‘Forward-Filling’ Anticipates Job Openings

Proactive staffing approach requires a mindset shift

By Roy Maurer Oct 18, 2016
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Organizational development expert Brian Formato believes that too many employers are content with the idea that average performers are preferable to vacant positions. 

Employee retention is a key metric, but Formato, the CEO and principal at Groove Management, an organizational development and human capital consulting firm in Charlotte, N.C., argues that retaining less-than-stellar talent is a compromise that leads to stagnation.

The typical approach organizations take is to go along until an underperforming worker is terminated, and then backfill the position in a hurry. Formato discussed this strategy with SHRM Online, the benefits of proactively filling positions and the potential effects an "always recruiting" culture has on morale.

SHRM Online: What's wrong with the common practice of backfilling positions?

Formato: Backfilling positions is a reactive talent management approach that at best maintains the current level of talent within an organization. When someone leaves a role within an organization, most hiring managers turn to their HR partner and say we need to backfill the position. The manager is delegating the work to human resources and relying upon the HR team to find them a new employee. HR reviews the job description with the hiring manager and looks at the skills that the departed employee had, hoping to replicate the knowledge skills and abilities of the person who just left. The problem is that the person left for any number of reasons that might include the job was boring and not challenging enough, the job was overwhelming and could not be done by one person, the manager was difficult to work for, etcetera. Understanding the reason that the person left the job provides important insights into the right type of person to pursue as a replacement. Backfilling literally means filling a hole with the same material that was excavated. It is a zero sum gain for the team and the organization.

SHRM Online: Please explain the forward-filling approach.

Formato: Forward filling jobs is a progressive approach. Rather than delegating hiring decisions to HR, the hiring managers should own the talent management of their team. The hiring managers are constantly in tune to the needs and performance of each individual. They should be proactively looking for better talent in the marketplace and keeping their eyes out for great people and preparing succession plans. When someone does leave the team, the hiring manager is prepared with a plan to address the opening. They see the opening as an opportunity rather than a threat and mobilize quickly. HR's role is to support the hiring manager in forward filling the position. This means looking at the current and future needs of the team, anticipating what is required for future success and sourcing candidates that meet the newly identified needs of the role. After all, the previous person left for a reason and that should play into hiring managers' thinking as they look for a new employee.

SHRM Online: What are some ways to actively practice forward filling?

Formato: Forward filling roles requires a mindset shift. Change is tough. I believe that by changing the language around hiring, you set a tone that it is going to be different. I work with several organizations that have adopted the term forward filling. By changing the semantics around how the organization addresses job openings, they have changed the behaviors of hiring managers. There are a few key steps to forward-filling jobs:

  1. When someone departs, it is important to understand the root cause of the departure. Many companies conduct exit interviews, but ask the wrong types of questions. Rather than asking "why are you leaving?" the right question is "Why did you decide to look for another job?" That solicits a very different response. Understanding the root cause can help the hiring manager to avoid hiring someone who may draw the same conclusion.
  2. Rather than looking at the existing job description, start with a blank job description template. Define what work needs to get done today and in the future. Think about the skills needed to do the role and how the role has evolved. This will ensure that the job expectations are clear and that candidates being sourced are a match for the role.
  3. The hiring manager needs to own the open position. HR can support the hiring manager in finding candidates, but the hiring manager must tap into their network to source candidates and should put forward their own list of potential hires. Hiring someone onto your team is a privilege and more managers need to see this as their best opportunity to improve the organization and team performance.

SHRM Online: What about the potential detrimental effect on morale to the current workforce if they know their roles are being recruited for?

Formato: Forward filling should not have a detrimental effect on morale. Actually it should improve morale. Unlike top grading or other efforts to address underperformers, forward filling is an approach to address open roles as an opportunity to enhance team and organizational capabilities. Great employees want to be surrounded by other top performers who are motivated and embrace new challenges. When a hiring manager makes a conscious decision to recruit top talent to their team, it can serve as a motivator for the rest of the team. Good managers are talent scouts and keep their eyes open for great employees at all times. They create pipelines of talent for each role on their team, but forward filling is more about addressing openings as they occur versus proactively pushing out underperformers. By adopting the language "forward fill" versus "back fill," organizations shift the talent discussion and hold everyone accountable for finding the best available talent to fill open roles.

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