1-on-1 with James Witcombe: Coles TA team evolves CandEx approach as application volumes surge

This interview is part of a 1-on-1 series featuring TA Leaders across Australia to see how their teams have responded to COVID and what they believe the next 12 months will look like. Click to read my chat with Ryan Biggs (AFCA), Tim Bartley (Grill’d Healthy Burgers) and Andrew Retschko (Medibank).

Coles is an instantly recognised brand and one of Australia’s largest companies. From a Talent Acquisition perspective it deals with very high volumes averaging around 32,000 hires every year from over 800,000 applications.

Today we chat with Michael Virgo, Talent Acquisition Manager at Coles, to find out more about how the Covid19 health crisis has changed the way the supermarket recruits and what lies ahead for the team.

James: Michael, what are some of the challenges your TA team has faced over the last 6 months?

Michael: For our Coles Talent Acquisition team, it has been nothing less than an unprecedented year for recruitment. In March and April this year we recruited 11,700 new team members. It has been about responding at pace, to demand from the business for new team members.

We have pretty much followed the waves of public COVID-19 response – first recruitment to address panic buying and getting stock on the shelves and then recruitment to support the growth in online delivery and getting supplies safely into the homes of Australians.

James: How big has the challenge been due to not being able to recruit “face-to-face”?

Michael: You can never underestimate the value you get from a handshake, the chit chat on the walk to the meeting room or sitting across a table having a conversation with a candidate. The Coronavirus pandemic however, has thrown most organisations into a world of virtual meetings, team rooms and online chat.

I don’t believe this has inhibited our ability effectively assess candidates and determine their suitability for our roles due to having a variety of tools such as tailored interview guides and online assessments that help us hire great Talent.

Where I do think we are missing out is the human side of recruiting – the aspects of developing rapport that come through reading and responding to body language or shaking hands, and getting candidates engaged in our business. It is difficult for interviewers to respond to body language to help candidates feel at ease or change the direction of the conversation if they look like they are becoming uncomfortable.

It is also tough for a candidate to get a ‘feel’ for an organisation when they can’t physically visit an office to get a sense of what it might be like to work there. They are reliant on the quality of the conversation and how the interviewers describe their business, as well as the reputation and perception of the employer brand of the business.

In my view, the biggest challenge with not being able recruit face-to-face is the impact it has on our ability to ‘connect’, meaning we are more reliant than ever on the quality of our interviews, our managers’ ability to engage their candidates and of course, our internet connection.

James: Have you found that the “hard-to-fill” roles have become harder, or easier?

Michael: Generally speaking, hard-to-fill roles are “hard-to-fill” because they require niche and highly sought-after skills sets or are sourcing from a small Talent pool and/or Talent short markets. In my experience these roles are, more often than not, less susceptible to changing or challenging market conditions.

In saying that, over the past few months we have noticed that there is more activity in the candidate market and more of this Talent are open to having conversations about potential opportunities.

While we are having more conversations with potential Talent, I wouldn’t say we are finding it ‘easier’ to recruit our hard-to-fill roles as these candidates tend to be employed and still need to be made aware of the opportunities, engaged in a conversation and influenced to make a move.

James: What will be the biggest difference to how the Coles TA function operates in 2021 compared with pre-COVID?

Michael: Like many businesses, we will be focusing more on flexible and remote working as normal BAU for our TA team. Keeping in mind that working from home does not automatically mean workplace flexibility. We will be focused on how best to enable our team to work safely, productively and with a focus on health and wellbeing too.

By 2021, we will also have introduced new technology in the way of a new HRIS and ATS that will give us opportunities to evolve and improve how we hire great Talent to Coles Group.

James: Have you made any changes to your approach to candidate experience this year?

Michael: Since joining Coles, my team and I have been looking at a number of key candidate touch points and experiences through our recruitment process to understand where we have opportunities to better engage our candidates and have them finish our recruitment process feeling positive, even if they aren’t successful in securing a role with us.

We started by looking at the basics, with our job adverts first. We have reviewed our ad content, structure, tone of voice and included key information that are important to our candidates. We have also run creative writing workshops focussed on creating engaging content that will excite our candidates and help our employer brand and opportunities stand out from the crowd.

The next key touch point for us was the interview. We focussed on ensuring consistency and quality of our interviews by redesigning our interview guides and the question framework that sits behind them. This helps our hiring managers and other interviewers to give every candidate a consistent experience and feel part of a well-structured, thorough and fair interview process. We have overlayed gender balance and accessibility content into the guides for a more inclusive experience too.

While Talent Acquisition manage the recruitment process, our hiring managers play a pivotal part in making it an inspiring and seamless experience for our candidates. To help our hiring managers do this, we implemented key guidelines focussed on timelines associated with managing recruitment processes, with the aim of reducing turnaround time for things like feedback and minimising delays in the process. Not only would this improve candidate experience, it also reduces our risk of missing out on key, high demand Talent who are typically very active when in the job market.

There are plenty of other opportunities to evolve our candidate experience here at Coles, but as with most things our attention first needs to focus on getting our foundations right.

We are always finding new opportunities to augment and improve the candidate journey, whether that be through leveraging technology, improving capability or process design. I think the goal of creating the best candidate experience is one that will always be in front of us. I like that and I love hearing about what other businesses are doing to differentiate themselves and win the war for Talent.

James: What has “surprised” you in all these changes?

Michael: We have been surprised by the volume of applications that we have been receiving.

It is a fairly accurate macro-economic indicator that our application volumes swelled to over 500,000 in March – April. This speaks to how the community is starting to think about working at Coles and where other employment opportunities may not be currently available in hospitality and other retail. We continue to see high application numbers across our whole business from store support centre (corporate) roles, to retail leadership and operations roles.

Really, applications are across the breadth and depth of our whole business and the volumes are staggering. The way our team members work with passion and pace at Coles never ceases to amaze me.

Cover image: Simon Anderson Photography

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