As recently as a year and a half ago, it took the city of Denver 85 days, on average, to hire a single employee. In December, that number was down to 43.5 days.
This is the story of how the city’s human resources staff -- with the help of a paper elephant and a nerdy training program -- managed to cut the hiring time nearly in half.
In 2016, recruiters in the HR department took a week-long class at the Denver Peak Academy, a city program that teaches municipal employees how to save time and money without sacrificing quality. There, they often went back to the basics, using construction paper, sticky notes and permanent markers to see wasteful steps in any dysfunctional process.
After the academy, some of its graduates wanted the staff to create a visual management system that tracks progress toward a goal over time. The staff chose an elephant, Stampy, as a dual-purpose metaphor. It was both the giant problem (or “elephant in the room”) everyone had been ignoring and it was the daunting task that they could only complete in increments (or, as the aphorism goes, “when eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.”)
“I wanted to come up with something that would get everyone really excited, that everyone could see, that would help us see the big picture,” says Jordan Dullea, a talent acquisition project manager for the city who had taken the Peak Academy training and pushed for some type of visual management tool.
Dullea has personal experience with the city's slow hiring process. In 2015, she applied for a job with the city after more than four years working in HR in the private sector.
“It took forever,” she says.
For about two months, all she could see was a “pending” status on her application online. Now that she works for the city's HR department, she knows her experience was emblematic of a larger issue.
“A lot of the negative feedback that we get, that the mayor’s office gets, is that people feel like they submit their application into a black hole," she says.
Slow hiring is hardly a problem unique to Denver.
City and county governments across the country struggle to compete against nimbler organizations that pay better, especially when unemployment is low. Last year, the average time it took American employers to hire someone was 23.8 days, according to an economic research division of Glassdoor, a job posting website. But for government employers, the hiring time was much longer -- about 53.8 days.
“It’s clear that in a more competitive environment, to hire the talent you need, you have to streamline your processes,” says Elizabeth Kellar, director of public policy at the International City/County Management Association.
Two years ago, Kellar co-authored a report on recruiting challenges that state and local governments face. Undergraduate and graduate students cited too much bureaucracy and slow hiring processes as reasons they weren't interested in public-sector work.
In the Denver metro area, where unemployment is below 3 percent, agencies would sometimes make a job offer only to learn that the candidate had taken another position during the hiring process, says Jeff Allen, a former HR recruiter who helped spearhead the hiring initiative with Dullea and other Peak graduates.
Hiring was slow for a variety of reasons.
City rules dictated that HR post the minimum qualifications for an open position rather than describe the ideal candidate. Poor communication between recruiters and hiring managers resulted in situations where a candidate couldn’t be interviewed because a manager or someone else on the interview panel was on vacation or unavailable for weeks. Recruiters enjoyed broad flexibility in how to do their jobs, which resulted in variation in how long it took to complete a task.
For every major change the HR department made in pursuit of its goal, Stampy has a different felt patch.
Recruiters like Dullea and Allen worked with hiring managers to write position descriptions with the ideal candidate in mind. They adopted a more lively writing style that described Denver's culture, the mission of the government agency and the impact that the new hire would make on the community. They held strategy sessions with hiring managers to schedule times in advance when the interview panel would be ready and available. Recruiters also helped draft a standard work document, so every worker now follows the same basic process.
Brian Elms, a government consultant who was director of the Peak Academy at the time, says the HR department's most important change was adopting "a cadence of accountability." Every week, the staff met to review the average hiring time and discuss what else they could do to be faster.
"It became a habit," he says. "If you only talk about performance once a year," that's how often your team will care about performance.
They also had Stampy pinned to a wall in the recruiting room as a daily visual reminder of their goal and what they had already accomplished.
Within a year, the average hiring time dropped from 85 days to 45 days. Dullea credits the decision to obsess over a single ambitious target.
“Just having something we were all working towards, something not simple to achieve but simple to remember day in and day out ... was huge,” she says.
For five of the past six months, the average hiring time has remained below 50 days. (One month it crept back up to 53.7 days.) Now the challenge is keeping up the faster pace.
“We’ve all hit our goal and we’re all realizing, now what? That’s almost scarier than hitting the goal because now you have to maintain it, or you have to do better,” Dullea says. “It never ends.”
J.B. Wogan co-wrote a book about the Denver Peak Academy with Brian Elms, a founding member of the academy. Find a copy of the book in paperback, on Kindle and on Audible here. To hear more about how Denver HR cut its hiring time, check out an extended audio interview with Elms and Dullea below.