Delta Air Lines, Walmart Use HR Technology to Stay Agile During COVID-19 Pandemic

By Dave Zielinski December 1, 2020
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​Having versatile and modern HR technology platforms paid off for organizations during the pandemic as they faced an array of talent management and workforce planning challenges.

The talent acquisition team at Delta Air Lines found the flexible features of its applicant tracking system (ATS) invaluable. Myria Peek, manager of talent acquisition technologies for Delta, told an audience at the recent virtual HR Technology Conference & Exposition that the airline pivoted during the pandemic from using the ATS to recruit job candidates—a need that largely evaporated as the coronavirus crisis raged on—to using the system to leverage an internal employee-mobility program.

In a typical year, Delta receives 1 million job applications and hires about 8,000 new employees. But as demand for travel plummeted, the airline found it had an overflow of employees in some positions, such as pilots, flight attendants and baggage handlers, and a dearth of workers in others.

"In the face of so much change, our reservations department became inundated with questions from customers about flight cancellations, what to do with existing tickets, change policies and more," Peek said. "We suddenly had a surplus of employees in some areas and gaps in others."

Delta offered unpaid leave of varying durations to its workers, and 40,000 employees—roughly half of the airline's workforce—accepted the offer, Peek said. Other workers took early retirement leave. Those changes, along with diminished flight demand, resulted in a dramatically reshaped workforce.

"Our talent acquisition team looked at how we could respond to this new scenario," Peek said. "We wanted to help align talent surpluses with deficits to support business continuity and also to take care of job candidates who'd already entered the application process."

The team used an ATS and candidate relationship management (CRM) system from vendor Avature to first identify where existing job applicants were in the funnel. "We wanted to ensure we were upholding our core value of fostering transparency with candidates," Peek said, "so we quickly disabled our standard communications and created new, custom communication for candidates pertinent to what was happening as a result of COVID-19. We said we would reach out again and make them aware when hiring patterns returned to something closer to normal."

Using Technology to Match Talent Surplus to Gaps

The talent acquisition team then used features of the ATS to address Delta's talent imbalance. The first phase of the project involved creating a sign-up page where hiring leaders could reach out if they needed additional staff help and employees could volunteer to work elsewhere in the company. "Employees could use this page to raise their hand and say, 'I'm in an area of surplus. I have some skills that match the need and can help out,' " Peek said.

The second phase involved creating a more robust internal talent-mobility process. "We achieved broader reach of opportunities by placing these special assignment requests on our established internal careers site," Peek said. "It allowed us to do things like connect our HRIS [human resource information system] to the platform so we could leverage information from employee talent profiles."

The initiative also enabled Delta to manage the end dates of employee special assignments more efficiently and automate candidate screening for those assignments. "We ask managers if they still need people longer or if they're ready to release them as scheduled from a special assignment," Peek said. "All of that became automated and easy for managers to use."

The recruiting team and HR business partners gained greater insight into the Delta workforce, Peek said. "Employees had a chance to showcase skills they weren't able to use before and be exposed to new people across the organization."

Skills and performance data collected during the project will help improve Delta's hiring and workforce planning in the future, Peek believes.

"The project also demonstrated you don't need to get locked into using an ATS and CRM in their traditional roles," she said. "There are other things you can do with those systems if needed."

Flip Side: Facilitating Rapid Hiring and Promotion at Walmart

Organizations that needed to rapidly hire or promote more workers at the pandemic's outset faced challenges that were different from Delta's but no less difficult—and, as in Delta's case, technology often played an large role in helping such companies meet their needs.

Since March, burgeoning product demand at Walmart meant the retailer needed to hire 500,000 new associates and promote another 200,000 workers, said Josh Allen, Walmart's director of global selection and assessment strategy, during a presentation at the HR Technology Conference & Exposition. Allen partnered with vendor Modern Hire to develop custom pre-employment job-simulation assessments to ensure Walmart was hiring and promoting the right people at high velocity.

"We invested a lot in assessment and have been able to show a big impact in predicting the performance and retention of our associates," Allen said.

That initiative led to Walmart's winning a 2019-2020 Human Resource Management (HRM) Impact Award for outstanding evidence-based HR management practices. Walmart was given the award for the tool it developed to help predict both new-hire performance and turnover in its retail store associate role. The award is given jointly by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, along with foundations of the two organizations.

Allen said connecting disparate HR systems and standardizing how data is collected contributed to the improved hiring and promotion outcomes. "We've moved to more intentional data collection on our associates," he said. "We wanted to know more about what our employees' career aspirations were and also to perform skills validation that went beyond employee self-reporting to ensure the workforce has the skills it says it has."

To that end, Walmart created a badging and credentialing program for its front-line retail workers to validate their skills.

Allen said Walmart is working to further integrate its talent management systems to create improved career development paths and training options for employees, since 75 percent of its store managers begin as hourly workers.

"We're using assessment data to help create onboarding plans and to ultimately inform learning plans," he said. "We want to clearly identify for employees things they need to work on to get to the next level. It's not always the loudest or most visible person who ends up being the most successful. We want to unlock all of the hidden gems at Walmart."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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