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‘The Great Resignation’ – Recruitment Challenges for the VCSE Sector

We have all recently heard three words that no organisation wants to hear – ‘The Great Resignation’.  According to the CharityJob website, charity sector applications also fell by three-quarters during 2021.

At a time when our sector particularly is facing many different challenges, not least stabilising post Covid; losing valuable colleagues can be disheartening for everyone. When people have been with the organisation for long periods of time, this not only adds to the ever-increasing ‘to do’ list with recruitment, but more importantly, can send shockwaves through the morale of an organisation and when the resignations seem to keep coming this is often quite overwhelming.

As leaders and managers, we care about the people we work with and want our places of work to be the best environments they can be for all employees. Perhaps the biggest challenge our sector faces for recruitment is found in the box on the advert marked ‘salary.’  This is not new, the struggle to keep up with public and private sector salaries has been there for many years but when you add to this a cost of living increase such as we are seeing at the moment, there are many excellent people in our sector who just can’t afford to stay where they are or resist the temptation to move elsewhere.

Salary is clearly not the only factor at play here. Much has been written on changing working environments (home, office, or hybrid), work life balance, reconsideration of personal values and priorities, and so on. The question is, how can we set ourselves apart as employers and provide a workplace (physical or virtual) that people want to be a part of? To answer this, I think organisations need to look at their recruitment process. And when I say recruitment process, I mean ALL of it – start to finish… If it ever does finish – shouldn’t employee retention be considered as part of the overall process, and if so, not be forgotten when ‘they’re here now’ complacency can start to creep in.

In an article from Charity Digital recently on this topic; the way we advertise (spending time on job descriptions and not just churning out the old one, highlighting who we are as organisations, not mis-selling the job, and even the way we present the recruitment materials), showing salary and benchmarking it, use of existing staff as your best advertisers, the interview process, and the welcome of successful and feedback to unsuccessful candidates all play a vital role. 

We have to be competitive in our recruitment, we need to stand out – we are in a candidate driven market where those seeking employment have much more choice and the effect this is having on driving wages upwards, larger benefits packages, and increased flexibility around working hours and workplaces, is huge.

There is undoubtedly a tendency to shy away from the word ‘competition’ in our sector, but with a limited pool of candidates and an increasing number of opportunities, there is no choice but to set your organisation apart from others to compete in a crowded marketplace.

At CAS, we too have seen resignations over the last 12 months. Many of these were expected – those at the end of fixed term contracts for specific pieces of work while the pandemic was its height for example, but we have also had a small number of people who have moved on for reasons of salary and/or changing personal priorities.

However, since January 2021, we have also managed to successfully recruit 24 people and retain/promote some fantastic people who are making unyielding strides within the organisation. But when we inevitably had to replace some really great people, we started to look at our recruitment processes and realised there was more we could do, and that starts with looking at our policies and processes and making some changes.

So, I wanted to share with you our experience and offer some advice, starting with the process.

Give the way you recruit a really good review.

What do your physical recruitment materials look like? Will someone see your advert and even if they don’t know your organisation, want to work for you as a result of simply seeing, not reading, that advert? And if they are drawn in to reading it, will they KNOW the organisation they could be working for as opposed to just knowing what the job description involves? Are your organisation values running through your recruitment? Will they see the advert in the first place? Where are you placing it?

There are so many aspects to look at – the questions in the paragraph above are just the tip of the iceberg and to do this well, a whole policy and process reviewed in detail will take your time.  As a leader or manager, we need to hire the best people to achieve the organisation vision – do you and/or your team invest enough time in doing this?

It may well be time to revisit your vision, clarify your organisation values and ensure they run through your recruitment process. At CAS, we have just revisited and set our Strategic Plan for the next 3 years and reviewed our own values – a large part of this being how we embed those values in everything we do. In fact, just last week, we interviewed for a variety of posts and decided to try something new. We asked candidates to start a conversation with us during the first part of the interview all about our values and what they meant to them both professionally and personally. No presentation, no formal questions, just a conversation. The result was astounding and set an open, discussion-based environment for the rest of the interview. I have no doubt we learned more about those candidates in those 15-20 minutes than I have ever learned about a candidate in any ‘traditional’ interview I’ve been part of during my career. This was one small change, something we wanted to try out, and it will now become part of every interview we have and encourage us to be even more innovative in our recruitment going forward.

At the start of this piece, I talked about salary and with an extremely challenging financial climate I by no means want to play the importance of financial benefit down. However, I am intrigued by something I recently heard about and I’m keen to explore it over the coming months as CAS continues to audit and improve recruitment. A study was published on market and social norms and their effect on team productivity. The study showed that those who were paid a higher salary were more productive than those who received less. This was aligned to Market Norms – actions that have comparable benefits i.e., finance, competition etc. But here’s the ‘but,’ – those who were paid nothing at all were the most productive of all.  Without financial gain, they aligned to Social Norms – actions that enabled them to be part of something, help/support others with no expectation of payback. We see this with volunteers every day.

So this got me thinking, if we’re talking about recruitment, is there an argument to say that if we can align recruitment in its broadest sense (for a paid post or a volunteer position) to the social values people have, surely this will increase productivity in the workplace, enhance the experience of work for all involved, and maybe even counteract perhaps the biggest challenge of all – the competitiveness of salary…  I’m absolutely not advocating inadequate/inappropriate salary levels – we should ensure as much recompense as is viable is given, but recompense can come in many different forms and I know with 100% certainty that while our sector may not be able to compete as well on salary, we can absolutely compete in many other ways. So, let’s shout about this, let’s look at our processes and make the most of the opportunity of a pool of candidates that may just be looking for that role that will speak to their values, enable them to make a difference every day, and allow them to enjoy every working day in a fantastic environment.

To contact Hannah and share your thoughts, email hannah.reid@communityactionsuffolk.org.uk or find her on social media: