Introducing the third in his series of salons, Joe’s Blackbook founder Joe Medved, a connector in the fashion/retail/tech space, imagined the evening to be “a casual fireside chat” on all things HR and talent recruitment. But in the warmly lit minimal upper level of Lululemon Soho Loft the heat is produced by the panel of industry gatekeepers and power players invited to provide burning insights on current recruitment best practices and talent spotting. Assembled are: Matt Strode, Chief Talent Officer for URBN, the collective of Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Free People; Rebecca Seidenstein, Chief People Officer at Rag & Bone; Christine Clay, Global Head of Talent Acquisition at Eventbrite, formerly of Lululemon; Sara Nathanson, Vice President of Talent Acquisition for Aritzia in Canada; Jacqui Marcus, Senior Vice President of Talent at Tory Burch; and David Ard, Chief People Officer at Equinox.
FashionUnited summarizes the evening in two parts over today and tomorrow. Here is Part One which details modern demands for flexibility, the cultural/generational divide, the widening candidate pipeline, social media recruiting, interview assessments and design projects.
Emptier office spaces can seem alarming to older generations as iPads in conferences and faces materializing on screens during group meetings becomes the new norm led by millennials’ expectations of more flexibility in the workplace. Studies have shown that productivity goes up if employees are free to manage their time more, to walk their dog before work or pick up laundry. But maintaining connections while not being face-to-face can be a challenge. Negotiating what flexibility means for the individual and aligning it with what is feasible within the company is key. But, says Marcus, “In the product creation teams it becomes a challenge to offer flexible hours because of the codependency of a fitting, or meetings with the head of creative,” although she adds that Tory Burch prizes the importance of empowering managers to figure out what works for each department.
Strode, who reminds us that Mental Awareness Day has just passed, says, “what we see in Europe is that we’re expected to allow more flexibility and if you’re fostering a culture that values the quality of people’s lives you get a knock-on effect with productivity. As a company trying to spend more time in the wellness space, we preach that.”
Higher levels of depression and anxiety in millennials have prompted this demand for a healthier working environment, but of course the downside of working remotely can also be anxiety due to people never truly unplugging. Does flexibility mean you’re never off work?
Nathanson who describes the culture at Aritzia as a mixture of the traditional environment but with concessions such as the ability to bring your dog to work, onsite gym and a quality restaurant. “We manage by exception,” she says, “What do people need in their day-to-day life to feel good. That’s our version of flexibility.”
US workers typically do not take their vacation time, and a trend in the tech sector has been to offer unlimited vacation to attract and retain talent. When discussing if this could work in retail and apparel, the panelists recognize its value but say it is not a priority. Dialing back in-office hours, contracting, and moving to freelance basis are becoming more popular policies. Furthermore Marcus believes that unlimited vacation could lead to some employees being disadvantaged which could impact morale. “There are certain departments that would never be able to avail of these opportunities and so the optics are not good.”
The cultural/generational divide
We’re in a cross-generational workplace with baby boomers, millennials and Gen Xers all rubbing shoulders, but the old guard is often less up-to-date with digital developments and might not realize that technology exists which can make the experience of remote co-working flawless and glitch-free, but the new gen is entirely aware of the countless ways of conducting day-to-day business. The bottom line is that communication is everything in this new environment, together with setting expectations and deliverables clearly from the outset and planning for everyone to be together at certain key times throughout the process.
“Rag & Bone isn’t necessarily a company that’s technology-enabled where we could work with everyone having ultimate flexibility,” says Seidenstein, “We have a lot of new people and are building teams, we’re in transition, so, outdated as it may sound, there’s value in people being together.”
Audience member, Melissa Carter, Recruiting Leader at Coach, offers this: “I asked the VP for flexibility at my job interview. The role didn’t exist, but you need to be innovative and disrupt. The ability to be self-managed is important but I immediately put myself calendars, invite my DM, use my LinkedIn like a professional Instagram account and show consistency.”
For flexibility to be successful there is a need for good managers not the old-fashioned micromanagers, with trust being the other essential.
The widening candidate pipeline
Building the candidate pipeline has always been a focus for recruiters but now that it is driven by digital connectivity is it easier to connect the best people to the opportunities?
“Technology has widened the funnel,” says Strode. “But I think we haven’t really evolved in recruiting, we’re perhaps lagging in how effective we can be. You have more people you need to get back to, the pool is less precise, so the greater volume is an issue in itself.”
As candidates have more access to hirers and vice versa, the fit within the culture of the company becomes increasingly significant, but assessment is problematic.
“We believe what makes a great style advisor is not anything you can tell from a piece of paper,” says Nathanson who invites every candidate for an in-person meeting. “That is a lot of work but otherwise how do you know? If innovative equals technology, we are not that. We try to think smart for the right outcome and know what we’re looking for while being open to what we find.”
The myopia of AI technology in the recruiting process can add to the lack of clarity as talent sometimes just doesn’t come across via algorithms. There isn’t one AI tool that the panel agrees is reliable. Hiring for potential is not represented nor is identifying translatable skill sets, and there’s certainly no allowance for the good old-fashioned gut instinct.
Sharing information is a modern-day phenomenon. As companies now put their employees out there on social media, exhibiting more openness about the behind-the-scenes talent, they’re also offering them up as brand representatives. At Urban, team members are given the company’s Instagram account to host for the day and members of their robust internship program enlisted to post dog-of-the-day photos, pics of the onsite gym and cafe, and generally get the message out to potential talent about the desirable work culture within.
“Back in the day you could buy phone lists so that you could call everyone in the department,” remembers Strode. “People aren’t so protective anymore. It’s a much more mobile, communal workforce.”
But is there a difference between sharing information and mining for data? Are candidates invited for interview simply to provide intel on competitors, something which Strode calls “the subterfuge of recruitment”? “It happens,” he says, “we try to understand in order to be competitive.”
Nathanson believes reciprocal sharing of information still isn’t happening enough. The role of recruiter tends to be a lonely one in which you are in constant competition with everyone, so she welcomes ways of pooling together, such as this evening’s event, which further breaks down the walls.
It is unanimous that social media communication should be handed off to digital natives or those who’ve grown up with it in order to authentically communicate the message and reach the best talent. “The talent controls the market,” says Marcus,“There used to be the attitude of You’re lucky to get the interview, this is a premier brand. But today there are so many choices. What are the development opportunities, the value for the candidate? Recruitment is one-on-one. Make them want you.”
Testing at interview/Design Projects
Assessments at interview can help to narrow the candidate pool, but says Marcus, “Testing is only as good as its application. What are you testing for and does the assignment determine that?”
Multiple-hour behavioral and cultural testing occurs at the executive level in some companies, but flaws remain, it’s costly, and it often leads to results that might be skewed based on prejudices or assumptions on the part of the assessor.
In the creative field, design projects are still common. Traditionally the candidate completes a body of work at the company’s request but for free in order to be considered for an opportunity. If there is a correlation between an amazing project and an employee who performs exceptionally well when in the job, it is unclear. The topic can be contentious because many companies have abused the practice and some designers consider it exploitative. At best, if a design candidate comes from a very different brand, and their portfolio is only reflective of that experience, projects tailored to the brand looking to hire can reassure those in charge that the designer is a good fit. Then again, candidates can ace the project and still not fit within the company dynamics, and in a freelance gig economy, taking the time required to execute an industry standard project can eat into a candidate’s immediate potential for earning.
“Your time is our priority, says Nathanson. “If someone’s entry level and applying, we see their portfolio as very esoteric, they’re just out of design school, and we don’t have a sense of their point of view, so they can help us with that by doing this amount of work. It should only take X amount of time. If someone’s more senior we don’t ask them to do that, and if anything we’ll pay them. And we’ll sign something that says we’re not going use their work. We’d lose all credibility if we did anything other than that.”
“It’s typically the same with us,” says Marcus. “If your work was labor intensive, we would pay people for their time and obviously give assurance that it’s their proprietary work, it’s not going to be the company’s. Unless of course they get hired.”
Despite these assurances it is not yet commonplace for companies to pay for the work. A designer in the audience asks if there has ever been pushback from a candidate asked to complete a project or if they would be considered out of the running if they refused.
Responds Nathanson, “If someone were to say no, I would understand why, and I might think this is someone who’s very interesting and probably has a strong view of their ability and I would want to know them more.”
Other hazards with projects include designers who have not gotten an offer but found their ideas appearing in the brand’s collection the following season, designers who turn in the project only to be ghosted by the company, or those who get a second interview to meet with the creative only to find that the project brief did not align with what the creative now says he is looking for.
“The brief should always come from the creative, not the hiring manager,” says Marcus. As there seems to be much room for miscommunication and wasted time with the practice, are there alternatives if companies aren’t willing to pay the candidate for their work?
“Maybe it’s a matter of reworking the book or doing something minimally as opposed to a full project where you’re showing a concept for a season,” suggests Marcus. “I don’t think we would walk away either if someone felt emphatically––we would try to get around it. The whole point is not around a negative evaluation of the candidacy, it’s actually for someone to demonstrate that they could be a good fit.”
In this era of greater flexibility, candidates should certainly feel empowered to negotiate projects of a smaller size especially because it remains for many hiring managers an essential part of the process. To determine if a candidate has the right eye, the right handwriting, the right aesthetic, or a relationship with the brand are the terms employed within the request. “I find it very difficult to hire anyone who isn’t showing specific work, just their book,” confirms one manager in the audience.
Look out tomorrow for Part Two which explores talent management and retention; feedback and reviews; maximizing diversity, the importance of a four-year degree and the workplace of the future.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Photo credits Joe’s Blackbook