Creative Thinking and Empathy in HR

At the CIPD annual conference last week, I was facilitating a session with Neil Morrison and Claire Thomas of Penguin Random House. They were provoking some thought behind how we improve recruitment by encouraging people to think about things from the candidate’s point of view. What’s their point of view about being interviewed? What would make the recruitment campaign a useful one for them? How could it be a more invitational setting? What’s their experience of going through recruitment with you, and is it as good as it could be?

What came out quite strongly from this group of 100 folk is that when they were asked to think differently and reconsider recruitment from the candidate’s point of view, it really challenged the group.

Most people ended up discussing and sharing what their current practice looked like and how good it was because: it was mobile enabled, they tested for values and behaviours, they used psychometric testing, they did assessments, they used an ATS that could automate everything.

With some guidance from the speakers, we helped people to develop their thinking and discussions encouraging thought and debate to happen around improving the candidate experience. There were some great suggestions that came through along the lines of:

  • giving candidates the interview questions ahead of the interview – we want them to show their best and then expect them to perform their best with no real preparation. This doesn’t happen under any normal business activity, and making candidates do this in interview just doesn’t make sense.
  • providing a clear breakdown of the recruitment process – what happens, when, by whom
  • PRH have taken the step to invite candidates to let the hiring managers know how they’d like to be interviewed and when – not being restricted by in person, and not being restricted by only interviewing during working hours

What ended up being a struggle was how to break out of that original thinking and critically look at what they’re doing from the candidate’s point of view. We helped people get there, but it took work.

As I’ve been thinking on it, it seems like two things are fairly prevalent across HR – and I’m very aware this is a broad brush stroke.

First is that we’ve become so good at developing processes, procedures and policies that when it comes to being creative, our default is almost that we fall back on how we make a new process that is better than the previous one. That’s not creative thinking or being innovative, that’s just replacing one thing with another – like upgrading your mobile phone. Or like getting rid of paper-based appraisals by making them electronic. That’s just being efficient. And we’ve become really good at making things more efficient.

Second is that we’ve had it ingrained in us that we have to think of the business first, and as a result have almost neglected how these things impact on people at work. It’s great we can improve processes, but if it’s done at the expense of improving the employee experience, why was it done? Like when we tell people we expect them to complete e-learning to fulfil compliance purposes. People at work don’t care about completing it, but we make it arduous and mandatory because we have to be compliant. That’s just unhelpful to the individual. We don’t place a high value on empathy because we want to improve the process, and when that happens, we dismiss the importance of the individual.

This isn’t me bashing HR. I am HR just as much as anyone reading this. It’s an observation and an example of how our profession has developed to such an extent that we can forget how it is to take a fresh look at what’s in front of us. Asking questions like:

  • Is a new process required, or just different/better thinking of what we’re asking people to do?
  • How does us implementing this impact on an individual, even though it might be better for the business?
  • If we don’t improve things and help people be their best, what is it that we’re doing?
  • How can we seek better feedback about the impact of our processes on people without being defensive in response?
  • What does a more human and adult way of doing this look like?





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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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