HomeCase StudiesMaking the grade: How Northwestern’s recruitment and retention teams slashed time-to-fill and annual turnover

Making the grade: How Northwestern’s recruitment and retention teams slashed time-to-fill and annual turnover

by HRD Connect | Talent Acquisition

30-second summary

  • Amid industry-wide difficulties with recruitment and retention, Northwestern University implemented two rapid-action teams to address core inefficiencies and inadequate practices
  • Core KPIs including job applications, time-to-fill, and annual turnover rate have all seen dramatic improvements from FY 2022 to FY 2023
  • Lorraine Goffe, CHRO, Northwestern University, speaks to HRD on the creation and data-driven execution process and how the U.S. university has achieved such outstanding progress

With 22,000 students, 8,000 staff,  over 4,000 full-time faculty members, and a 173-year history, Northwestern University is no stranger to the struggles of many global organizations. From difficulties with hiring in the IT and Technology job market, to high levels of turnover, the U.S. University overcame significant challenges in the past two years, with results that would turn many talent acquisition and HR leaders green with envy. Northwestern University owes much of this progress to two rapid-action teams across recruitment and retention.

Lorraine Goffe, CHRO, Northwestern University, has overseen the remarkable work the teams have achieved. She shares insights on how the University has delivered outstanding improvements in core recruitment and retention KPIs from FY 2022 to FY 2023 including:

  • IT Job Applications: A 230% increase from an average of 300 per month to 990
  • Overall time-to-fill: A 28% reduction from an average of 81.5 days to 58.5 days
  • Overall annual turnover rate: A 20% reduction from a rate of 20% to 16%

Challenge: The familiar foes of recruitment and retention

Quiet quitting. Flexible working. Talent shortages. The HR industry loves a buzzword, and the past few years have certainly been no different. But at their core, we can trace each trend back to an underlying battle for recruiting and retaining the talent our organizations need to succeed.

“There were challenges at Northwestern,” explains Goffe, referring to high turnover rates and spiking numbers of open vacancies. “But I would argue that these were challenges nationally, and even globally,” she adds. The $8.5 trillion global talent shortage echoes this pressing concern facing all HR leaders.

Northwestern University had to address issues in both areas or face compounded issues for their current employees and organization, from burnout to business success. “If you don’t fix both sides of the equation, you’re going to have a revolving door situation,” says Goffe. “It was wonderful to focus on fixing the issues of recruitment. But we also had to fix our retention if we wanted to keep them in the organization.”

Northwestern University therefore identified core objectives for addressing these two challenges, including a focus on IT recruitment amongst tech talent shortages:

  1. Fix issues with the recruitment process by establishing a recruitment rapid-action team for IT vacancies, and scaling solutions out to the wider recruiting function. Namely, broaden the candidate pool and reduce time-to-fill.
  2. Fix issues with retention by understanding the reason for turnover at Northwestern University.

Solution: Rapid-action recruitment and retention teams

In the face of two pressing challenges, Goffe and the HR team elected to establish two rapid-action teams for recruitment and retention. Northwestern University’s Director of Talent Acquisition took the mantle of leading the recruitment team, and the Director of HRBPs took the helm for retention. The teams comprised core stakeholders across business units including recruitment partners and HRBPs, alongside local administrators from across the university. The leaders equipped each team, describes Goffe, with a “cross-section of members of our community to help us find the best possible solution for our organization.” She goes on to break down the work each team has completed.

Recruitment rapid-action team

Both the recruitment and retention rapid-action teams took a data-led approach to solving these critical business challenges. For the recruitment team, this included historical time-to-fill data, vacancy rates over time, and data from the community to understand the challenges with the recruitment process.

“It became clear to us that there were a couple of problems,” explains Goffe. “One was structural and how we did the work of recruitment. The other one had to do with technology.”

Historically, Northwestern University assigned each recruiter to a unit such as IT. Recruiters did not have visibility of suitable candidates who applied to other units. Siloes – the age-old issue of scale – had reared its ugly head. There was no structure nor technology in place to historically share high-quality candidates across business units. If a recruiter filled a vacancy with five high-quality applicants, four would go by the wayside.

The team purchased technology such as LinkedIn Enterprise and created a Northwestern career page to both target passive candidates through tailored and branded outbound recruitment and to share candidate profiles with far greater ease across business units. Goffe describes this shift as a “game-changer,” and indeed it has been. Time-to-fill dropped from an average of 81.5 days in FY 2022 to 58.5 days in FY 2023, and IT Job Applications saw a staggering increase from 300 per month to 990 per month (on average) over the same period.

Retention rapid-action team

Northwestern University’s approach to addressing retention similarly started with a close look at the data. “One of the first things we did was look at exit interview data,” shares Goffe. “But sometimes it’s incomplete. People may or may not tell you why they are leaving. So, we went back to anyone who had left the organization in the last twelve months and sent them a survey to gather their feedback.”

Former employees shared multiple challenges they experienced at Northwestern University. The retention rapid-action team coupled these insights with wider industry input, including whitepapers and turnover data from other organizations and institutions.

Issues included uncompetitive compensation, burnout and exhaustion, a lack of clarity on flexible working, poor supervisor experience, and a lack of advancement opportunities. Unsurprisingly, it’s been a busy two years for Northwestern to address these issues:

  • Established a higher-than-annual merit increase for compensation
  • Introduced a new employee assistance program vendor with enhanced services
  • Created more transparency around well-being, stress, and burnout, as exemplified by the CHRO communicating in the HR newsletter that employees should feel comfortable taking more time away
  • Formalized flexible working policy with many employees following a hybrid model
  • Continued to communicate the ‘Manager Foundations’ program to improve the quality of employee-supervisor relationships

Various members of the Human Resources team designed and executed each program, policy, and strategy to enhance the employee experience and reduce turnover. Their work has been a resounding success, with the annual turnover rate dropping from 20% in FY 2022 to 16% in FY 2023.

Leaving no employee experience stone unturned

Northwestern University’s progress, thanks to its two rapid-action teams, has been impressive. But Goffe is the first to acknowledge that her team can chip away further at these core metrics. “We’re going to continue focusing on improvement across the board. We are working on a recruitment strategy to apply the principles of the rapid-action team for recruitment to other areas beyond IT.”

The university has already started this process by identifying critical roles including research administrators. “We’re already seeing an increase in applications and a decrease in vacant positions,” adds Goffe, demonstrating the scalability of the work her teams have completed.

“We are also looking at our talent development strategy,” continues Goffe. “We do have people in our organization that advance and there are people on a variety of teams who have been at Northwestern for decades. But it’s not always clear to people so we’re looking at how we can make career opportunities more visible.”

Beyond adding greater visibility to career mobility, Northwestern University will also be engaging and training managers to better help their employees develop. The recruitment and retention rapid-action teams have achieved outstanding progress, but it’s clear Goffe is just getting started.

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