Sharing the knowledge: particle physics meets recruitment

Nothing travels faster than the speed of light – or does it? Personnel Today editor Rob Moss returns from a recruitment conference at the Large Hadron Collider in a collaborative frame of mind.

“Why are you going there?” was the typical reaction when I told someone I was going to visit the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva. When I explained that I was attending a conference about recruitment, their puzzled look remained, as if I’d attempted to explain why neutrinos might travel faster than the speed of light.

CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research – is one of the world’s most respected centres of scientific research. It is attempting to answer questions such as: What gives matter its mass? What is the invisible 96% of the universe made of? Where is the Higgs boson?

CERN Recruiting and Sourcing Seminar 2011

Audio, video and slides for each presentation are available below:

Dr Robert Cailliau, CERN – Keynote
Antoine Lhosmot, Potentialpark – The Jobseekers’ Perspective
Tom Chesterton and Marcus Body, Work – Your Candidate is your Customer
Colette Mason – Social Media Success
Steve Evans, Net Natives – Social Recruiting
Michel Guye-Bergeret, CERN – CERN Recruitment and Social Media
Yves Quitin and David Bearfield, EPSO – Modernising Recruitment in Brussels
Gabriele Silva, L’Oreal – Implementation of Recruitment and Sourcing Best Practices
Dr Susan Morison, Queen’s University Belfast – Video Screening Assessment
Delphine Muret , Oracle – Selecting a Winner
Keith Robinson, Career Site Advisor Group – The Future of Recruitment – Interactive Wrap-Up

All resources from the day are available here.

To solve such questions, CERN has built the LHC to blast particles around a 27 kilometre tunnel 11,000 times per second. Or, if you prefer, very fast. Luckily, as David Bearfield, director of the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO), later pointed out: “Recruitment isn’t rocket science.”

We arrived at the vast technology facility on the Franco-Swiss border and made our way to a UN-style conference room, with microphones and translation booths, for the CERN Recruitment & Sourcing Seminar or #CRSS2011 – not your typical recruitment conference.

World Wide Web

It was during the keynote speech by Dr Robert Cailliau, the CERN engineer who, together with Tim Berners-Lee, developed the World Wide Web, that I started to understand how this event had come about. This was a cultural thing – CERN shares; it collaborates; it is open and transparent.

Cailliau made sure that the World Wide Web – the set of rules developed by CERN that has made the internet what it is today – would be “given to the world” rather than being patented and protected. CERN’s head of recruitment James Purvis had organised this event to share what he and his team have learnt over the past year as they revitalised and modernised the way this unique organisation attracts and selects its talent.

CERN assembled a great line-up of speakers who made the day varied and interesting. There was Antoine Lhosmot, from Potentialpark, who gave the jobseeker’s perspective on the world’s best career sites. He shared some great statistics on jobseeker preferences when applying online, some details of which are available on his slides here. His key message was that an employer’s online application process is part of its employer branding, and a bad experience will damage your brand.


A similar theme came from Tom Chesterton and Marcus Body, from Work, who shared a number of ideas such as: “You don’t own the web and you can’t dictate your brand”. They suggested that the sort of recommendations we are used to on Amazon are becoming increasingly applicable to sourcing talent – we trust what we hear from others.

Chesterton highlighted the similarities between consumer marketing and recruitment marketing, for example how driving a Ferrari and working for Google might engender similar feelings of pride.

That marketing process is harder in recruitment for two reasons. Firstly, you’re going to say “no” to most people because they’re not what you’re looking for. Secondly, nobody says: “Hello, is that the recruitment team? I’ve got a job vacancy, and I’m really excited about this.” Recruitment marketing usually starts with a problem.

Recruitment challenges

Michel Guye-Bergeret, who works with Purvis in recruitment at CERN, continued the theme of employer branding by explaining CERN’s unique problem. Only 77 of CERN’s 2,415 employees may be research physicists, but the perception externally is that only polymaths and prodigies stand any chance of being hired. This has caused huge challenges because the bulk of the staff at CERN are employed as engineers, technicians and in support functions.

CERN on Facebook

CERN Jobs Facebook page illustrates the broad range of careers on offer. Its Facebook offering was designed by Net Natives

Guye-Bergeret demonstrated what CERN had done to combat this problem, and how it has used social media including YouTube and Facebook to help educate and inform people about the broad range of roles available.

We also saw a glimpse of the scale of the task facing CERN in addressing its multinational and multilingual remit, and how it uses Broadbean’s multiposting tools, to not only post its jobs on hundreds of sites across Europe, but also to use its metrics to gauge the impact of job boards and social media activity.

EPSO recruitment process

Another trans-European recruiter, the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO), which selects staff for the European Commission, Council, Parliament and numerous other EU agencies, has overhauled its recruitment process and has managed to cut its selection process to between five and nine months. And if that still sounds a lot, it has been reduced from as much as two years!

The scale of the recruitment challenge facing EPSO is vast. Over the past four years it attracted more than half a million applications, recruiting some 12,000 successful candidates.

Faced with an accelerating rate of retirement over the coming decade, with over half of middle managers retiring over next few years, EPSO’s David Bearfield and Yves Quitin outlined the modernisation of a recruitment process which had its roots in the 1950s. You can watch their entire talk, with slides, here.

Video recruitment

Just as video makes reporting a conference easier, it is also increasingly a boon to recruiters. Dr Susan Morison of Queen’s University Belfast’s dental school gave an enlightening talk on the highly formalised, exam-like face-to-face selection process for prospective dental students, where they are asked a range of hypothetical questions to establish how they might fare as a dentist. This selection process would be held on campus – all very well for UK and Irish candidates, but not always an option for students overseas. Therefore, Queen’s has started using Sonru, a video recruitment tool that allows overseas candidates to record video responses to interview questions from their home computer at a time that suits them – so-called asynchronous video screening.

Dr Morison admitted that she would be tempted to convert all the face-to-face mini-interviews to video interviews because she liked the flexibility it gave her as an interviewer. Face to face, an interviewee incapable of answering the question might take up eight minutes of the interviewer’s time; via an online video it would take one minute.

CERN’s James Purvis was also an advocate of using Sonru for screening, particularly given CERN’s mandate to recruit from all EU member states: “If we can reduce from inviting five candidates from our member states to four, that’s a 20% cost saving.”

Francois at CERN

Francois explaining why CERN researchers test the superconducting magnets.

Work at CERN

CERN is an amazing place. As well as the terrific talks in the conference, delegates also had the opportunity to visit some of the experiments on the site. We were lucky enough to hop over the border into France for a tour of the facility where CERN researchers test the superconducting magnets that control the position of the particles whizzing around the tunnel. Our guide, Francois, above, a post-graduate on a two-year placement at CERN, was the perfect advert for why you might want to work there.

He told us that the temperature in the LHC was -271.3 degrees Celsius, 36.3 degrees colder than the surface of Neptune’s moon Triton. He explained that the temperature of an LHC collision could reach 10,000,000,000,000,000 degrees Celsius (the Sun’s surface is approximately 5,000 degrees). And he imparted that the vacuum created in the collider “contains more nothingness” than the vacuum that exists on the Moon. Each time he told us these barely comprehensible facts, his smile spoke volumes – and on the evidence of what we saw in Geneva, CERN appears to have harnessed this emotional energy, this drive to work at CERN, in its recruitment communications.


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