With years managing Deloitte’s workforce, an HR leader fine tunes RPO.
By Katie Kuehner-Hebert
Alyson Sparks was drawn to the emotional component of human resources when she entered the field in the early 1990s, but today her appreciation for the value that HR brings to the overall organization is much fuller.
The Atlanta native had taken on the task of helping to recruit graduating accounting students on college campuses for Price Waterhouse (before it merged with Coopers & Lybrand). “These students are making one of the most important decisions of their lives and deciding where they are going to go for their first job, and so to be a part of that, it’s really something special,” Sparks says. “I think I probably went into HR with much more of an emotional bent to it.”
But years later, after switching to professional services firm Deloitte LLP and moving up the HR ladder to become director of recruitment and operations for the U.K. and Switzerland, Sparks says her regard for the field has matured.
“I’ve really recognized over the years how much HR plays a role in supporting the business and helping the business reach its aims,” Sparks says. “It’s really about insuring that HR understands the strategy of the business, where you want it to go and that it takes people to get it there. It’s about how we help make sure that we have the right people in the right place at the right time.”
But the value of HR also means knowing when to outsource, in-source, or use a shared-service center for administrative tasks, she adds, “so that you then can upskill the other part of your HR team.”
Sparks didn’t start out to be an HR executive. After graduating in 1993 from the University of Georgia with a business degree in accounting, she took a job as an auditor at Price Waterhouse. Before long, she was asked to help out with campus recruitment. After the merger with Coopers & Lybrand, Sparks was offered a position with both HR and recruiting responsibilities, dropping her initial duties as a client auditor.
“It was a moment that I really had to decide whether or not I was going to stay in accounting, or whether I wanted my career to go in this direction,” Sparks says. “I felt my skills set and personality jelled more with the HR side of things . . . and while I moved to HR from client services on good terms, I haven’t looked back since.”
Sparks continued in that role for another year, before joining Deloitte in 1999 as head of campus recruitment nationwide for the firm’s tax department. After her first maternity leave in 2003, she was promoted to Southeast director of campus recruitment for all of Deloitte’s professional services departments; after her second maternity leave in 2005, she was promoted again to national deputy director of talent management.
Sparks and her husband had always wanted to spend time overseas, and when the right position opened, they found their chance. In 2007, Sparks took a position in Deloitte’s London office as head of “graduate” recruitment (what the British call campus recruitment) for the U.K. and Switzerland.
“At first I didn’t know if it was quite the right role for me, but in hindsight, it was a fantastic move,” Sparks says. “It’s amazing how different campus recruiting is, even in the U.K., but it wasn’t so different that everything was overwhelming, and it gave me a chance to get my teeth into it.”
At the same time, Sparks and her family—soon to be five with a new baby—were getting acclimated to a new country. But it wasn’t long before the family settled in, and soon after Sparks was promoted again to director of recruitment for both graduating students and experienced professionals for all of Deloitte’s departments in the U.K. and Switzerland, including relocating current executives within the firm. This year, she took on the additional role of overseeing Deloitte’s HR shared-service center for the U.K.
As part of her job, Sparks works closely with Deloitte’s recruitment process outsource provider, Alexander Mann Solutions. The London-based firm has been a partner with Deloitte for five years, and under Sparks it has assumed a number of additional responsibilities. The provider was initially contracted to handle only Deloitte’s recruitment of experienced executives outside the firm, but in 2008, it also became responsible for Deloitte’s recruitment within its internal ranks, for relocation to other departments, or to other countries.
Having Alexander Mann take over both responsibilities brought efficiencies, Sparks says. Once Deloitte’s HR team identifies a need, Alexander Mann has a conversation with the hiring manager to determine whether the position can be sourced internally before recruiting externally.
Alexander Mann’s expanded role slashed Deloitte’s use of headhunter agencies and subsequently, recruitment costs, Sparks says. In 2006, agency usage was 58 percent, resulting in a cost-to-fill of 20 to 25 percent of the average professional’s first year salary. With Alexander Mann performing much of that, agency usage dropped to 28 percent in 2009, and Deloitte’s “Cost to Compensation” ratios have run about 9 percent. “Now that the economy has dropped, organizations have been able to negotiate better terms,” Sparks says. “So while you might be able to get a rock-bottom agency price of 12 percent, we’re still getting a better rate going through Alexander Mann.” Additionally, direct hires increased from 16 percent in 2006, to 32 percent in 2009, and internal placements increased from 11 percent in 2006, to 25 percent in 2009.
Alexander Mann’s expertise in hiring experienced professionals is critical, Sparks says, as that market fluctuates considerably. “On the university side, it’s pretty tried and true—you know you have to go to the university to get the clients—it’s where they are,” Sparks says. “But on the experienced hire side, you really have to get into someone’s psyche. If they’ve been working for another organization for a long time, how do you approach them, how do you get them to develop a dialogue with you, and then how do you go about encouraging them to perhaps consider coming to your organization?”
Deloitte actually in-sources with AMS; the provider’s experts work in Deloitte’s recruitment offices, making the process more seamless in the eyes of prospective candidates, Sparks says. “If they were sitting offsite, they wouldn’t understand what it looks and feels like to work for Deloitte,” she says. It also increases their access to Deloitte’s hiring managers. Via AMS, Deloitte also has offshore and onshore administrative support to schedule interviews, conduct background sourcing, and perform other tasks in low-cost centers. Working with the provider also gives Deloitte a better ability to “flex up” and “flex down,” depending on the economic environment, Sparks says.
“If I had a team within Deloitte, then I would have been told to chop heads, but having an in-source provider, it’s not been my responsibility,” she says. “I give them the numbers and the targets, and they then have to size the team accordingly. Whether they make those people redundant, lay them off, or assign them to different accounts, it’s up to them.”
One of the great merits to tasking Alexander Mann with this role is that the provider has hundreds of clients with whom it could place Deloitte employees who are currently not needed there, Sparks says. Then when Deloitte “ramps back up,” Alexander Mann can place them back at her firm.
Last year, Deloitte asked AMS to also help with campus recruitment. Due to the economy, Sparks had to reduce her campus recruitment staff by a third, even though the workload remained robust—the firm still has to review as many as 25,000 applications to fill 1,000 to 1,200 vacancies a year. AMS now screens applications from prospective university candidates, administers online numerical and verbal tests to candidates, and conducts telephone screenings for those who advance.
Because of the improved quality of the prescreening by Alexander Mann, the “conversion rates” at first and second interviews on college campuses has improved. AMS also now recruits advertising agencies for Deloitte, combining to create £16 million in savings to date, Sparks says.
It took some time and prodding from Sparks to convince her superiors to outsource as many functions as it does now. “Professional services firms like ours can be pretty conservative and slow to change,” Sparks says. There’s also the mentality that “no one would know us like we do, so how could someone else talk about us and our needs any better than we could?”
However, having Alexander Mann’s staff actually work in Deloitte’s offices (“being a part of our culture”) helped to dispel that traditional notion, she says. Gradually, Deloitte has given Alexander Mann more strategic responsibilities, particularly as they’re now in charge of internal hires as well.
“It’s much more holistic as opposed to just giving them a requisition and telling them to go out and hire someone,” Sparks says. “If you just give them little bits and pieces and you don’t let them see the broader picture, I don’t think they can necessarily provide as high a quality of service.”
Sparks actually views Alexander Mann as a co-sourcing partner. Still, she says, some functions should remain in-house: “The main relationship with the businesses should be with us. We’ve contracted with Alexander Mann to provide a service . . . and come to the table with various proposals, but we haven’t contracted with them to necessarily think strategically about our business.”
For example, Deloitte’s Russian firm was over its headcount for market needs, so Sparks and her U.K. team have been discussing the possibility of a realignment. “For those sort of things, AMS wouldn’t necessarily be a part of those conversations,” Sparks says. “I think if you had your outsource providers having those conversations, the people might rightfully or wrongfully think AMS is just asking them these questions because they want more business, and I don’t know whether the businesses would open up fully to someone who is an outsource provider. Whereas with an in-house person, I think there’s a bit more trust and comfort for them to be more open and honest,” she says. “But because I have such a great relationship with AMS, I can then say to them, ‘I’m seeing the business going in this direction—are there things you can do to support that?’ ”
Overall, Sparks expects that outsourcing will continue to evolve, in that RPOs will increasingly be viewed by many clients as co-sourcing partnerships. For Deloitte, Alexander Mann’s evolving role has not only helped the firm incrementally, but the partnership has put its recruitment practices on a whole new plane. Concludes Sparks: “It’s really important that they are a part of my team, and that they understand our holistic strategy.”