By  on April 4, 2007

Three years into a human resources overhaul, Holt Renfrew reduced turnover by one-third, improved employee satisfaction 14 percent and inspired workers to recommend others for jobs like never before — from four internal referrals in 2004 to 200 per year.

Those successes gave rise to an enviable problem. Prospective job candidates began flocking to the upscale Canadian department store through every portal imaginable: online ad, store, career fair, phone, friends and old-fashioned paper application.

Streamlining the application process became a practical necessity, and Holt turned to a Web-based system that culls job applications from all sources. The software, from San Francisco-based Taleo, interrogates candidates with role-specific questions in order to sort them into three buckets for Holt Renfrew. The buckets range from "what were they thinking" unqualified candidates to "dream employee" to "interesting, but…" found somewhere in between.

When Holt opens its next store May 31 in Vancouver, the 160 available job positions will draw 5,000 applications, said Mark Derbyshire, vice president of human resources. The software's ability to incorporate role-specific questions that change dynamically based on an applicant's responses can replace the screening interview that would happen by phone, bringing greater efficiency to the hiring process.

"I don't think [this technology] is a silver bullet," Derbyshire said. "It's not. I think it's a great tool that, if you get everything else right, will work fine. We didn't need Taleo three years ago because no one was standing in line to come work here."

Derbyshire, who joined the company as it was embarking on the human resources overhaul, said "fit" is key to finding the right employees who are happy and make customers happy. A worker who was a superstar in one company's culture may not shine so brightly at another, he said.

"Hiring is 90 percent of h.r.," he said. "You hire the right people and everything is going to work. You can train a turkey to climb a tree but it's easier to hire a squirrel. If we hire the squirrel, he will innately know what to do."

Holt Renfrew has introduced 34 human resources initiatives in three years with the intent to fix what was broken, from communication and incentives to development and e-learning to transparency and commission, Derbyshire said.In three years, the company has gone from nonexistent e-learning to more than 200 employee tutorials built on the development platform from Telus of Vancouver. Holt also offers employees a Telus-based "360 degree" co-worker evaluation, where employees can solicit input from peers, superiors and subordinates anonymously for their own edification — not to be shared with corporate.

Employee satisfaction has improved dramatically since chief executive officer Caryn Lerner came on board in 2004 and started pushing change.

"At that time we had a significant number of [employees] who were dissatisfied on every level with us as an organization, yet they showed up for work every day. Eight percent of the company couldn't stand us. What do you think that is going to mean to the customer? I mean, 'I don't like anything about Holt Renfrew but here I am to service you and make sure you feel like you have a good experience,''' Derbyshire said.

Three years later, the company has come a long way. Turnover is down, satisfaction is up and employees regularly refer friends for jobs.

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