Sharpen Your Recruiting Workflow with Service-Level Agreements

 

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer February 21, 2020
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​Using service-level agreements (SLAs) in recruitment can speed up a laggard hiring process, generate accountability from hiring managers and create the expectation that talent acquisition (TA) is a top company priority.

Common in sales, marketing and procurement, SLAs are written standards that the TA function and hiring managers agree upon in order to understand the responsibilities of each party.

"Service-level agreements have proven to be one of the most effective ways to improve recruiting results, increase recruiting consistency, and, at the same time, strengthen the relationship between recruiters and hiring managers," said John Sullivan, an HR thought leader and professor of management at San Francisco State University. "If you want to improve your quality of hire, reduce position vacancy days and improve process compliance, it only makes sense to try to get hiring managers to put a greater focus on recruiting. You can reduce the blame game [between recruiters and hiring managers] by spelling out responsibilities, timelines, deliverables and success measures in advance."

SLAs are essentially informal contracts, said Jessica Miller-Merrell, SHRM-SCP, an HR consultant and the founder of Workology, an Austin, Texas-based workplace resource site.  

They can be time-bound or focused on quality control, with both parties agreeing to specific deadlines or commitments related to resume review, interview scheduling, candidate interview feedback and final selection.

There is one important prerequisite to using the agreements: getting buy-in from hiring managers and leadership. "SLAs won't work if the relationship and the respect are not there first," Miller-Merrell said. "SLAs have value even in just getting the conversation started with your hiring managers. Frame it as a process improvement that will serve both of your goals."

Without that crucial buy-in, "HR and TA are seen as more of an obstacle rather than as a partner," said Caitlin Wilterdink, director of HR and talent acquisition at Paxos, a financial technology company in New York City, and the owner of Wilterdink Consulting. A longtime believer in the SLA model's effectiveness, she's introduced the concept to several companies, receiving both positive and negative reactions. At Paxos, where both time-bound and quality-control SLAs are in use, reaction was initially mixed. When implementing SLAs there, Wilterdink asked hiring managers to take on extra recruiting tasks due to a lack of TA staff.

"There was a bit of questioning from some hiring managers about why they were being asked to do things that HR usually did for them [in past roles]," she said. "That's fair, and it's important for HR leadership to empathize with that sentiment and be able to help them understand why they are being asked to do this. It's about balance, and the TA leader has to have a good pulse on the organization and know when to strictly enforce an SLA and when to bend the rules."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Interviewing Candidates for Employment]

Benefits of Using SLAs in Recruiting

Experts say organizations that use SLAs in recruiting could see several improvements in the process:

Hiring. "Simply setting minimum and maximum times for recruiting steps will speed up your overall recruiting process," Sullivan said. He added that recruiter and manager satisfaction with the process will improve, hiring costs will decrease, and confusion and duplication will be dramatically reduced.

"Being confused about who does what and when can certainly slow down the hiring process and result in the unintended duplication of work," he said. "SLAs lead to clarity and agreement on what must be done and who must do it."

Coordination. "The process of jointly working together in order to create the SLA agreement by itself helps to improve the relationship between recruiters and hiring managers," Sullivan said. "The initial negotiation process also helps both parties understand the needs, expectations and problems of the other party."

Accountability. When Wilterdink joined Paxos, "there wasn't a lot of accountability for how feedback was used to inform the rest of the recruiting team about a candidate, leading to a lot of false positives coming in for onsite interviews." She explained that some managers were marking "yes" on interview score cards to advance a candidate, but their written feedback would indicate they actually felt more like "meh." In order to control for that, Wilterdink initiated an advocacy-modeled SLA, stipulating that an interviewer must advocate for the person he or she advances before the person is moved forward in the process. "Doing this has reduced the number of false positives," she said.

What to Include in Your SLA

Service-level agreements can range from basic one-pagers with general statements to detailed documents covering many aspects of the recruiting process. Sullivan said that upfront basics of an SLA can include setting the goals and business impact of the process and defining the role of each party.

"Defining roles and making it clear who has ownership can reduce hesitation, as well as duplicate work. Roles that frequently need clarification include interview scheduling, interview participation, reference checking and documentation."

The recruiting process should be listed in clear steps in an SLA. "The required and optional recruiting steps are listed in order to make it clear to everyone what steps must be executed, which ones can be expedited and which ones are optional," he said. "It's probably also a good idea to include a visual process map or flowchart so that everyone can clearly see the steps and the flow of the process."

Be sure to specify deadlines and deliverables, as well. "Getting quick feedback from the manager about the quality of the submitted candidate slate is critical," Miller-Merrell said.

At Paxos, SLAs include a commitment to reviewing resumes within 24 hours and attaining a performance benchmark of application-to-offer in about 27 days.

Sullivan said that SLAs should specify how the success of reaching each goal and activity will be monitored and measured. Miller-Merrell said that measuring the time it takes to receive feedback may help the TA team uncover critical bottlenecks in the recruitment process and avoid both delays and the loss of good candidates who remain in limbo.

SLAs can also identify potential risk factors, conflicts, rewards and penalties for nonperformance. "If your recruiting process lacks structure, it might be a good idea to outline any unacceptable actions or behaviors," Sullivan said. "When you specify the don'ts, everyone knows upfront what they cannot do under any circumstances."

Tips for Making SLAs Work

Wilterdink said that a partnership approach will go a long way to smooth over any negative reactions from hiring managers who are presented with an SLA. She suggested some ways TA can achieve cooperation:

  • Train hiring managers on how to fill out interview score cards.
  • Provide recruiting software, which makes completing score cards and tracking manager participation easier. If you don't have technology that does this, you can use Google Docs, she said.
  • Be flexible with enforcement.
  • Pair managers with recruiters, if possible. "When I have a fully staffed team, I'll have the hiring manager work side by side with a recruiter," Wilterdink said. "The reason for that is that the manager needs to understand the market we're looking for before posting a role, so we spend our time fitting the actual business need."
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