Coronavirus (COVID-19): Recruitment challenges during the pandemic

What should employers do if they have new hires due to start work during the current crisis? Jo Faragher asks HR professionals and recruitment specialists for their advice.

From remote working to temporary layoffs and redundancies, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has hit many elements of day-to-day HR hard. One of the first processes to be affected was recruitment - especially where offers had been made and employees were due to start but could not due to government restrictions.


When the crisis hit, Louise Nuttall, head of HR at the BCS, the chartered institute for IT, reviewed any roles due to start during the coronavirus lockdown period. She says that they "...had conversations with line managers and new starters to see how we could make working from home feasible and enable a virtual induction".

She says the organisation has addressed the unusual circumstances by ensuring regular communication between new starters and their line manager, meeting teams "virtually" in the interim, and including them in regular organisational communications. "It didn't seem right that a person has resigned from an organisation ready to start work with a new company, only to find out that their start date has been moved," she adds.

If a start date has had to be deferred, it is natural that a new hire may be concerned about finances. They are likely to face a period where they are not earning between their final date at their former employer and the - possibly deferred - start date at the new one, which may itself be uncertain.

Claire McCartney, senior adviser for resourcing and inclusion at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says: "It may be difficult for employers to make any guarantees in the current environment but what they can do is make sure any potential new hires are aware of the different financial measures the Government has introduced to support workers such as Universal Credit, Employment Support Allowance, self-employment grants and the like."

Above all, she says, employers should be honest in communications about the fluid nature of the circumstances. "Things are also likely to change further in the next few weeks or months as we see a deepening impact of the virus on society and business, so it is important that communication is ongoing."

Get creative with onboarding

Michelle Raymond, founder of HR consultancy The People's Partner, is exploring a number of avenues with a client in the beauty industry that was on course to make five hires in the coming weeks. Two had already been interviewed, with employment contracts drawn up - these roles will be held open provisionally and the hires kept updated and invited to team meetings in the interim.

"This would have been part of the onboarding process and no sensitive information was shared," she says. "We have decided more recently to take one of them on as a freelancer for three months and pay an hourly rate, and once the market picks up, then engage them as a full-time employee."

As in this case, it might be worth considering whether there is some way for the employee to start work rather than postpone the start date, argues Wendy Pearson, a careers consultant at Durham University Business School. "It might feel risky to onboard someone and pay a salary at this time, but if they were an important hire before the lockdown it's likely they will be afterwards," she says. "You can use this time to get them access to systems, or consider a phased start. Perhaps it's an option to say, 'we can't issue you with a permanent contract at the moment but can offer fixed-term or more casual work'."

Software company CIPHR has been looking at its hiring pipeline on a case-by-case basis. "We've spoken to candidates at length to understand their personal circumstances; we don't want to say you can't start for three months and then leave someone financially crippled," says director of people Claire Williams.

Maintain engagement

Where the start date has to be deferred, maintaining engagement is important, she adds. CIPHR use weekly check-ins by the talent team over the phone. Managers and colleagues are encouraged to stay in touch regularly, using platforms such as Microsoft Teams. Candidates that have confirmed they will start at the later date can complete an online onboarding module and they can review HR policies and input their personal data - meaning one less administration task when they do begin.

"We have also had to resort to unusual logistics to get technology to them (if they need a laptop or work phone, for example), so we've used secure lockers," adds Williams. "Induction modules and meetings can mostly be done online or via video, and because everyone is working remotely at the moment, it feels more inclusive." Other aspects of new-starter administration such as right to work checks - which the Government has now confirmed can temporarily be done via video calls - could also be covered during this time.

Wendy Pearson at Durham University Business School says being mindful of people's anxiety levels during this uncertain period is crucial. "Manage the length of time between communications, especially now," she says. "Two days can feel like two weeks at the moment, so not communicating anything is the worst you can do. Provide as much information as you can, even if it's just to say there are no further developments - that is better than nothing at all. Be really clear that they have still got the job, the offer still stands."

Claire McCartney at the CIPD says an organisation's communication will depend on the resources available: "Hiring managers or HR could set up video calls to check in and update deferred hires and answer any questions they might have. Organisations might also have community groups set up on different platforms such as Facebook or LinkedIn," she says. "These could be used to maintain communication and engagement throughout this period of disruption and uncertainty." But manage expectations around when you expect them to reply.

"People may want to engage with communication when they have the headspace to do it," says Pearson. "But a new starter may feel less comfortable than an existing colleague in turning down a meeting because they're at home with their children. Allow them to respond when they're ready."

Finally, think about the social aspects of starting a new job. Are there ways to replicate the meet and greet or new starter get-togethers? Claire Williams believes this is one of the biggest challenges. "The social onboarding side, where you'd normally be in the office and mingling, doing intros, that can fall by the wayside. So we make a point of getting people to put in a call, have a quick chat, or invite them to our virtual socials such as our Friday pub quiz."

Should the current situation become more long-term, she concludes, it will be time to think more creatively around engagement - not just for new starters, but also existing staff.