Hiring during Covid-19

The impact of the coronavirus outbreak has affected every business in the consumer-facing sector in a myriad of different ways. While some businesses are struggling to stay afloat and implementing severe cost-cutting measures, other organisations are experiencing a sharp spike in demand – which in and of itself presents a whole series of logistical and supply challenges.

Both scenarios require strong leaders to steer businesses through these unchartered waters – and as such, hiring may be an item on your business agenda.

Indeed, we are seeing an increase in demand for talent who can lead responses to Covid-19. In particular, the need for specific skills sets – especially around restructuring, supply chain, and digital transformation – has never been greater, and businesses across the sector are seeing this as a time to hire chief transformation officers or chief restructuring officers.

Additionally, this period of upheaval has in some cases led to fatigue amongst the senior leadership team. With the prospect of a possible ‘Round 2’ of restrictions, Boards across the consumer sector are having to ask whether the current management team are the best people to lead their business through the next phase of the crisis. In particular, we are seeing concerns around some CEO, CFO and CHRO roles – and in some cases relationships have been frayed beyond repair between a Board and their executive team, and between different members of an ExCo.

During this time, listed and PE backed businesses may also be looking to strengthen their Boards to prepare for a potential hostile takeovers. In other cases, with their businesses being all but shuttered, CEOs finally have the headspace to make long-term considerations about hiring and to take the time to look at the talent landscape.

Indeed, despite the uncertainty of the last few weeks, we have seen evidence of hiring and onboarding from major players across the UK consumer sector: Charlotte Tilbury has brought in a new Global People Director, Mango has hired a CFO, Pladis has made a new CMO hire and John Lewis Partnership has appointed a new executive director for Waitrose all in the past few weeks.

However, as with every element of business, hiring looks very different in our ‘new normal’ – and there are a number of significant considerations that need to be made at this crucial juncture.

Firstly, it is imperative that business leaders ask the question: is this the right time to hire? As organisations right across the sector fight to survive, the added time and cost of hiring may mean it is not the right moment to hire at all. In many cases, it may well make business sense to put hiring plans on hold, at least until the situation is clearer for companies in terms of future commercial outlook.

If hiring is necessary, but fixed costs are a challenge, then hiring an interim leader can make for a positive solution. An individual with subject matter experience, who doesn’t require extensive training or onboarding and who can hit the ground running immediately can be an extremely valuable asset to businesses throughout this crisis. Here at MBS, for example, we have made recent interim placements in transformation, finance, operations and ecommerce. Moreover, with a wealth of executive functional specialists flooding into the market, businesses will not have to rely on the ‘usual’ career interims – rather, will have their pick of executives exiting from tier 1 organisations

Where permanent executive hiring is necessary, and businesses have the capacity to do so, there are a number of areas which need to be thought through.

One point of consideration is how interviews work during coronavirus. While phone calls and online interviews often make up one portion of the hiring process, social distancing measures mean that no face-to-face interviews can take place during the outbreak. During the interview, it may be necessary for businesses to re-evaluate their assessment approach for interviewing in a fully virtual environment. It is worth considering, for example, that virtual communication is a skillset in and of itself, and this should be taken into account during a candidate’s online interview. Similarly, nuances of communication such as tone of voice and body language can be lost online, so businesses may wish to consider adapting interview questions to ensure clarity on certain areas of a candidate’s background, for example.

One crucial factor that businesses must take into account is that online interviews make it significantly harder to evaluate the ‘cultural fit’ of a candidate. To counter this, businesses may wish to increase the number of interviews with different stakeholders for a more rounded cultural assessment. We’ve also suggested taking twice as many informal views on a candidate to ensure a fully rounded picture of candidates is painted.

From a candidate’s perspective, online materials like videos which outline what it’s like to work at your company can act in the place of office visits and informal conversations with current employees. Staff testimonials are a nice way to give candidates an idea of company culture, and increasing the number of internal people a candidate speaks to will benefit both parties.

Another point of consideration is the onboarding process. From welcome drinks to setting up the necessary software, onboarding during Covid-19 looks very different from onboarding before the crisis. During this time it will also be imperative to onboard at significant pace. In terms of specific advice regarding practical onboarding, yesterday we hosted a webinar with Harriet Hounsell, HRD at Marks & Spencer, who has onboarded tens of new leaders during lock-down – and we will share her advice with you in a future weekend edition.

Lastly, for businesses continuing with hiring, it is vital to understand how the pandemic may affect the search process and the talent pool.

For one thing, while many candidates will have more time than usual to engage with a search process whilst working from home, others (such as those from grocery or food supply chain) will have considerably less capacity to discuss new opportunities. Similarly, candidates might find leaving a role at this time to be challenging from a personal ethics perspective – for example if they’re coming from a troubled business that’s fighting for survival, or an organisation playing an integral part in the nation’s fight against coronavirus.

Additionally, some candidates may be hesitant to move sectors or businesses during the crisis, and – from a personal ‘risk’ perspective – be unwilling to take on a new position in such a demanding and uncertain business environment. As such, it is crucial that employers are sensitive to the perceived risks of entering a business at this time, especially without having visited the offices, or met the team face-to-face. When constructing offers and securing candidates, businesses may need to find new and innovative ways to de-risk moves from a candidate perspective.

On the other hand, opportunity can be found amidst the disruption. Businesses may find that they are able to reach candidates who were previously securely ‘tied-in’ as many long-term incentive plans are now underwater, and previous ‘golden handcuffs’ have been unlocked making individuals easier to extract from their current employer.

From a timing perspective, it may make sense to initiate a search process now – even if it feels unfathomable to be welcoming a new team member any time soon. Launching an initial search process or even a talent mapping exercise will mean that the moment for final face-to-face meetings with the top two or three candidates may coincide with the eventual relaxing of lockdown restrictions. Indeed, one thing is for sure: when the uncertainty begins to clear, there will be a clamor for the best candidates, with the strongest transformation skills. Being ahead of the pack in hiring could be a source of future competitive advantage.

Elliott.goldstein@thembsgroup.co.uk | Huw.llewellynwaters@thembsgroup.co.uk  | @TheMBSGroup