• Recruiting in tough times: A conversation with HR thought leader Steve Browne

    Posted by Matt Adam on March 1st, 2022

    Matt Adam, Chief Talent Strategist with NAS Recruitment Innovation recently interviewed Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, as part of our NAS Webinar Series. Steve is Chief People Office at LaRosa’s Pizzeria, Inc., and author of HR on Purpose and HR Rising!! about the great resignation and recruitment challenges facing today’s HR professionals. Here are highlights of their conversation.

    Matt: You’ve been doing this a billion years. Have you ever seen a time like this…with hiring craziness the way it is?

    Steve: No. It’s interesting. In 2007-2008, right before the recession, we talked about the impending labor crisis. Then the recession hit, and we were taken by surprise from a business perspective. The labor crisis didn’t hit then. But it was there. It was just waiting to happen. So, when we came out of that economic downturn and were hit with the global pandemic, it gave people the chance to change jobs.

    So, no, I’ve never seen anything like this. I think what has happened is this: there are companies, and we were one of them, who just keep complaining “Where are all the people?” instead of saying “Now that’s it’s changed, how do we react? Do we have a strategy moving forward?” It was funny. At the beginning of the pandemic, they said, “This is the new normal.” Boy, here it is.

    Matt: Yep.

    Steve: It wasn’t, “Oh my gosh. We’re going to go back to something else.” There are two components that have really shifted. People are finally taking charge of their careers. Regardless of industry. Regardless of level. And regardless of culture. And they’re making, as employees, far more tangible decisions of “I want to work here because…” “Here are the parameters I want.” “If you don’t have that, I’ll find a place that does.”

    Matt: Yep.

    Steve: One of the issues that we’ve been banging on for years is the second part: culture drives it all. How people are treated drives it all. I hope we get great people who want to stay with us…not, “Let’s just hold on to everybody.” I want people to have a great environment and do a good job, so the way we’ve recruited has flipped a thousand per cent. In the past it was, “Open the door, we’re an iconic brand…” Now. it’s at a point where we understand if people feel they’re not valued, seen and treated well, they’ll leave.

    Matt: I want to circle back to culture because I know you’re a culture champion there. I would certainly concur with everything you just said. There was kind of a whiplash effect. It’s almost like it was overnight that we ran into this. And you’re right. Now that candidates have the upper hand, they’ve taken the time to assess what they really want to do. So, in my mind, it’s almost reshuffling as opposed to resignation. People are moving into the roles they’ve really wanted to but never did before, now that they have the option to.

    Steve: The other piece that changed—the jobs where people could be an entrepreneur, or a solopreneur, or work third party—that was small sliver of the work force. Heck, virtual work was non-existent. We called it telecommuting because we couldn’t think of the word virtual!

    Jobs have changed and how work can be done has changed. It’s a shame that we were caught that off-guard. The challenge is—the people have decided. Very few people have left to go into a non-restaurant role. The ones that did have come back. Or the ones that had degrees (because we have young people who work for us) went back into their field. I think people just want to take charge of their career instead of just going to work.

    Matt: It’s great that you’re tracking and monitoring because there’s a lot of insight to be gained from that. Let me dig into the details. You, Chief People Officer, are hiring for lots of different types of roles: you’ve got the office support roles. You’ve got a call center there. You’ve got restaurant management. Pizza makers. Delivery drivers. What are the jobs and the recruiting roles that keep you up at night? What are the ones that are really critical to the business and tough to find in this market?

    Steve: Front line is the hardest part to find. The work we do is hard work. And it always has been. It’s not like it’s hard work now. Restaurant work is hard work. So, we’ve changed a few things. The first is taking more time to find candidates who are interested in us. In the past, we had the luxury of saying, “I’ll get to you when I need to.” But now it’s as a person applies, we’re on top of it, both at the location level and in HR. Because we know there are so many people competing for each person’s attention, so we took a look at that.

    We took a look at compensation because we had to. And that’s no different than anybody else. But we also know this is what we can afford and what we can’t, so it’s realistic. I think the pendulum has swung really far—and it will come back. Yes, compensation should always be up front. But the biggest change for us was to have a marketing effort purely on people.

    In the past, we’d do marketing on food because we’re a restaurant and we should. And it failed. We came up with a campaign that says, “Make Pizza. Make Friends.” So, it’s a cultural message. We didn’t go into, “Work for us. We have jobs. Now hiring.” Because that’s the same voice you hear in every employer. We had to say, “Who are we? And will that attract you?” So, it made us be more strategically oriented around culture because that’s what we can offer.

    Matt: You’ve touched on a couple things that I want to delve into there. The first is the timeliness aspect. I’ve read so many articles about “ghosting” in the apply process recently and the reality is that companies have been ghosting candidates for eons, right? And now that companies are being ghosted, all of a sudden it’s a topic that everyone wants to write about. It sounds like you’ve done some things just to make sure when you get an interested candidate, you’re right on top of them. Can you tell me a little bit about what you’ve implemented there?

    Steve: Well, there’s a couple of things. This is not life changing, but for us, it was moving way ahead. In our ATS, when a person applies, they get a text the minute they hit submit. But we had to get to our managers and say, “OK. Matt just applied. The ATS told them, ‘Thanks for applying’. But you need to get to them next.” We’re teaching our managers and equipping them so they can get back to candidates right away.

    In the midst of that, we are seeing ghosting. And it hasn’t changed. But it doesn’t mean that our efforts shouldn’t be the best possible. If somebody doesn’t respond by text, we call them after that. It’s amazing that people go, “You use a phone as a phone?” “Yes, we use a phone as a phone.” I think it’s a miss by employers to say technology is the answer. Connection is the answer. So, how are you connecting? If it’s an email, a text, social media, whatever platform it is, you can’t just say, “Well, I texted them and they didn’t respond.” You’re missing out. Someone else took that extra step. Guaranteed.

    Matt: You know, from our end, we advocate for technology all the time to do the heavy lifting and help keep you more efficient. But, at the end of the day, like you said, it’s not anything special. It’s just the blocking and tackling of making sure that people are being communicated with and followed up with in a timely manner and are being made aware of where they are in the process.

    Steve. And we’re putting our best food forward. We’re changing our interview process. We’re doing whatever we can to make it more people oriented because that’s what will differentiates us. It’s not that other restaurant chains aren’t good—they’re amazing, you know? But we want to be the place that people go, “Boy, I’m going to be treated well here.”

    Matt: Right. How have you changed your interview process?

    Steve: We have an interview template that we follow that comes along with our ATS. I went to a manager meeting last week. My favorite manager said, “Hey. Can I tell you my first interview question?” I said, “Sure. Go ahead.” He said my question is, “Do you like pizza?” I said, “That’s brilliant! Have you had someone who’s said no?’” He said, “Yeah!” I said, “Did you hire him?” He said “No!”

    Matt: That is the perfect weed-out question, yes?

    Steve: To ask a question that’s much more about who we are and the environment you’re going to join. Because his answer is, “You gotta love pizza. You know what? We sell pizza.” The rest of the interview is 100% his. He’s turned it. So, the candidate stays away from the robotic answers and it’s a much more conversational tone, which we shoot for.

    The other thing you asked about is the office. We’re in a very fortunate position. In the office, I have 1% turnover. It just doesn’t happen. When we did hire, we hired two significant roles in marketing in 2020. We did something radical and hired people without job descriptions. And the reason we did it was this: I think, as a profession, we’ve become a match-the-dots kind of thing. Here’s what the description says: catch phrase, catch phrase, catch phrase. Candidate comes in says, “Answer, answer, answer.” We go, “They’re brilliant!” I say, “No, they just answered the job description. We know nothing about them. And they really know nothing about us.”

    Let’s break this down. Talk about the characteristics, the parameters of the job. Hear what the person would say, coming in, about how they would do the job. We hired the best person we ever could. And when she came on, I said, “You can hire the next person, but you cannot use a job description,” and she went, “Arrrrrgh.” In fact, we had candidates who refused to apply so it tells you how predictable we’ve tried to become. They don’t know how to match. If we’re going to hire talent, truly hire talent, we have to have a method that brings that out, regardless of front-line role, mid-line role or senior role. We can’t keep saying match these dots and think that we’re getting talent. I think that it’s very narrow and shallow.

    Matt: That’s fascinating. You’re right. Most companies are trying to fit someone in a box. These are the requirements. These are the qualifications. You’ve got to check down the line. But I love that. That’s great. I don’t know if I’ve heard of many other organizations doing that. Did you model that off someone?

    Steve: No. We had a person who was in the role for 25 years—which is normal here. We said we don’t want to duplicate the role because you can’t. How do you replace a 25-year person with someone who could come in with that much institutional background. What are the big areas? Let’s give them the big areas and say, “What do you think about marketing strategy? Tell me what you think about guest experience? Tell me what you think about…” and let them talk. It was probably one of the richest interviewing processes we’ve had. I don’t think I can do that quite at the front line yet. I’d like to, but we’ll get there.

    Matt: I love it. I did want to ask you about a specific tactic. Did I see a Tik Tok? I’m on Tik Tok, trying to keep up with my college-aged kids. Did I see a Tik Tok that you guys did with the “Make Pizza. Make Friends?” Tell me about that.

    Steve. It was really interesting. There’s a piece on Tik Tok that says you don’t use words; you just use video descriptions. So, we showed team members, which was great. And they are team members at a local restaurant. They all danced and did crazy stuff. What was nice was we had a way to communicate with people that we hire. Instead of talking about lofty things, we showed real people enjoying their job. And then it said, “Make Pizza. Make Friends.” And it was great. These young people (mostly young people) are all friends anyway and it was very natural for them, but it allowed us to use the media in a much different way.

    Matt: Yeah. It’s really fun. Tell me what you’ve done from a retention standpoint because right now, everyone’s talking about top of the funnel, top of the funnel. But it’s just as important to retain your great talent.

    Steve: I think the biggest thing that we’ve seen is even more flexibility. The majority of our workforce has been variable and part-time. We have a very small full-time part of our restaurants. But if someone wants to be full time, we’re all in. We want them; it’s not that. But if someone needs that extra flexibility, we build around it.

    One of the big things for retention that has changed for us is setting expectations. Be clear. In this role, I expect this from you. But also asking from the team member, “What do you expect from us an employer?” Then we keep it going. We’re trying to get away from the fill-the-req type of mentality to let’s-hire-talent mentality, all the way down to that 16-year-old pizza cook.

    Matt: How do you get buy-in from front line leaders to make the extra effort to make employees feel valued? Would you agree this is a challenge because it makes the leaders’ job more difficult?

    Steve: Yes. I’ll give you a simple one. And what’s funny is: simple things are hard. It’s this: Have your leaders who are on the front line say hello and thank you to everybody who comes in for 30 days in a row, including the people they don’t like. If you acknowledge somebody and thank them for coming in, it changes how you view them and how they view you.

    We did this at our locations, so I’m not just saying this in theory. We did this. And what was really interesting was the managers who chose to do it said, “I have a great team and would never change a person.” The ones who didn’t do it, go “Wow. This is a bunch of hooey.” More of them started to do it and it makes a huge difference.

    My boss said one thing I’ll remember forever: Acknowledgement is the best form of recognition. If we would acknowledge and value our people, on purpose, we’ll improve our retention immediately.

    Matt: I love that. I love it. Thank you for sharing your ideas with us today, Steve.

    To learn more about recruitment marketing from NAS, visit our Resources page. And watch your inbox for an invitation to our next webinar.

    Matt Adam

    Matt Adam serves as Executive Vice President & Chief Talent Strategist for NAS. Having spent 20 years as a recruitment strategy consultant for a diverse client roster, Matt has worked with a wide variety of organizations to develop effective recruitment marketing strategies that define and shape an organization’s recruiting efforts in today's interactive marketplace. He is a featured speaker at various organizations including SHRM, CUPA and NAHCR.

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