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Balancing High Touch with High Tech Improves Recruiting Results

A man using a cell phone while sitting at a table in a coffee shop.

​Like many recruiting functions that do high-volume hiring, the talent acquisition team at Houston Methodist Hospital uses artificial intelligence to lift some of its burden in sourcing, screening and scheduling interviews for the many candidates it considers and hires each year.

But unlike some recruiting groups, the hospital's Houston-based team believes the power of technology only goes so far. Recruiters use chatbots on the front end of the process to connect faster with candidates around the clock, but the goal is to quickly hand them off to human recruiters for more in-depth relationship building. The belief is that adding more high touch—human interaction in business operations—to the high-tech process can help the hospital stand apart in a highly competitive recruiting environment.

"Even before the pandemic, we'd created what we call our 'know me' personalized journey about how to engage candidates in a more personalized and human way," said Tom Vernon, vice president of talent and experience at Houston Methodist Hospital, in a presentation at the spring HR Technology Conference & Exposition.

Balancing Tech with Human Connection

The hospital's recruiters employ chatbots from tech vendor Paradox to help prequalify candidates with screening questions, automatically schedule interviews and send reminders. One of the biggest benefits of the technology is the ability to connect with candidates 24/7.

For example, the hospital often hires travel nurses from different states who work onsite for a few weeks or months.

"One of the first hires we made using the bots was a nurse working an ICU night shift in another state who had an interaction with our bot on a break, immediately got scheduled with a recruiter and began working for us 21 days later," Vernon said.

Carlos Fernandez, a director of talent acquisition for the hospital, said the hospital hired 7,000 employees in 2021 as it expanded operations, but it also had to fill positions because of staff turnover. Using the bots helped the recruiting team keep its time-to-hire performance essentially flat during the pandemic, which executives viewed as a success given the challenge of hiring in a difficult market.

"Our goal is to use technology to connect with candidates faster, more efficiently and effectively," Fernandez said during the presentation. "But our strategy also is to get to know candidates personally as early as possible in the sourcing process and introduce them to our culture."

Vernon said the recruiting team adjusted how it balances high touch with high tech during the pandemic.

"The speed and efficiency created by the bots doesn't replace the quality of our people and our culture," he said. "It's great on the front end for assessing candidates and getting them scheduled for interviews. But our recruiters and hiring managers can really make the difference on the back end of the process."

The use of chatbots frees up recruiters to highlight and reinforce the hospital's culture, which Vernon said is a big part of its employee value proposition.

"We strive to support our candidates and employees as whole people and see work as just one subset of life," he said. "Candidates join our hospital because they come to understand our values are real to us. If a candidate were to walk the halls of our hospital and ask employees what drew them here and what keeps them here, many would say it's because of how we live our values every day."

Fernandez said the recruiting team has a clear-eyed view of the strengths and limitations of technology.

"You can have great technology in place, but if you don't have the right follow-up from human recruiters, there will be gaps in the process," he said. "It's about having the right people behind the technology to connect with candidates."

Tech Maturity Leads to Emphasizing High Touch

Some research shows that the longer many recruiting organizations use artificial intelligence tools, the more they begin to emphasize and develop the interpersonal skills of their recruiters.

For example, in a 2021 study by Lighthouse Research and Advisory, respondents who reported they'd been using chatbots and conversational recruiting tools for two or more years were twice as likely to prioritize relationship skills when upskilling recruiting teams than other respondents in the study. The research includes responses from 800 talent acquisition leaders based primarily in North America.

Ben Eubanks, chief research officer for Lighthouse Research and Advisory in Huntsville, Ala., said when employers have AI-based tools embedded in the recruiting process to handle routine transactional tasks, they often turn their attention to other areas such as building deeper relationships with key candidates.

"When it comes down to it, many of the simple questions asked by candidates don't qualify as 'building a relationship' because recruiters can often answer them on autopilot," Eubanks said. Using AI-based tools on the front end of the hiring process can free up recruiters to do more intensive relationship building at other stages of the process, he said, whether that be virtually or in person.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What is artificial intelligence and how is it used in the workplace?]

Permission to 'Fail Fast'

The Houston Methodist Hospital HR group's innovative use of recruiting technology has positioned it as something of an incubator and thought leader for the rest of the organization on how to smartly employ AI. Human resources created its own "center for innovation" that is part of a larger hospital initiative seeking ways to introduce digital innovation to the organization, Vernon said.

"Everyone wants to succeed, but we decided to give ourselves permission to 'fail fast' in using new technologies," Vernon said. "Many times, with innovation, you try to sustain an initiative that isn't meeting your objectives for too long. But when we clearly see that something isn't working, we'll stop the pilot test and reinvest in something else, applying the lessons we learned going forward."

Fernandez said the talent acquisition team constantly monitors and evaluates new technologies to see if they might improve recruiters' performance or enhance the candidate experience. Most recently, that included assessing platforms that can make it easier to create and deploy employee-generated video testimonials as a recruiting tool.

A decision to move to a new applicant-tracking system contributed to improving the drop-off rate on candidate applications by 30 percent, Fernandez said.

Hospital recruiters also use automated texts to help counter the rise in "ghosting," which is when candidates drop out of the hiring process or don't show up for  jobs once hired. The team sends automated reminder texts to candidates at three stages of the process—when a job offer is in the works, when a pre-onboarding process gets underway and when that process is complete.

The recruiting technology platform also has self-service features that allow candidates to access their online application at any time to check where they stand at different stages of the hiring process.

"The idea is to have constant communication and stay more engaged with candidates at all stages of the process," Fernandez said.

Dave Zielinski is principal of Skiwood Communications, a business writing and editing company in Minneapolis.


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