Effectively recruiting and retaining staff in a disruptive environment
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Effectively recruiting and retaining staff in a disruptive environment

1 year ago · 6 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many of the processes deployed by not-for-profit (NFPs), including the means in which they attract, engage, and retain staff. This article highlights some of the important and creative ways NFPs can effectively adjust their staff recruiting and retention strategies during this disruptive and ever-changing landscape.

The importance of branding

Branding and brand awareness are more essential now than ever to attracting top talent. NFPs should consider using their websites and social media to tell their stories. The prospect of working with an NFP that has a meaningful mission beyond a profit motive is often a significant factor in attracting high-performing staff. A brand reflects on an organization’s reputation, core values, and reasons why staff enjoy working there. Job seekers want to be associated with organizations that are concerned about their employees during these unprecedented times. It is therefore critical that an NFP’s messaging take a more human and empathetic tone and clearly describe the actions it has taken during the pandemic. Organizations that project compassion and care will likely be more successful with staff recruitment in today’s environment.

How to succeed with virtual recruiting

Virtual interviews may be less effective than in-person interviews from both the employer’s and candidate’s perspectives. Access and connectivity issues can make the process more cumbersome, and even as the technology becomes more widely used, it can still feel unnatural. But virtual interviewing is a reality in the recruiting process for now, and likely for the foreseeable future. Here are a few tips for hiring organizations to make the most of this situation:

  • Train hiring managers on how to conduct virtual interviews.

  • Consider providing hiring managers with scripts to ensure consistent messaging and that all relevant questions are asked.

  • Screen candidates for qualities and skill sets that will make them successful in a remote environment, such as resourcefulness, ability to work independently, proactive collaboration, and strong verbal and written communication skills.

  • Focus on a candidate’s attitude and values, making sure they are aligned with the organization’s culture and core values.

  • Use virtual tours, videos, employee testimonials, and podcasts to help communicate the organization’s values and culture to candidates.

  • Consider where it may be appropriate to conduct group interviews, which tend to work well virtually.

  • Survey candidates about their interview experiences to learn how you can continue to improve your virtual recruiting process.

Candidates likely will ask how your organization is managing the pandemic and protecting staff. Interviewers should err on the side of transparency here. Consider providing candidates with a full accounting of how the organization reacted to the pandemic, including facility closures, managing funding challenges, the board’s involvement, and whether staff have been furloughed or laid off. Consider sharing any mistakes made and lessons learned while trying to cope with the effects of COVID-19. In addition, interviewers should showcase how the organization is addressing staff wellbeing and workplace safety, such as providing PPE, investing in cleaning, and relaxing or modifying the attendance policy to accommodate those who may feel uncomfortable working in the office.

Recruiting opportunities in the COVID-19 environment

Due to the furloughs and layoffs stemming from the pandemic, there may be a greater opportunity for organizations to recruit top talent that may not have been available under different circumstances. Here are a few tips for NFPs looking to take advantage of this opportunity:

  • NFPs that are hiring should use various methods including social media to make their needs known.

  • Now may be a prime time to collaborate with other NFPs and create talent pools comprised of furloughed and laid off staff. Multiple NFPs can share these talent pools to help meet hiring needs.

  • Virtual job fairs are also a good source for talent.

  • Hiring contract employees instead of full-time employees may be an affordable option.

  • While clearly not the same as the in-person experience, some organizations have successfully created virtual internship programs providing a valuable talent pipeline.

  • Do not overlook internal staff, as recruiting from within conveys a positive message and helps employee retention.

Remember that even in disruptive times, a competitive compensation package is still important to recruiting talent. Some organizations may try to take advantage of this unusual job market by paying less. While this may seem like a good strategy to save costs in the near-term, it likely will have a negative impact on morale in the long-term and could result in costly turnover as underpaid staff will seek employment elsewhere as soon as the job markets open. To save costs now, try to negotiate with candidates to obtain buy-in on creative compensation packages including, for example, phased-in salary increases and enhanced benefits and perks.

What to do if you’re not recruiting

Even if an organization has furloughed staff or instituted a hiring freeze, this time can be used to assess your current staffing and plan for future needs. Consider the following:

  • Re-examine your organizational chart.

  • Conduct skill assessments.

  • Re-evaluate your current workforce to ensure the right people are in the right jobs.

  • Rewrite job descriptions.

You may find you can consolidate certain jobs. You may find you need additional bench strength or cross-training. As difficult as it may be during these volatile times, it is important to determine future talent needs. Even during a hiring freeze, you can work on creating a pool of potential candidates for use when hiring resumes. You might also consider providing assessments and training related to soft skills such as emotional intelligence and unconscious bias.

3 critical elements for retaining staff during COVID-19


When it comes to staff retention, the importance of communication cannot be understated, especially during tumultuous times. Organizations must use multiple modes of communication and be as transparent with staff as possible. Leaders should consider communicating the following:

  • Actions being taken to keep staff secure, re-opening plans, and the financial condition of the organization.

  • Changing safety laws and protocols affecting the workplace.

  • Negative actions, such as furloughs or layoffs, that were required.

  • Acknowledgement that everyone is experiencing the unusual and far-reaching effects of a worldwide pandemic, and that each person is reacting and managing this crisis in their own unique way.

Decisive communication increases employee confidence. During these times it is also important that staff feel they are being heard. Make sure you are providing forums such as virtual town halls where staff can communicate their concerns. Staff engagement and their trust in your leadership are critical for retention.

Consider how you are using technology to ensure that staff are staying connected when teams are working remotely. Social isolation can have negative effect on staff morale and mental wellness and should be managed. Leadership should be proactive in finding ways for their teams to connect and socially interact. Avoid using email as the primary mode of communication. Instead, consider daily ZOOM meetings, polls, chat rooms, and virtual social activities such as happy hours and cooking lessons. Use pulse surveys to monitor staff morale and ensure the strategies you are employing are effective.

Professional development

Be mindful that even during the pandemic lack of upward mobility is a major contributor to employee turnover. While much of the world may be “on hold,” an employee’s motivation to enhance their career is not. Continue to focus on career advancement even in a disrupted environment and work with staff on their professional development. Consider how you might expose staff to new roles and responsibilities even in a virtual workplace environment. Employees value highly the ability to thrive and grow within an organization so this will be a key factor in the success of your retention efforts.

Given funding volatility and business interruption, NFPs are understandably concerned about financial sustainability, liquidity, and their ability to meet budgets and plans for next year. Try to avoid cutting professional development and training budgets despite these challenges. Rather, communicate your willingness to invest in your staff and emphasize the importance of both professional and personal growth. In a remote environment it is often hard for staff to focus on anything but their daily responsibilities. Be sure to communicate the importance of carving out the time for development.

Compensation and benefits

Compensation and employee benefits remain critical to an organization’s ability to retain talent. While it may sound counterintuitive when funding is being reduced and staff furloughs and layoffs are prevalent, you still need to ensure that staff are rewarded for their extra efforts, as many are taking on additional duties during these times.

Health benefits continue to be an important benefit category, but employers may need to take a careful look at these offerings and consider modifications that could help reduce costs without a significant impact on employees. Also, be sure to encourage staff to take advantage of telehealth benefits.

During this time when traveling is often not an option, encourage employees to “unplug” and take their paid time off. Continue to offer telecommuting and flexible work schedules where possible and be sure to provide the technology and supplies necessary for remote working. Going forward, consider enhancing family-focused benefits such as onsite or backup childcare services or childcare expense subsidies. Be sure to educate staff about any new benefit offerings.

A committed, dedicated team is essential for an NFP to carry out its mission. Attracting and engaging the best talent is only possible when employees feel appreciated and valued for their contributions and hard work. Organizations must find ways to show thanks and reward staff that have exceeded expectations.

During these challenging times, NFPs must be agile, showcase their brands, and effectively recruit staff in a virtual environment. Leaders must lead, listen, show compassion, and make staff feel comfortable and safe in the workplace. Compensation, benefits, upward mobility, and professional and personal development continue to be critical for recruiting and retention. Organizations that invest in staff and are successful at putting employees first will be able to attract and retain world-class talent in this disruptive environment.

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