recruitment is surging ahead, but is there a danger that it may discourage
potential applicants? HR professionals had their say at a roundtable
discussion. Nic Paton reports
Even the most Luddite of HR professionals cannot afford to ignore the rise
and rise of online recruitment. From a standing start five years ago, the
online recruitment market in the UK is now a multi-million pound industry
attracting millions of jobseekers to a vast array of sites.
Only last month (August) jobs website GoJobsite claimed 82 per cent of
jobseekers considered the internet to be the simplest way to source new job
opportunities, while 84 per cent thought it the easiest way to apply for jobs
and 55 per cent found it the best way to land a position.
And a survey of 9,000 people by online recruiter Workthing in May – part of
the Guardian Media Group – found some 36 per cent of internet users – or an
estimated 6.3 million people – had sought jobs online – a 50 per cent increase
on last year.
Yet it’s still early days. Online recruiter Totaljobs estimates online
recruitment still only makes up about 5 per cent of the multi-billion pound
To find out, then, how HR professionals should best exploit this potentially
lucrative market – and make sure they are not left behind – Personnel Today
organised a roundtable debate on the issue. We invited senior HR practitioners
from both the private and public sectors to discuss online recruitment – the
benefits, the challenges and its future.
Does online recruitment bring real business benefits?
Even those who admitted to a fair degree of scepticism – such as Martin Tiplady,
HR director at the Metropolitan Police – accept that online recruitment can
produce real business benefits. He said he had been surprised by the quantity
of internet job enquiries the Met had received.
"Last year, we recruited between 2,500 and 3,000 people from 60,000
enquiries and 25 per cent of those came through e-mail and the internet. We are
now thinking we will not only want enquiries through it, but applications
too," he said.
The challenge, argued Helen Williams, resourcing development manager at
Safeway, is how to reduce spend on external websites and attract passive
jobseekers. The supermarket chain has set up careers pages on its corporate
website, which has been running for around two months.
Even at a relatively basic level, online recruitment can bring easy cost
benefits, she said. "Our website is not actually a key source of
attraction. We are directing people to it once they have made some sort of
contact with us. But we do see benefits in cost savings. We’re not posting out
application forms and we’re saving a lot of time because the response is
But if you wish to make savings it is important to be focused on what sort
of candidate you want, argued Charles Macleod, head of recruitment at
PricewaterhouseCoopers. Online recruitment has a reputation for ‘scattergun’
job hunting, offering too many jobs on too many sites without the ability to
filter applications adequately, so actually adding to HR’s workload.
"The last thing you want to do is to attract everybody. We probably
deal with about 15,000 applications from graduates a year, but if you can focus
your applications on those who are potentially viable with a decent and fairly
robust selection process, then the web can be very powerful as a way of driving
down your selection costs," he said.
Does it find the right people?
The most problematic element of online recruitment for all of the roundtable
participants is whether using the web produces the right kind of people for the
job, and the right blend of candidates. "Our experience is that it has
been particularly good at attracting graduates but not particularly good at
attracting anybody else," said John Ainley, HR director at Norwich Union,
which has had an online recruitment site for nearly four years.
Where online recruitment beats conventional recruitment hands down is in its
potential to allow an employer to build an ongoing relationship with a possible
candidate, he added.
Even if there is not a suitable job available at the current time, e-mail
allows an employer to keep in touch and keep them interested – a distinct
advantage to just sending out a form letter and slotting the CV away in a
For graduates, applying online is often simply an extension of their normal
working methods, argued Macleod. But employers need to remember the internet is
less attractive to others. Many workers, particularly the lower paid or those
in the public sector, for instance, may not have access to a computer.
While the number of older workers who are computer literate is increasing,
there are still many who are not. With workforce demographics changing, and
forthcoming legislation which will ban age discrimination in 2006, employers
need to be careful they don’t discriminate, or harm their chances of getting
the best candidate simply because they’ve gone completely over to online.
"I don’t think we’re quite in a position where the web is the ‘silver
bullet’, certainly not in terms of online applications or online selecting,
we’re still some way off from that," said Macleod.
The issue of who you want to attract or put off is very problematic, agreed
Maureen MacNamara, head of HR at the Law Society. This is particularly the case
when dealing with people with disabilities, which may not be immediately
apparent if someone is applying online. "We are trying to be incredibly
careful about it, as I am sure are lots of other organisations, to ensure that
everyone is treated exactly the same," she said.
Pfizer receives about 150 CVs a month, explained Sarah Jordan, resourcing
adviser at the pharmaceuticals firm. "What we are finding is that
graduates and young scientists are using it but medics won’t touch it with a
barge pole. They like to be courted. It is still about understanding the type
of people you want to attract and whatever you need to get from them," she
In the US Pfizer recruited 70 people from its database for $400-$500 a head,
as opposed to £2,500 a head in the UK. "It is certainly reducing costs.
The difficulty we’re having is we don’t understand the expectation of people
who put their CVs online. How often do they expect to be contacted? What
contact do they expect to have? Those sorts of things," she added.
Nigel Baldwin, HR director of Marconi Capital cited the example of a major
blue-chip organisation that moved to internet-only applications for its
graduates. It found the number of applicants reduced in the first year from
13,000 to 5,000. While the people were of a suitable calibre, the company no
longer achieved the ethnic or social mix of applicants it wanted.
One way round this is for organisations to use application forms rather than
CVs, argued the Law Society’s MacNamara. But this brings its own problems.
People may be reluctant to go to the trouble of filling in a large form,
said Siobhan Holland, client director at DHC, and organisations often do not
think them through. "Employers do not offer any download facilities so
people have to stay online, they can’t leave it and come back to it and that’s
going to lose an awful lot of candidates.
"If you are filling in an average-sized application form, it is going
to take 40 minutes and I think a lot of businesses miss a trick. Those tiny
little things can make a difference whether or not people carry through to the
"Some don’t use pre-selection questions so a candidate gets three
quarters of the way through and then realises it is not appropriate for them.
That is really going to disenfranchise not only the potential candidate but
also, depending on your business, potential customers as well," she added.
How far can online recruitment go?
Online recruitment is becoming increasingly sophisticated, with ever-more
organisations using data mining techniques, candidate selection and
pre-selection tools. But as the number and range of sites increase, and
quantity of jobs that can be accessed grows, the roundtable group expressed
concern about where technology was leading employers and candidates.
One of the key complaints the panel have is the sheer number of sites in the
marketplace. This leads to worries that good candidates are being missed or
simply not able to find the best jobs for them. "Jobseekers have got to be
very clear about what sites they are searching to find out about opportunities.
There are a million and one sites that are advertising an awful lot. One can
get put off simply by the sheer volume," said the Met’s Tiplady.
One answer might be for specialist journals to run online jobs listing
pages, with employers paying to be included, rather than taking out
conventional advertisements, suggested Janet Lytwynchuk, HR director at travel
"I think the clumsiest bit for an applicant is the route to take to
access the diversity of companies you feel you might be interested in. We often
look at online recruitment as employers trying to attract people, rather than
from the applicant’s point of view and what they might want or find useful and
helpful," she said.
How you keep a potentially suitable candidate interested if there is not an immediate
vacancy is one of the key challenges facing employers, added DHC’s Holland.
She cited the example of a big electronics company that analysed its CVs to
pick up information about valuable potential candidates and their hobbies and
families, to ensure it kept in touch with them. It then began e-mailing people
who, for example, said they liked skiing with information about good ski
"The danger is that you stray into the virtual version of junk
mail," warned PricewaterhouseCooper’s Macleod. "If your brand is
about employment and you start sending people other stuff, there’s a risk they
won’t come back again. So you have to be really, really careful."
"It has got to be appropriate and timely," agreed Holland.
The future development of online recruitment could be just as much tied in
with the continuing evolution of the workplace, suggested Andreas Ghosh, head
of personnel and development at the London Borough of Lewisham.
"Is e-recruitment going to start leading us to think differently about
how we employ people in the same way it is leading us to think differently
about our processes? Will we be recruiting people at all or entering into a
different type of contractual relationship, or will we be trying to have
life-long relationships as employers and employees?" he asked.
The difficulty for any HR professional is the speed in which the technology
is evolving, agreed PricewaterhouseCooper’s Macleod. "At some point you
have to push the button and say ‘I’m going to buy this recruitment management
system for X100,000 pounds and you know the next day there is going to be
another come along that’s slightly better and so you put it off and put it off
but eventually have to dive in."
Ultimately, the Met’s Tiplady believes, despite much progress, HR
professionals have still yet to use online recruitment to its full and best
potential. "Maybe it’s tardiness on our part, but we haven’t really risen
to the challenge that internet recruitment has set out for us," he said.
"We haven’t really grabbed it and said ‘let’s make this a success’."
In theory recruitment websites ease the process of recruiting globally. But
what’s the reality?
John Ainley, HR director, Norwich Union; Nigel Baldwin, HR
director, Marconi Capital; Bryan Finn, head of HR, MMD; Andreas
Ghosh, head of personnel and development, London Borough of Lewisham;Siobhan
Holland, Client director, DHCGroup; Sarah Jordan, Pfizer, Janet
Lytwunchuk, HR director, Accoladia; Charles Macleod, head of recruitment, PriceWaterhouseCoopers;
Maureen MacNamara, head of HR, the Law Society; Bruce Robertson, HRdirector,
Levi Strauss, Martin Tiplady, HR director, Metropolitan Police Service; Helen
Williams, resourcing development manager, Safeway, Andrew Wilson, HRpolicy manager,
Scottish &Newcastle Retail