How Chester Zoo is leveraging its brand to win the recruitment battle

by HRD Connect

Founded in 1931, Chester Zoo is Britain’s most popular zoo and one of the most famous cultural landmarks in north-west England. However the animal park, which operates as a charity and carries out extensive conservation work alongside its core visitor operation, has been forced to fundamentally rethink its approach to recruitment in the wake of Covid-19.

Closures during the pandemic required a major redundancy drive, and now the zoo is facing fierce competition from other sectors as it seeks to retool. Demand for staff in some of its most important roles is fiercer than ever.

Here Zoe McEvoy, Chester Zoo’s director of people and culture, tells HRD Connect how she and her colleagues are using technology to bridge the recruitment gaps and leveraging a world-famous brand to secure the talent they need.

 

It’s everyone’s dream job, right? Working in a park full of magnificent animals and beaming customers, brimming with the wonders of nature. Whether you’re feeding big cats or handing out the day passes, a zoo is everyone’s happy place, a place where the world can forget its troubles.

And Chester Zoo is good. Really, really good. In fact it’s been named among the top zoos in the world by Forbes magazine, and employees regularly leave glowing reviews on job satisfaction sites, raving about the high rates of pay, the numerous perks (including free passes for staff) and the smiley working environment. It has received international recognition for its conservation work, too.

But even Chester Zoo is facing recruitment challenges right now. The organisation has been forced to rethink its entire staff structure in the wake of Covid-19, at a time when every leisure and hospitality brand on the planet is doing the same thing. Roles which previously filled themselves are suddenly creating challenges.

Prior to Covid-19, things were going swimmingly. In 2019 the zoo received more than 2 million visitors and recorded revenues of £46 million. But then came the virus, which forced three separate closures and led to £10 million losses in the first 12 months alone.

For Zoe McEvoy and her team, this meant an extensive redundancy programme.  “It was very much around the uncertainty of the zoo being closed for a period of time,” she explains. “The majority of our revenue comes from visitors through the gate. We needed to make some difficult decisions and see them through.”

 

Competition is driving change

 

Now, the zoo is ready to boost its roster again. But in an environment where everyone is looking for fresh talent, this is easier said than done. It’s very much a candidate’s market right now, and those in sought-after roles have more options than ever.

Zoe says that some roles, such as plumbing and kitchen staff, have caused headaches over the past few months. “I’m less concerned about volume than quality of candidates, but yes we have seen a decrease in some specific job roles in areas where competition is fierce and where there has been an opportunity, particularly in hospitality, for people to make a different choice.

“The recruitment and talent acquisition landscape is unrecognisable from two years ago.”

At the same time, the people leadership team are striving to ramp up their approach to diversity. Chester itself is predominantly white and middle class and while the bigger cities nearby, Liverpool and Manchester, are far more representative of the wider UK population, the zoo has yet to really tap into these talent pools. 

“Although the roles are so incredibly diverse, we’re not particularly diverse in the normal sense of the word, in terms of our workforce,” Zoe admits.

So the people leaders have had a rethink. They have tried agencies in the wake of Covid but haven’t seen much return from this approach (“the agencies aren’t doing anything particularly different to what we were doing”, Zoe says). Now, they’re taking back control, with an emphasis on speed and flexibility; instead of putting closing dates on adverts, the zoo will shortlist and interview as and when suitable candidates apply. 

Prior to Covid, Chester Zoo recruited through job boards but also placed particular emphasis on social media channels such as LinkedIn. In the wake of the pandemic, social will be more important than ever. The zoo runs its own social media searches and also engages recruitment advertising agency JVP, which provides targeted social media campaigns and actively searches for potential candidates on LinkedIn.

“Social media is a key part of our recruitment strategy,” Zoe says. “Chester Zoo’s social media following is vast and social media is a really important tool for us during our recruitment campaigns. Vacancies are shared via our Chester Zoo LinkedIn page and also our dedicated Chester Zoo Jobs Facebook group. 

“This is complemented by the social media campaign carried out by our recruitment advertising company. We also encourage our managers, as subject matter experts, to share vacancies within their groups and networks.”

 

Revamping employer branding in a new recruitment market

 

But the real gear-change in Chester Zoo’s post-Covid approach has been around the wording of job adverts. Indeed, the people team have recently worked with JVP to review the language of their ads; the aim, Zoe says, is not only to make them more concise but to fundamentally shift the emphasis of their message. The new adverts will be much clearer on the zoo’s underlying purpose, and its values as a conservation charity.

“We are thinking much more strategically about what kind of people we’re attracting, who knows about us as an employer, what our values are and what our employer brand looks like. We have a very recognisable brand in terms of charity and visitor attraction, but maybe there needs to be more focus on who we are as an employer. And at this point that’s incredibly important, given that the recruitment market is so changed on the back of Covid.”

Indeed, various studies and think-pieces share this conclusion. In an increasingly congested market, candidates value a strong value proposition. Millennials, in particular, are driven by the desire to work for progressive, purpose-driven companies that care about their people and the wider world. For Chester Zoo, which has a Glassdoor rating of 4.1, it makes sense to talk about what goes on behind the scenes as well as in the cages and enclosures.

As part of this revamp, Zoe and her colleagues plan to make greater use of existing staff in the company’s recruitment literature. Through the careers website, the people team want to introduce videos of staff talking about their experience in an engaging, relatable way; at the same time, they will share staff stories on social media.

 

“Our best ambassadors of the Chester Zoo are the people who already work here. Are we sharing those stories, are we connected to the right people? Are our staff talking about how incredible it is to work here? This is a big focus going forward.”

By sharing these endorsements, Zoe wants to highlight the potential benefits of Chester Zoo to specific professions, which may not have been covered by the previous adverts.

“If I’m a marketer and I’m looking for a marketing opportunity, what would attract me? What would I want to see? What would that look like? I would relate to somebody who works in marketing telling me how fantastic the opportunity is and giving me a feel for what the working environment is.”

 

Bringing in technology

 

In tandem with this increased focus on employer branding, Chester Zoo is about to launch a brand-new candidate tracking system, built by recruitment software specialist Jobtrain. 

With this new system, the recruitment leads can create bespoke assessment forms with questions that are relevant to the zoo’s daily activity. Better still, they can bring the brand to life through photography and video.

“Our new system has a real focus on the candidate journey, ensuring every candidate has a positive experience through an easy-to-use system,” Zoe says.

“It also has features that support our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion goals such as the accessibility toolbar where candidates can select their own preferences on font size, screen contract and other visual alternations and also includes an audio feature that will read the content of the page. The system also has functionality for anonymised shortlisting for our roles which require an application only.

“The system has increased functionality that enables our recruitment and onboarding process to be more streamlined, it’s user-friendly for hiring managers and paper-free, which supports our organisation’s sustainability aims.”

 

As time goes on, the process will become ever-more scientific. Through the new tracking system, Zoe and her team will gather data around the number of applicants, the time to hire and the source of successful candidates. Not only will this allow them to make their recruitment operation more efficient, it will enable them to identify opportunities and highlight under-utilised corners of the market.

More than anything, it will enable Chester Zoo to capitalise on its innate advantage as a compassionate, wildlife-focused brand. By combining technology with strong employee branding, the people team believe they can find the right people no matter the competition they face.

“People have been through a period of reflection during the pandemic and have assessed what is important to them,” Zoe says. “We recognise that people are looking for increased flexibility, a better work life balance and want to work somewhere that they can bring their whole self to work. People are also looking to be part of an organisation that makes a difference.

“As an organisation with a strong mission of preventing extinction, has conservation at the heart of what we do, a positive and inclusive culture and the ability to offer some level of flexibility in a number of our roles, we see this as a great opportunity.”

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