What you always wanted to know about RPO but never knew who to ask

by Nancy Ruff


A common interview wrap-up is to ask a candidate “Do you have any questions?” In this post, we’re flipping that on its head and drilling down on the questions those on the talent acquisition side in RPO may have. If you’ve never known where to turn for answers to your RPO questions, we’re here to help. Besides, no matter how much you know about RPO, there’s always something new to learn!

In a recent RPO Leadership Forum webinar, moderator Erin Peterson, Talent Acquisition Consultant and RPO Advisor at People Results, talked with Nicole Cox of Ontrak Inc. and Rob Navarette of Willis Towers Watson, two corporate talent acquisition leaders who springboarded to their current positions from RPO roles.

Peterson believes talent acquisition is a rewarding profession and one where, if done right, can profoundly change people’s lives. But as she says, the machinations behind all that are complicated. Here, our three panelists bring their collective wisdom to the table to answer questions many in RPO have but until now didn’t know who to ask.

Can RPO Deliver Global Hires?

In a workforce landscape altered due to COVID-19, many in RPO are finding themselves having to pivot to new recruitment models. As with most things, whether a particular RPO can deliver in a global environment depends on many factors. Pre-pandemic, Navarette points out, the RPO model was very much “we need to have someone on site who’s working closely with the hiring manager on a day-to-day basis.” Today, that “seat at the HR table” is still important but must in many cases be done remotely.

In Navarette’s view, if an RPO has a strong enough global footprint, it’s possible to deliver on a global scale but, generally speaking, it’s a complex process that can’t easily be pulled off. Cox agrees “It’s just very difficult to be excellent everywhere.” Multiple vendors would more likely be the solution.

RPO is a business and most buyers understand there are resource and risk margins that must be maintained. There are several pricing options available including open and close fees scenarios or a monthly management fee plus per hire fee approach. Is there a “best” way to pay?

Navarette thinks it depends on a number of factors including things like the role profile. He suggests looking at the fine print. For instance, does your RPO deal set out things like how much access you’ll actually have to the talent? What levels of influence will you have? In other words, it’s not just about the deal or pricing itself, it’s about your place in the entire selection process.

Cox sees the pricing process as a “fun question to look at from both sides.” As an RPO leader, she prices in “every which way you can imagine” and gets super creative in making sure all the pieces fall into place. She personally finds monthly management fees more difficult to explain to an organization, especially if a company is going up and down in their needs.

Is there a happy medium, then, when it comes to pricing? For RPOs taking a more variable, less fixed cost approach, the key is to get some sort of guarantee that works for you. For Cox, that means at a minimum a 90-day guarantee.

Implementation: Go Slow to Go Fast

It’s an RPO reality that many companies are in a hurry to get their project launched. It’s certainly understandable, but it doesn’t usually lead to an ideal implementation process. One of Cox’s favorite expressions is “Design what you want or deal with what you get.” In her view, RPO “isn’t a fast-food world,” and taking your time will almost always set you up for success.

Navarette agrees, saying many problems can be traced back to “a disconnect at the point of launch; rushing it is not going to work.” He believes information and communication overload is absolutely necessary. RPO partners should also be embedded in the client’s HR strategy, attending (virtual) meetings and such to ensure they understand priorities they can articulate to candidates.

Avoiding the “We vs They” Issue

What’s often referred to in RPO relationships as “we vs they” simply means the two entities see themselves as working independently of each other. Yet it’s so important to work as one team.

Getting the relationship in place is an issue Cox learned to deal with early on in her RPO career. Now, as a corporate acquisition leader, she makes it a point to treat an RPO vendor as if they’re part of the internal staff, pulling them into meetings, training them on profiles, giving thorough feedback, and setting expectations. And she invites full transparency in return.

Navarette sees it this way, too. He says it’s important to remember that in many cases a client has come to the RPO not understanding what support they offer. Clear communication goes a long way in fostering collaboration from both sides of the equation.

Stakeholder Management: What Do Clients Want?

Because they’ve both transitioned from RPO to stakeholder positions, Navarette and Cox have unique takes on this question. In talking about how they’d like to “be managed,” they offer two interesting insights.

For Navarette, it’s all about management through data. He wants to be able to see the effectiveness of things like productivity and recruitment management tools and he wants it shared on a weekly, monthly, quarterly, and/or annual basis. He also expects to hear any insights they have as it relates to the talent supply chain.

Cox wants an RPO to “bring challenging ideas without being challenging to work with.” An RPO’s goal shouldn’t be to be a “yes person,” but to reassure a client they’ve selected the right partner. It’s a delicate balance to achieve but is incredibly helpful in maintaining a good working relationship.

Process Innovation: Easier With or Without an RPO?

Many organizations partner with an RPO to gain access to the technology they themselves can’t budget for. Does that work?

Cox believes from the RPO side, it definitely does. Navarette agrees, saying an RPO is often able to solve business problems that might be extremely costly for an in-house recruitment team. And because RPOs are so process-oriented, they’re typically driven by optimization. Even those companies willing to invest in recruitment technologies usually find an RPO is more equipped to deal with the evolving nature of recruitment.

Suggested: The Business Case for Investing in Talent Acquisition [Webinar]

Does an RPO Partner Make the Candidate Experience Easier?

Both Cox and Navarette agree the challenge is basically the same for both sides but how it’s approached may differ. Many candidate experience activities are on-site, though remote interviews are right now the norm. It’s important to keep in mind, they say, that each task handed to an RPO in facilitating the candidate experience comes with an associated cost.

Metrics: Which Ones are Most Important to Look At?

As a self-professed “data junkie,” Cox wants to see things like the difference between the time the candidate was presented and the time the candidate accepted a role as well as satisfaction scores from candidates. Navarette wants to know that service delivery is optimal and would like to see where bottlenecks occur in the process. He cites how often managers want to conduct multiple interviews but fail to recognize the area’s supply chain may be limited, which means they might miss out on interviewing other promising candidates.

As to how much trust should be put in an RPO’s self-reporting, it’s a “trust but verify” approach for Cox. Navarette compares it to a home renovation where you talk to several contractors before hiring one. You’re never going find a “perfect,” RPO but by asking the right questions you stand an excellent chance of finding the one who’s perfect for you.

We live in uncertain times but that doesn’t mean you can’t effectively deliver the results your clients are looking for. We hope this discussion helps you discover new ways of thinking, understanding, and measuring success and enables you to take innovation to a higher level that gives you the competitive edge you’re looking for in a currently unstable world.

Suggested: Webinar: How to Stabilize Recruitment in an Unstable World [webinar]

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