23 Aug 2022

HBS HR and the Future of Work: Q+A with Ellen Mahoney and Erin Graham


by Shona Simkin

We’ve all seen the headlines about how the pandemic, remote work, and the Great Resignation have been affecting workplaces around the world. To get a sense of the impact on the Harvard Business School (HBS) community, we asked Erin Graham, Talent Acquisition (TA) senior consultant, and Ellen Mahoney, chief human resources officer, about what they’re seeing at HBS and how they’re approaching these issues.

Has HBS experienced a higher number of resignations since the pandemic?
Mahoney: Turnover at HBS has remained steady, averaging in the 10-14 percent range where it has hovered for years. In 2019, we had a slightly higher rate because of the Voluntary Early Retirement Program, but it has leveled back after that.

Where have you experienced changes from this new workplace and hiring landscape?
Graham: We’re seeing a lower number of applicants for open jobs across the board. The Staff Assistant III role is a good example of this. Prior to COVID we would open 30-40 Staff Assistant III roles per year, each of which would average 40-50 applicants. In 2020 we only opened 13 of these positions, but maintained the volume of candidates at pre-COVID levels. Since then, we are back to opening approximately 30-40 roles per year, but with a big drop in candidates, averaging only 20-25 applicants per opening.

This drop is across all positions at all grade levels. It is clear that fewer people are seeking new jobs for various reasons—leaving the workforce altogether, feeling nervous about making a change during an uncertain time, or feeling more committed to their current position. The high-quality candidates are out there, but there are fewer of them. In this candidate-driven market, those candidates are setting the bar on what they are looking for. They are being selective with applications and are receiving/accepting offers very quickly.

What topics are on applicants’ minds? How are we addressing them?
Mahoney: We’re getting questions about flex/remote work, how learning and development is supported, our commitment and actions towards diversity and inclusion, COVID vaccination policies, and other emerging topics. Our current postings now indicate where flex work is an option, reaffirm our commitment towards a diverse and inclusive workplace, and emphasize the learning opportunities available. Our interviews also cover these topics.

How are you approaching the staffing challenge as a team and across the School?
Mahoney: To remain competitive, we urge managers to focus on a thorough, equitable, but rapid hiring process. We are losing top notch talent because candidates are getting and accepting offers quickly. At a recent local job fair, a major airline was offering jobs on the spot, pending references. We have to move fast to be in the game.

Graham: The TA team is constantly working on finding efficiencies and tools to help us focus our time on building a pool of candidates. We only post jobs when the manager is ready to be actively engaged in the search, use technology to expedite resume reviews and phone screens, and provide guidance on interviewing best practices for a fair, consistent, and expedited process.

For example, we are piloting a program to provide dedicated LinkedIn job postings to departments that hire frequently, and are working on integrating our new automated online reference tool, SkillSurvey. SkillSurvey has had great success in other parts of Harvard. It reduces the time it takes to compete reference checks, provides a fair, equitable, and unbiased process for all candidates, and the reports are rich with insights. We launched SkillSurvey across many departments and are still working on integrating it across all of HBS.

Have there been any other new partnerships, systems, or experiments that have been helpful?
Graham: There has been a renewed kindred partnership with the other TA teams across Harvard. We all acknowledge that we can be looking to fill similar roles or can share best practices as we often work with the same vendors.

During the early days of COVID HBS launched the Talent-Share Marketplace to help facilitate the open needs of HBS departments and staff members that could lend a hand. This was the first of its kind and was a great success in that moment. We have used it to collect volunteer interest in our Online Learning Facilitator roles and most recently for reunions/commencement.

Mahoney: Covid changed how we work, but to stay competitive in the market we need to spend more time than ever speaking with candidate leads and creating sourcing channels. To do this we identified systems that can be used to ease the time burden of some more manual tasks. We’re now using Teams instead of email to track candidates’ process in real-time and share resumes. Along with our fantastic colleagues in Human Resource Information Systems, we launched a new form for submitting staff moves or recruitment needs, which now automates the approval process and streamlines communication flow.

We are gearing up to launch DocuSign in September/October to streamline and automate all offer letters and any onboarding documents for both internal and external candidates. Our HR team is also working on launching Gartner’s Exit Survey Tool soon.

We partnered with departments and our HR partners to launch a pilot program with LinkedIn to augment our current volume of postings to four times our original number of postings. The results have been really positive and we are looking forward to continuing some form of that in the new fiscal year.

What are some of the lessons you’ve taken away from this, and how are you thinking of the future?
Mahoney: We have found our hiring managers are terrific partners. This is not a surprise knowing how much they care about building great teams, but it makes the role we play much more rewarding. They share in the search process, are committed to our diversity goals, are engaged in training, and willing to adapt to the new systems we are introducing.

Graham: I started at HBS in March 2020 just before COVID hit and I have learned something new every day since. What has amazed me is the amount of support that our TA (and HR) team receive from our HR partners, senior leadership, and our hiring managers. It’s a lesson in humility, but also a major motivator to keep driving this forward. Looking ahead, there are going to be hiring challenges and new problems to solve—we still have quite a few jobs open right now—but after seeing how far we have come in two and a half years, I’m excited about where we are headed together.

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