How Princeton University Invests in Meeting Its Recruiting Needs

School revamps its talent acquisition strategy

By Roy Maurer Jun 21, 2017
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​Claire Jacobs Elson, assistant vice president for human resources at Princeton University.

Princeton University set out over three years ago to redefine how it finds, attracts and hires staff. The school's journey offers what could be an A-to-Z primer on best practices in talent acquisition: It developed an employer brand that resonates; implemented a new careers site; and upgraded a 10-year-old applicant tracking system (ATS) to improve the recruiting experience for applicants, recruiters and hiring managers. It introduced a new application system that makes it easier for candidates to apply for jobs, and it installed a talent network that allows job seekers to get updates about working at Princeton.

Claire Jacobs Elson, assistant vice president for human resources at Princeton, discussed with SHRM Online how the overhaul came about and the valuable lessons Princeton learned during the process.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Recruiting Externally and Internally]

SHRM Online: Tell me a little about the employee population affected by the recent revamp.

Elson: The office of human resources is responsible for hiring the school's approximately 4,000 administrative exempt and nonexempt staff. We're one of the local region's largest private employers and fill about 350 different types of jobs through our office, including doctors, software developers, accountants, grounds crew and office workers. Our team is made up of a director of talent acquisition, a manager, five full-cycle recruiters and a few individuals in other supporting roles.

SHRM Online: Why did you decide to undertake this comprehensive revamp?

Elson: At Princeton, we fill many specialized jobs—some of which are hard to fill, including those in the technology, financial and health care professions. We had a great desire to become more proactive in hiring top talent. We recruit candidates from within higher education as well as from the private, government and nonprofit sectors. We felt that we needed to examine best practices used today in recruiting to become more competitive and attractive as an employer when encouraging people to apply for jobs and come to work here. It had been challenging from a resource allocation standpoint. Our recruiters are very hardworking, but there's only so much they can do given the number of jobs they each have to fill. We recognized that employers and candidates were utilizing technology and social media in ways that we didn't feel we could.

Another motivator was the university's commitment to diversity and inclusion—throughout the student body, teaching faculty and staff—and to drawing on the best talent from every sector of society. We wanted to do greater outreach and be more proactive in order to develop diverse candidate pools. Because we were so caught up in doing the transactional work, we felt we needed a new strategy and new tools.

SHRM Online: Describe the process for me.

Elson: We started to discuss it in mid-2013 and then had a number of conversations with consultants. We went through an RFP process and contracted with Riviera Advisors to come in and conduct a full assessment of our talent acquisition function. That work began in earnest in January 2014. Jeremy Eskenazi and his group [Riviera] did a full assessment over the next few months and delivered a report with findings, metrics and recommendations. We were then able to develop a five-year road map strategy to build a successful business case for resources and institutional support, which we received. Part of that analysis revealed that replacing our ATS was a foundational step for meeting our recruiting needs. We hired Bersin by Deloitte in the summer of 2015 to help select vendors. They helped us figure out exactly what requirements we needed and what differentiated one ATS from another. Another foundational step identified was to develop, articulate and promote a Princeton employer brand. We went through a similar RFP process and began working with Susan LaMotte and her group [exaqueo] in January 2016. Both projects came together when we launched our new talent acquisition system and careers site in January 2017.

SHRM Online: What were your main requirements for a new ATS?

Elson: Our top requirements were being able to search for candidates, a more user-friendly candidate experience, and a system that would enable us to onboard and communicate effectively. We chose iCIMS for its integrated talent acquisition suite [ATS, candidate relationship management tool and onboarding software] and capability to further integrate with many third-party vendors.

SHRM Online: How was the previous ATS no longer meeting Princeton's needs?

Elson: We had it for 10 years, and it had been phenomenal. But ultimately we sought functionality that was not available. We needed a searchable database and the ability to develop a candidate pipeline to leverage people who apply for jobs but aren't chosen. We receive thousands of applications each year, so this was critical. We also wanted to be able to communicate more directly and transparently with candidates. Part of our strategy has been to improve the candidate experience as well as the user experience for recruiters and hiring managers. ICIMS enabled us to streamline the application process. Most applicants create a brief personal profile when applying and only complete a full application if they are asked to interview. We also implemented five different career portals for the different categories of jobs for which we hire, including an internal portal so we can more effectively identify and manage our internal applicants. Another goal was to have a system that would enable us to use social media more efficiently, and iCIMS offers a social media distribution tool that we expect to activate soon.

The system also satisfies our need for good reporting and metrics. We developed reports that appear on our different users' dashboards, where they can look at their candidate pool, see sources of hire, time-to-fill, et cetera.

SHRM Online: What's exciting about the new careers site?

Elson: We didn't have a careers site previously. The landing page was the home page for the ATS. The new site went up in January, and we use it to feature our employees' stories of what it's like to work here. We're starting to build up a broad library of stories. Right now it's brief interviews and photos, but we're also planning to shoot some videos and showcase events in the coming months.

Anyone can sign up and join our talent network through the careers site and attach themselves to specific talent pools to receive notifications about job vacancies. We have about 30 talent pools based on job type. This is very important for us. We can keep track of our candidates who are qualified but don't get an offer. Then we can send out targeted communications to them. That's all about candidate engagement—to keep them interested in Princeton and to get the word out.

SHRM Online: You also worked out an employer brand strategy. Tell me about that.

Elson: The brand was launched in January. I believe we're one of the first universities to have a defined employer brand. The brand is based on research exaqueo conducted with our employees. Susan and her team got to know us and were very helpful in moving us toward our objective. We learned that key talent like working at Princeton because of the meaningful, impactful and collaborative work they do in support of the university's mission. We also learned that Princeton still had old stereotypes accrued to it that we needed to overcome. Some of that has to do with higher education generally. Many people don't think of a university as a place to work. If you are a developer, you may not think higher education, and that goes for accountants and nurses, too. You may think that universities only hire admissions officers and faculty. We also are challenged by the out-of-date stereotypes of being a traditional Ivy League institution. We wanted to dispel these notions and showcase the incredibly fulfilling employment experience and careers that individuals from all backgrounds in many different types of jobs have at Princeton University.

SHRM Online: What are a few of your takeaways from managing this experience?

Elson: Having regular conversations with your stakeholders is essential. Having leadership aligned with the vision and updating them on the return on their investment is key.

Managing change and working with recruiters and hiring managers around that change is important and challenging. We believe that to have a more effective recruitment strategy and to leverage our new tools, we needed to ask our users to conduct their searches differently, which means we are asking people to change their approach. In higher education, you don't mandate change, you influence it. Part of it is recognizing what needs to change about your practices, because if you only address the technology, that will not be enough. It's looking at your business processes and helping people learn how to do things differently. We formed a communications and change management group to develop our key messages and identify the audiences we needed to get in front of. We did many presentations with different business units and met with leadership to talk about what we're doing and how to engage and retrain hiring managers. We offered general information sessions and hands-on just-in-time training classes for hiring managers. We wanted to create a sense that change was coming as well as generate excitement and interest.

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