RPO & StaffingTalent Acquisition

Bright Hires, Big Citi

By outsourcing the “top of the funnel,” the bank preserves high-touch recruiting.

By Russ Banham

Imagine processing the online employment applications of one million people each year, and then digging through this mountain of data to hire 30,000-to-40,000 non-exempt employees. This migraine regularly confronted the giant financial services provider Citi—until it found relief through an innovative recruitment process outsourcing engagement that helped it to refine the candidate pool.

Rather than outsource the entire recruitment process “soup to nuts”—the traditional response by many companies—Citi outsources just the “soup,” the first big jolt of job candidates that, from an administrative standpoint, is highly transactional and repetitive. By taking this tack, the company maintains high-touch candidate interactions with job candidates early in the process, creating a more personal and less divisive employment-seeking experience.

Since the outsourcing solution is flexible, scaling up and down to the rhythm of Citi’s employment needs, it’s also cost effective. Finally, there are the strategic benefits of RPO—Citi’s HR and talent acquisition professionals are freed up to spend more time with higher quality candidates and less time attending to mundane transactional tasks. “Human capital gives us a competitive advantage,” says Danna Szwed, Citi’s director of human resources. “In this regard, job candidate recruitment and selection are crucial.”

This potential capital is now being managed in what Citi’s outsourcing services provider Pinstripe calls a “top of the funnel” RPO approach. By screening job candidates at the top of the funnel, Pinstripe can narrow the pool to those individuals best fitting the specific job requirements that Citi seeks, i.e., from one million people to 30,000. “We forward the qualified, interested, and available job candidates to the Citi recruitment teams, who then shepherd them through the final interview and selection processes,” says Sue Marks, CEO of Milwaukee-based Pinstripe, a five-year-old RPO provider founded by several industry and HR veterans. “We do this in a very ‘high tech, high-touch’ manner.”
Don’t Call Us
Candidate recruitment and hiring wasn’t always this “touchy-techy” for Citi, which—like a lot of financial institutions in the high-flying, pre-recession year—hired employees by the boatload to fill yawning job vacancies in its assorted businesses. “The staffing organization for our North America group was constantly being asked to do more with less,” says Szwed. “It was quite a dilemma.”

Indeed it was, when one considers the tens of thousands of individuals on a weekly basis filling out online applications for a customer-facing job as a bank teller, collector, or customer service representative. Managing the screening process without coming off as insensitive was a challenge. If a candidate’s phone calls or emails aren’t returned, or if job applications molder in a virtual file drawer for weeks and months, the residual disapproval can affect a company’s brand and reputation. “These are candidates for a job, but they may also be current or prospective consumers of our products,” Szwed explains. “This may be the person’s first interaction with the company. Obviously, we want it to be a positive experience.”

In 2006, Citi decided that a new way of processing the initial squall of job candidates was needed. The volume of applicants had reached record levels, and Citi’s HR and talent acquisition teams were beleaguered by the overflow. As the company began to contemplate an RPO solution, Szwed wanted an approach that would allow her organization to retain its strategic talent acquisition role of shepherding candidates through the final interview and selection processes. It was the early interactions at the top of the funnel—“where all the volume was,” she says—that required shedding. “By outsourcing these transactional functions, we could stay tuned to our core competency—getting the best people into the right jobs.”

At the same time, Citi wasn’t interested in simply handing off the work and forgetting about it. “We wanted a provider that would be an extension of us,” says Szwed. “They would need to represent us in the interactions with candidates as if, indeed, they were us. They would have to uphold the values we consider important, performing as appropriate stewards and doing the job with quality and efficiency. We wanted as tight a partnership as one can imagine.”

To attain this degree of closeness, the chosen provider would need to leverage Citi’s own technology to interact with the one million job candidates, give or take, each year. Pinstripe was selected for the task, given its innovativeness in handling complex clients needs. While the firm offers end-to-end global RPO services, in the case of Citi it would provide a solution for only the front end. “Outsourcing often is viewed as ‘all or none’ but we’ve developed and implemented a sophisticated, hybrid model with Citi, in which we handle the early candidate interactions and they take care of the remainder,” says Marks. “We’re doing things differently.”

This atypical approach to RPO is not a walk in the park, given the huge candidate volume. Chalk it up, in part, to Citi’s effective, Internet-based employment branding and recruitment marketing programs. “People are attracted in droves by Citi’s career Web site,” Marks explains.

Sifting The Wheat
Essentially the same work previously performed by Szwed’s organization is now undertaken by Pinstripe. The process begins with the initial job application, a technology-enabled online assessment that the candidate must complete. If the individual fits the particular job profile, he or she is notified by email of eligibility to move forward to the next stage of the process—a telephone pre-screening. Each candidate is given the opportunity to choose to move forward and schedule the screening, or to decline the invitation. In cases in which they fail to do either, Pinstripe reaches out to them to ensure contact, especially in tight hiring environments.

The telephone pre-screening entails a range of questions designed to discern whether or not the candidate is appropriate to the job at hand, and to determine if he or she is truly interested in the employment being offered. “They’re asked seven or eight basic questions about their knowledge of computers, experience in the industry, compensation requirements, and understanding of the actual job,” Szwed says. “Pinstripe, on our behalf, makes the decision to either move the person through the next phase of the process—an on-site interview—or not. After that, we take over, and they’re out of the picture.”

From the candidate’s perspective, the process is considered high-touch, despite the Internet and telephone interactions. “It’s common knowledge in the industry that the downside to Internet-based career profiling is that candidates typically are frustrated with the experience,” Szwed says. “They apply for a job, wait weeks to hear back, and then nothing.”

That “nothing” is a consequence of few people tasked to manage a fusillade of job applications aimed their way. By outsourcing this process to a provider that does nothing but recruitment, great efficiencies are garnered. “Think about all that labor that Citi doesn’t have to do,” Marks says. “The transactional, routine ‘over and over again’ screening at the top of the funnel we can slim down considerably for Citi’s HR reps and hiring managers, who now can spend quality time with quality people—candidates that are truly interested in the job being offered and available for it. Instead of talking to 100 people they can talk with two. The time saved can be devoted to more strategic, higher-level activities, such as being a true business partner to Citi managers.”

Candidates get better service through the RPO model, she adds. “Each one of them gets a timely response and knows where they stand,” Marks explains. “If the answer is ‘no’ it’s not like the inquiry went into a black hole. Our job, first and foremost, is to take care of and reinforce the Citi employment and consumer brand.”

All this resonates strongly with Szwed. “The concept of ‘customer experience’ is vitally important to us, since we’re a customer-centric organization,” she says. “Job candidates who have a high-touch experience early on take this with them throughout their careers. It then flows into their encounters with customers.”

Szwed adds, “It is not uncommon for someone working here to say to a customer who expresses a positive service experience, ‘You know, when I applied here for a job, that’s exactly how I felt, too.’ ”

What comes around goes around. 

One Year at A Time

Citi’s engagement of RPO provider Pinstripe is atypical for many reasons, chiefly its part-and-parcel approach to hiring, rather than the customary end-to-end solution. Another is the one-year duration of the contracted engagement.
Having struck its original deal in 2006, Citi recently renewed the contract for the fifth time. On each occasion, Pinstripe was given greater hiring responsibilities, from customer service representatives the first year of the assignment to bank tellers and mortgage professionals in the latest iteration. The one-year contract also is structured differently from most RPO engagements. “We pay a monthly maintenance fee that is a ‘pay-as-you-go’ model, based on the number of pre-screens that Pinstripe conducts,” explains Citi HR director Szwed. “Only 5 percent of the fee is a fixed cost. The rest is variable, which creates great cost efficiencies. For example, when our hiring volumes plummeted two years ago, and Pinstripe pre-screened far fewer individuals, my variable costs fell with it.”
But, Szwed insists that the most singular aspect of Citi’s RPO contract with Pinstripe is the way in which the engagement liberates hiring managers in her 250-person recruitment organization to spend higher quality time with job candidates. Says Szwed, “They’re able to be better mentors and advisors to people seeking a job here, which has made their careers more enriching.”

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