influence that traditional practices have on retention, the HR executive can offer an approach to measure the impact and build a business case to implement a proactive internal recruiting program. Acknowledge the Influence of the Compliance Culture One of the traditional roles of human resources is to keep the organization in check with respect to laws and regulations regarding employment practices. The complexity of EEO regulations, applicant tracking requirements, defining “who is an applicant,” and the potential for adverse impact can all accumulate into reasons to do as little as possible with respect to recruiting internal applicants. The fear is that if a company selects from its employee base as a regular practice, any employee who is not selected might feel like they have been overlooked, become disgruntled, and file a complaint or discrimination suit. The alternative: Have employees select for themselves. Because of these regulatory complexities, policies are established that make it the employee’s responsibility to self-nominate for a vacant position in order to be considered. Usually, employees must first meet certain eligibility requirements. For example, they may need to hold a position for at least six months and have a satisfactory performance rating before applying to a new position. Essentially, these policies limit the internal applicant pool for a given job to only those who express interest and meet eligibility requirements, thereby minimizing the risk or potential exposure. Recognize the Pressure Employee Mobility Puts On Company Managers One of the most common cross-sections of organizational and human behavior is found in the relationship between managers and their employees: namely, the manager’s sense of ownership and responsibility over the resources within their department. After spending the time and money to hire, train, and mentor a team, the manager understandably wants to retain these people. They do not want to have their employees pulled out from under them, because they do not want to start over by recruiting a replacement. The political pressure from line managers is so great that additional structure is sometimes added to the internal transfer policy. For example, eligibility criteria may be extended to a full year in the current position. Clauses may be implemented to deny transfer for key employees. In some cases, managers may have an automatic alert to notify them when one of their employees has applied for a position. By receiving a notification, they can start planning for the potential impact. There is a fear among managers that without a restrictive job posting policy, their resources could be poached from within. Some of the other reasons given for restricting internal recruiting practices range from controlling the volume of internal candidates to forcing communication between employee and manager regarding career options. While they are valid reasons, this compliance culture and the pressure from line managers to restrict mobility are the driving factors that have prevented change. What is intriguing about these issues is that they are both reactions to fear ó fear of legal exposure, or fear of losing staff. By helping the company overcome these fears, HR can take a big step forward in becoming a strategic business partner. Reassess the Impact of Current Practices on Employee Decisions The impact of current recruiting practices on an organization can be enormous. Often the effects actually run directly against the original intent of those practices. For example, the very policies that are intended to protect a company from legal exposure and to retain employees can lead to the exact opposite, generating more employee complaints and increasing the likelihood that employees look externally for career advancement. If you ask any career counselor about the most effective approach to finding a new job, they will tell you it is through networking with people. It is estimated that only 20% of jobs are filled through ads and search firms, and that somewhere between 40% and 70% of all jobs are filled through word-of-mouth networking. As much as HR would like to control all internal movement with stated policies and procedures, there are always a percentage of jobs that get filled through internal networking. A hiring manager may know just the right person from another division who could fill an important vacancy. Any recruiter will tell you there are jobs that get filled this way. They may actually receive the requisition along with a message from the manager telling them not to bother posting it because they already have someone in mind. If a policy requires that the job must be posted internally for at least seven days, most HR professionals will enforce the policy and post the job anyway. But they are simply going through the motions. Employees can detect this and it creates a morale issue. The more positions that are filled in this manner, the more employees will distrust the job posting process and get the feeling that the system is fixed. So while the policy is intended to minimize risk of exposure due to the reality of internal networking, it can cause employee morale issues that lead to an increase in complaints. Conversely, if the HR professional decides to fill the requisition without posting it, they are violating the company policy, and this will give any plaintiff grounds to file. The second unintended impact of job posting policies is that they often create artificial barriers that make it easier for an employee to look externally for career advancement. If you’ve ever worked in a corporate environment, you have probably heard the comment, “You have to leave and come back in order to get a promotion around here.” While this is typically viewed as gross generalization, there is usually an underlying truth. For the sake of quelling our fears regarding internal poaching and potential liabilities, companies find it acceptable to put external candidates, whom they know very little about, on an easier path to career opportunities than employees, about whom they have a complete performance and compensation history. Not all companies impose the same barriers on their employees’ ability to find new career opportunities; however, most all of them have at least one or two of the following elements:

  • Jobs are posted internally for employees for a period of only five to seven days, but are posted externally until they are filled.
  • Employees must get their manager’s approval before applying for a job internally.
  • Supervisors are automatically notified when their employees apply for a job internally.
  • Employees can only apply to a limited number of positions at a time.
  • Employees must be in their current position for more than 12 months before applying for an internal job.

At a minimum, all of these policy elements create obstacles for employees to find internal career opportunities. The worst case scenario is that they are creating incentives for some of the best talent to look externally for their next career move. Above-average employees have a work ethic and loyalty that makes it counterintuitive for them to even look for a new job, let alone inform their supervisor that they are interested in other opportunities. A certain percentage of these individuals may end up finding new opportunities through the internal networking process, but the vast majority is left with no other choice but to look externally. They may not have to look very long, because the headhunters (who are starting to get busy again) will find them. Translating Issues Into Opportunities: Identifying Goals and Metrics After understanding how self-nomination grew to become the primary means of internal movement and the effects this has had on the organization, the HR decision-maker can look at the process with an eye toward improvement. Can the company overcome its reliance on self-nomination and take on a proactive role in internal recruiting? Can this be done despite the pressure for compliance and the fear of lawsuits and retribution? Can the internal recruiting process be changed so that complaints drop and employees become less likely to look outside the company for career advancement? The answer to all of these questions is a definitive yes. Of course, understanding the issues is only half the battle. The biggest challenge is to develop a realistic and detailed strategy for change, and then to support that strategy with hard metrics. In my next article, I will tackle the thorny subject of building a business case to evolve the internal recruiting program, including metrics for quantifying the effectiveness of the internal recruiting process.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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